Cognitive Science Upends Conventional Wisdom About Studying

Studying is something all of us do: not just student in schools. All professionals are confronted with the need to gain understanding of new concepts or practices, even if we aren’t rote-memorizing dates of historical events, or valences of chemical compounds. So we are all better off if we can apply insights from modern cognitive science to learn more efficiently.

I find it totally unsurprising that much of what has been pitched from educators about learning is wrong, and that actual scientific research by cognitive scientists is causing a revolution in our understanding about studying:

Benedict Carey,  Research Upends Traditional Thinking on Study Habits

In recent years, cognitive scientists have shown that a few simple techniques can reliably improve what matters most: how much a student learns from studying.


But individual learning is another matter, and psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.


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.


The finding undermines the common assumption that intensive immersion is the best way to really master a particular genre, or type of creative work, said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College and the lead author of the study. “What seems to be happening in this case is that the brain is picking up deeper patterns when seeing assortments of paintings; it’s picking up what’s similar and what’s different about them,” often subconsciously.


When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.

No one knows for sure why. It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff — and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.

“The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning,” said Dr. Kornell. “When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.”

That’s one reason cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.


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. So do impressing friends, making the hockey team and finding the nerve to text the cute student in social studies.

“In lab experiments, you’re able to control for all factors except the one you’re studying,” said Dr. Willingham. “Not true in the classroom, in real life. All of these things are interacting at the same time.”

But at the very least, the cognitive techniques give parents and students, young and old, something many did not have before: a study plan based on evidence, not schoolyard folk wisdom, or empty theorizing.

What other mumbo-jumbo is being packaged as Educational Truth and will soon be exposed as fraud? Solitary studying and testing is the most likely candidate for being debunked, I bet. We probably learn more by studying in groups, and discussing the topics and issues of a history class, or pushing at some new principles in a programming language.

Collaborative learning is slow to be adopted, because our education system is so caught up in a competitive model, where students are trained in adversarial thinking, and where the educational steeple chase is treated as a zero sum game.

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