It’s fall again, and we know what that means—football, freshly sharpened pencils, and a (temporary?) surge of interest in making the most out of learning this school year. Parents and teachers tout the same advice: set goals, do all the reading, find one place to study and sit there at the same time every day, find a teacher who matches your learning style. Not all this advice is bad, but cognitive psychologists have discovered some counterintuitive principles that improve learning. A recent New York Times article describes some of these findings and offers suggestions to students of all ages seeking effective study methods.
First of all, forget “learning styles.” While individuals may prefer one way of learning over another, there is no empirical support that this results in better test performance or increased learning. Click here to read a review of the literature on this topic.
The NY Times article also describes the concept of context variation, which means that studying the same material in a different location could help you better remember the information. Professor Robert Bjork of UCLA suggests that the varied context helps enrich the learning process, possibly increasing the number of cues you can tie to one piece of information. Spacing study sessions over time or interleaving the material studied within one session are techniques that have also been shown to lead to improved long-term retention.
As research-based study techniques such as those mentioned above become more well-known, cognitive psychologists are hopeful that students and teachers will make an effort to implement these methods in the classroom and beyond. Try them out for yourself as you prepare for your next exam—you may be pleased with the results.