Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits

Posted on September 20, 2010


Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits,, September 6, 2010.

A few quotes worth highlighting:

For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing.

In other words, “mix it up.”

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

I apologize for the audacity of this, but honestly, I’ve always thought / felt this to be true. I suppose I’ve been working with a premise that *all* humans have the same input variables of sensory perception (left-brain and right-brain, visual and auditory, etc.), so why not exploit them all for the maximum potential of learning?!

Ditto for teaching styles, researchers say. Some excellent instructors caper in front of the blackboard like summer-theater Falstaffs; others are reserved to the point of shyness. “We have yet to identify the common threads between teachers who create a constructive learning atmosphere,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of the book “Why Don’t Students Like School?”


The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. … Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.

Ah, the power and relevance and importance of context now applied to education.

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills.

Perhaps this is why Rosetta Stone is so effective. They “mix it up” in their software.

The more mental sweat it takes to dig it out, the more securely it will be subsequently anchored.

None of which is to suggest that these techniques — alternating study environments, mixing content, spacing study sessions, self-testing or all the above — will turn a grade-A slacker into a grade-A student. Motivation matters.

And there is the catch-22 rub. One must be educated in ways that cause learning…in order to be motivated to want to be educated.

— VIA —

Okay, some practical take-aways:

  • engage the world around the learning | the power of context.
  • learn then teach | I suppose a premise I’m working with is that testing/quizzing is in some ways a form of teaching; telling someone else what you’ve learned. If it isn’t, how can we make it more so?
  • value hard work | and create a culture of hard work that is rewarding, and discard the “easy” learning theories.


Daniel Willingham. Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Posted in: Education