Reconsidering Study Habits

A recent article in The New York Times pointed to research that urges us to reconsider what we’ve always been told about standard studying strategies. Here’s UCLA psychologist, Robert Bjork:

We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error…Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.

Much of what we think we know about what constitutes effective study habits turns out to be suspect, if not empirically false.  Based on years of research, many researchers are now suggesting developing completely new study habits.

We’ve long heard the importance of ‘finding a quiet study space’, the idea being that we’ll come to associate certain spaces and objects with serious study.  But researchers now suggest that it may be more effective to vary our study locations, to re-imagine studying as a mobile act that occurs in multiple spaces.  It appears that we become better at absorbing material when exposed in multiple locations and at multiple times.  Research also found the practice of ‘cramming’ is mostly ineffective as we tend to absorb information more effectively when processed in small doses over longer periods of time.  Additionally, while most of us have been taught to intensively study one subject at a time, researchers found that it may be more effective to alternate between subjects over smaller increments of time.

Some of these findings accord nicely with much of the literature available on what it takes to move from novice to expert in most human endeavors.  Anders Ericsson, for example, has argued that practice (study) must be consistent and distributed over a long period of time.  While this new research may not make studying any less palatable, it may just offer a way of making it more effective – especially for students struggling across academic disciplines.

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