How to study effectively

What everyone knows about learning ain’t necessarily so, reports the New York Times.

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “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.

Much advice on study habits is wrong, researchers say. For example, studying in the same place every day is less effective than studying the same material in different environments. “Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.”

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. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work.

Cramming can help students pass a test, but students remember much more when they space their study periods.

It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff — and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.

Testing is a “tool of learning” cognitive scientists say. Retrieving an idea “seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.” Students who study the material once and take a practice test remember much more than students who studied the material in two sessions.

If the test is stressful, that’s all the better.  “The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget.”

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  1. I am reminded of a comment about “auditory learners;” if they can learn material presented orally but struggle to learn the same material by reading it, perhaps the problem is that they can’t read well.

  2. Given how badly American schools teach reading, that seems very likely.

  3. Written language is the pinnacle of human communication. Various other forms – auditory, kinesthetic, etc, are much more primitive forms of communication. Hence, those who are auditory learners are simply those who for whatever reason are not sophisticated enough to communicate effectively with the written word. Perhaps it is due to a physiological mental deficiency, perhaps it is an acquired (or lack-of-acquisition) learning deficiency.

    As for the non-existence of learning styles, most cognitive scientists have doubted the whole thing since the beginning.

  4. I knew from the beginning that Howard Gardner was just out to sell books… My gut feelings were correct, but it took a while for the proof to surface.

    What scares me is that millions of Bachelor’s and Master’s in Education students are being taught all this as established fact. And most of them don’t know enough to challenge that assertion…