The Sciences

A study on how to study

Cosmic VarianceBy Daniel HolzSep 8, 2010 5:16 AM


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One of the most delightful aspects of being a scientist is that you're always learning. Your colleagues teach you things. Your students teach you things. Journal articles teach you things. You sit quietly at your desk and figure things out. You're perennially a student. But how to be a better student?

This morning the New York Times has an article on "study habits". It argues against the conventional wisdom (find a clean, neutral space, and bear down on a single topic), and in favor of what might be called intellectual cross-training: "alternating study environments, mixing content, spacing study sessions, self-testing". The basic philosophy seems to be encapsulated:

“The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning,” said Dr. Kornell. “When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.”…The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget.

You want to revisit the relevant material multiple times, in different contexts. And, in case you were wondering, all-nighters do not qualify:

Cognitive scientists do not deny that honest-to-goodness cramming can lead to a better grade on a given exam. But hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn — it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out. “With many students, it’s not like they can’t remember the material” when they move to a more advanced class, said Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s like they’ve never seen it before.”

Intermittent study sessions, coupled with testing, helps ensure comprehension and retention. And why not throw in some quantum mechanics?:

Dr. Roediger uses the analogy of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, which holds that the act of measuring a property of a particle alters that property: “Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it,” he says — and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less.

I certainly wouldn't take any of this as gospel. The article is full of anecdotal statements of this sort: "The children who had studied mixed sets did twice as well as the others, outscoring them 77 percent to 38 percent. The researchers have found the same in experiments involving adults and younger children." We are not told how many children were involved in the studies, nor what the "error bars" might be. On the other hand, many of the suggestions are consistent with my personal experience. I often seek out new and different places to work, finding that changing the venue paradoxically helps me focus and facilitates progress. In addition, at any given time I'm often working on a number of different topics, and alternating between them seems to increase my clarity and productivity. I think the real message is that everyone is different, and there's no "magic desk" to ensure that you become organized and brilliant. One thing that does seem apparent: hiding away in the corner for days at a time struggling with a single topic is not necessarily the road to enlightenment.

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