Gandalf says . . .

On a visit to a school in England, Sir Ian McKellen channeled Gandalf to advise students.

Here’s Gandalf facing the Balrog in Lord of the Rings:

Pre-test, fail, learn, succeed

Taking and failing a pre-test helps students learn, writes Benedict Carey in the New York Times.

.  . . wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.

That is: The (bombed) pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not. We fail, but we fail forward.

“Testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around,” he writes.  Testing is “a way of enriching and altering memory.”

Smart studying

Most of what we know about learning isn’t so, argues Benedict Carey in How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens.

 Learning doesn’t have to be arduous, isolating or stressful,  Carey tells MindShift.

Forgetting — and working to remember what’s important — is “a critical part of learning,” Carey says.

Nose-to-the-grindstone cram sessions aren’t very effective. Students learn more when they break up and space out study time over days and weeks.

It helps to vary the study environment and to take short breaks to go for a walk or “trawl on social media.”

Distractions and interruptions can allow for mental “incubation” and flashes of insight — but only if you’ve been working at a problem for a while and get stuck, according to a 2009 research meta-analysis.

When students quiz themselves on new material, they learn more than if they just re-read it.

Lose that yellow highlighter

The most common study techniques — marking up the textbook with yellow highlighter, rereading and cramming at the last minute — are the least effective, writes John Dunlosky,  Kent State psychology professor, on the AFT blog. Taking practice tests and spreading out studying over time is much more likely to help students learn and remember, researchers have found.

Table 1: Effectiveness of Techniques Reviewed

 Other study techniques are “promising” but unproven:

Interleaved practice: implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.

Elaborative interrogation: generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.

Self-explanation: explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.

Among the less-useful strategies are: rereading the text, highlighting and underlining, summarizing, using mnemonics and “attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.”

Tech-distracted students study — for 2 minutes

Asked to “study something important,” students stayed on task for two minutes before they “began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feed,” reports a study, published in the May issue of Computers in Human Behavior by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills. The middle, high school and college students spent only 65 percent of the 15-minute observation period doing their schoolwork.

“We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching,” Rosen says. “It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices,” adding, “It was kind of scary, actually.”

Media multitasking while learning means less learning, writes Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report.

. . .  evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts. So detrimental is this practice that some researchers are proposing that a new prerequisite for academic and even professional success—the new marshmallow test of self-discipline—is the ability to resist a blinking inbox or a buzzing phone.

In “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” a 2010 survey, almost a third of those surveyed said that when they were doing homework, “most of the time” they were also watching TV, texting, listening to music, or using some other medium.

College students are used to texting, emailing and surfing the web in class. Eighty percent of college students admit to texting in class.

Young people think they can do two challenging tasks at once, but they’re “deluded,” says David Meyer, a University of Michigan psychology professor. “Listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.”

He adds,“There’s nothing magical about the brains of so-called ‘digital natives’ that keeps them from suffering the inefficiencies of multitasking. They may like to do it, they may even be addicted to it, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s far better to focus on one task from start to finish.”

Don’t count on the ‘cone of learning’


The “cone of learning, aka the “learning pyramid” or the “cone of experience” is popular — and unreliable — writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in Cone of learning or cone of shame?

Many variables affect memory retrieval:

what material is recalled (gazing out the window of a car is an audiovisual experience just like watching an action movie, but your memory for these two audiovisual experiences will not be equivalent)

the age of the subjects

the delay between study and test (obviously, the percent recalled usually drops with delay)

what were subjects instructed to do as they read, demonstrated, taught, etc. (you can boost memory considerably for a reading task by asking subjects to summarize as they read)

how was memory tested (percent recalled is almost always much higher for recognition tests than recall).

what subjects know about the to-be-remembered material (if you already know something about the subject, memory will be much better.

Taking practice tests and spreading out study sessions is effective, researchers conclude. In Why Don’t Students Like School?Willingham advises: “Try to think about material at study in the same way that you anticipate that you will need to think about it later.”

Study: Parent aid lowers college grades

When parents pay their children’s college costs, students earn lower grades but are more likely to graduate, concludes a new study by Laura T. Hamilton, a sociology professor at University of California at Merced.

As parental aid increased, students’ GPAs decreased. “Students with parental support are best described as staying out of serious academic trouble, but dialing down their academic efforts,” Hamilton wrote.

Today’s college students spend an average of 28 hours a week on classes and studying — and 41 hours a week on social and recreational events, another study found.

According to Hamilton’s study, students with no parental aid in their first year of college had a 56.4 percent chance of graduating in five years, compared with 65.2 percent for students who received $12,000 in aid from their parents.

Grants and scholarships, work-study, student employment and veteran’s benefits do not have negative effects on student GPA, said Hamilton. Students may feel they’ve earned the money and take their responsibilities more seriously.

Students’ choice: Who picks Moby Dick?

Should children pick their own reading? J. Martin Rochester is dubious. He spoke to a young high school principal with new PhD in education about “the difficulty of getting students to summon the patience, stamina, and will to read dense text, particularly book-length writings, in an age of instant gratification, sound-bites, jazzy graphics, and condensed versions of knowledge.”

The principal said, “Today’s students are actually smarter and better than students of yesteryear, since students today get to choose their own readings.”

Really? I immediately wondered whether we should trust the judgment of adolescents, much less pre-adolescents, to decide for themselves what makes educational sense.

Except at a few high school in affluent suburbs, students are studying less, Rochester writes.  “Most fifteen- through seventeen-year-olds study less than one hour a day,” according to surveys.

A 2011 study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that only 39 percent of incoming college freshmen “report that they studied 6 or more hours a week on average as high school seniors.” . . .  In the 2010 study Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roska found an overall 50-percent decline in the number of hours a student spends studying from previous decades; less than half of the students surveyed had ever written more than twenty pages for any class, and relatively few had been assigned more than forty pages of reading per week.

How many students will choose to work harder than they must? Diane Ravitch once asked: “What child is going to pick up Moby Dick?”

In an Honors English course at Rochester’s local high school, students were told to pick a “great book” to read for a semester project. One student picked Paris Hilton’s autobiography.


Parents’ view of the start of college

Transition to College Infographic
Infographic by Sallie Mae College Answer

Is college getting easier?

Is College Getting Easier?

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