Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Traditional Study Skills Advice is All Wrong

Another fascinating article this week, this time from The New York Times (, says that research shows that most of the conventional wisdom about "good study skills" is just plain wrong.  The traditional advice given to parents by "experts" include having a quiet, clear designated study space with specific time or achievement goals on a set schedule.  In addition, many traditional curricula drill students on one skill until they master it, then move onto the next, etc.

But the scientific studies show that such technique not only do not improve student performance--they actually diminish it!  For example, in one study where students were given material to study in two separate areas (one closed and cluttered, the other with a window to the outside), they did significantly better in remembering the information than those who had the same two study periods, but both in the same room.  Likewise, studies show that when study time is broken up, such as half an hour this week, then half an hour next week, rather than one hour at a time, students retain much more of the information.  Finally, studies show that mixing together different types of problems together, rather than studying them sequentially (for example, doing a sheet where addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems are all mixed up, rather then doing 10 problems on addition, then 10 on subtraction, etc.) produces dramatically better results.  One study cited by the article involved fourth-graders working on four separate equations measuring different dimensions of a prism.  The students who worked mixed problem sets, where they were solving problems with all four equations grouped together, achieved an average score of 77% when tested on the material; the students who studied each equation separately only had an average score of only 36%.  That is, the mixed set students did TWICE as well as the isolated problem set students.  And those kinds of differences between results have been demonstrated among many different age groups, from primary school students through adults.

So what should parents be doing, at least according to these studies?  Mix it up.  Instead of long marathon study sessions, break the work into several smaller subsets, and do those subsets at different times and different places.  Don't work solely on multiple long division problems, or identifying only nouns, or studying only Picasso.  Mix in some related concepts, like identifying works by other artists of the same time period such as Matisse or Braque, or cover all the parts of speech at once.  And don't feel confined to "the study area"; move your working time around to the kitchen table, the library, the outside.

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