Every September parents start giving their children advice about their study habits in hopes that their happy-summer-camper children will be transformed into serious- autumn-bookworm- students.
The advice is all too familiar: clear a quiet work space; stick to a homework schedule; set goals and boundaries; and focus on one thing at a time.
Parents will often promise rewards if their children abide by these pieces of common sense, which research calls school yard folk wisdom and empty theorizing because none of it is evidence based.
Take for example the popular notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are so called visual learners, some are auditory learners, some are left-brain students and others are right -brained.
In research published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for these ideas, notes a recent article in the NYT.
In fact, the actual findings contradict much of the common wisdom about good study habits.
For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. When the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting.
The same holds for when study material is varied but related in one sitting, as opposed to focusing intensely on a single thing. Studying varying but similar material in a single sitting, for example, alternating between vocabulary, reading and speaking when learning a new language seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one of these skills at a time.
Cognitive psychologist Doug Rohrer from the University of South Florida, in a study taught a group of fourth graders four equations. Half the children learned by studying repeated examples of one equation before moving on to the next type of equation, studying repeated examples of that.
The other half studied mixed problem sets, which included examples of four types of calculations grouped together. Both groups solved problems along the way, as they studied.
When a day later the researchers tested the children on the material, they found that the students who studied the mixed sets did twice as well.
According to Dr. Rohrer “when students see a list of problems all of the same kind, they know the strategy to use before they even read the problem. That’s like riding a bike with training wheels. With mixed practice, each problem is different from the last one, which means kids must learn how to choose the appropriate procedure-just like they had to do on the test.”
What seems to be happening is the brain is picking up deeper patterns when seeing assortments.
Furthermore, retention is also improved when studying is spaced. So, an hour one night, an hour on the weekend and another hour a week later will improve later recall as opposed to cramming – many studies have found.
These findings can help any learner, from a 9 -year old learning long division to a 55-year old learning a new language.