A few years ago, my then 9-year-old daughter was pleading with me to let her go skating with a friend, despite some unfinished math homework. “But mommy, we practice our multiplication while we skate,” Maya said, eagerly explaining that she and her buddy Éloise would skate round and round while testing each other on those troublesome eight and nine times tables. Her absolute certainty that this study method would work somehow overcame my reluctance and off she went.
But a few weeks and several skating sessions later, I noticed that Maya had significantly improved her recall of the times tables. Pleased, I stored her unorthodox study habit away in the “interesting” mental file and we moved onto other homework challenges.
Then in September, I read an article in the New York Times that got me thinking about Maya’s skate-and-learn approach. In “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits,” the reporter, Benedict Carey, collected data from neuroscience research that upended some cherished notions about studying. And the first myth to be busted was the idea of sitting down to study in the same, quiet place every day. This is exactly what I had asked Maya to do with her times tables — she would sit in the dining room and study them, then I would come in and test her.
But what scientists have discovered is that we retain information better if we study in different places. No one is absolutely certain why this is, but researchers suspect we make associations between what we are studying and the environment around us. So, when Maya and her friend Éloise were skating and practicing their times tables, they were making subtle links between the math and the sounds, smells and sights of the outdoor rink. Then at home, Maya was making other links between her math and the colour and lighting of the dining room. And when it comes to recall, the more links or associations we have, the easier it is to retrieve the information.
The article then suggested people vary the material they study in any given session, much like musicians do. For example, when Maya sits down to practice her piano, she is actually working on many different skills in the space of half an hour. She will do some scales, then some ear training exercises and finally she’ll work on her pieces. And neuroscientists say this is a great approach for any area of learning, from math to fine arts. Again, they aren’t certain why, but perhaps this sort of mixed study encourages people to find more connections between different topics, an important part of learning.
Researchers also suggest studying is best done over time, which will probably come as no surprise to anyone who has crammed for a test. A panicked, intensive study session may help a student pass an exam, but the material will be forgotten very, very quickly. Instead, the old-fashioned approach of studying over a period of several days or weeks is the way to go for true learning and mastery.
Finally, the article suggests we should all overcome our fear of tests and quizzes. Turns out that people who “rehearse their recall,” i.e. practice retrieving the information they have studied, end up remembering more in the long run. One researcher in the article suggests we need to come up with a different name for this kind of testing, since that word is so associated with assessments and grades. In fact, regularly checking in to see how much we’ve remembered of a particular topic seems to lodge the information more solidly in our brains. So maybe it’s time to stop sweating test time and instead embrace those quizzes as a great way to build our memory muscle.
The full article on study habits can be found at www.nytimes.com (use the search feature).