Thursday, September 09, 2010

Learning tricks

Benedict Carey does a nice summary of what we do and don't know about different approaches to enhancing learning.
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... in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas...Ditto for teaching styles...Some excellent instructors caper in front of the blackboard like summer-theater Falstaffs; others are reserved to the point of shyness...the common threads between teachers who create a constructive learning atmosphere have not been determined

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…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.

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.

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…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 ... 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.

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