Monday, November 1, 2010

Study Habits

There are lots of theories on what is the best way to study for exams. I've always thought writing notes was a pretty good strategy and then taking notes of the notes.

Doing trial answers is also pretty helpful, learning how to write a concise answer that immediately gets to the point.

Trying not to be too boring is always a good strategy. Those marking exams are often going through hell and so an interesting opening to an exam paper can work wonders. (It still needs to be on topic though)

An article in the New York Times canvasses some ways to improve study outcomes:

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.
The findings can help anyone ...But they directly contradict much of the common wisdom about good study habits, and they have not caught on.
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.
I've always done this naturally partly because I get bored quickly. Now Facebook and email provide nice little distractions. Many people argue that these social networking distractions are bad for study and are making us stupider, but I'm not so sure. Taken for granted assumptions about studying are often wrong.
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.
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.
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. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. 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.
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.


  1. This is a good article that points out some of the assumptions we've made and what newer research has found. It's sometimes hard to keep up with newer research or insights.

    The SLS Study System organizes some of the newest research in learning and Study Skills for students in Middle School, High School and College. It's worth looking at:

  2. I always found getting sloshed in the GU club worked wonders for my ability to process and digest Martins lectures.


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