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Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits

By Ann Zeise

An interesting article appeared in this morning’s New York Times. It debunks much of what educators have been saying about how children learn, and seems to verify what unschooling families have known for years.

Parents, they have tossed out all that you ever thought was “right” about study habits, and are saying something we may have understood intuitively as unschoolers is what works:

Forget what you know about “good study habits!”

“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. ”

They also throw out the usefulness of “learning styles.”

“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.

Here is the key: “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.”

“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.”

In other words, Mix it up!

“The finding undermines the common assumption that intensive immersion is the best way to really master a particular genre, or type of creative work, said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College and the lead author of the study. “What seems to be happening in this case is that the brain is picking up deeper patterns when seeing assortments of paintings; it’s picking up what’s similar and what’s different about them, often subconsciously.”

Spacing learning works better than cramming. In other words, “doing” math 3 times a week, and then using the concepts learned to solve real life problems on alternative days makes the math concepts “stick” best. Learning some new material and then promptly being given a quiz on it, so that it must be looked at in a new context helps. Many of us parents do this unconsciously as we go on field trips. At a history museum you might be steadily asking your child, “What do you think they used this for? Do we need this tool these days? What do we use now?” and so on. Then we talk about what was seen on the ride home. A few days later, the child sees grandma, and you are pleasantly surprised to hear your child give a fairly accurate report of what was learned on the field trip. You were using this “new” method of teaching.

“None of which is to suggest that 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.”

In summary: “The more mental sweat it takes to dig it out, the more securely it will be subsequently anchored.”

“But at the very least, the cognitive techniques give parents and students, young and old, something many did not have before: a study plan based on evidence, not schoolyard folk wisdom, or empty theorizing.”

As homeschoolers, we have the chance to use the latest science about how children learn and retain what they learn. Read this two page article, maybe save it to your computer, and give it a try!

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