Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How to Help the Brain Learn

Today is the day that many students return to school; many students have already been in school for weeks. The New York Times has an interesting article that posits that all we think we know about study habits, and some of what we know about learning, is wrong.

Think about the ideal study place. You're probably imagining some place with few distractions, a clean desk, good lighting. You're probably imagining that the most effective way of studying is to plant yourself and concentrate for 3 or 4 or 5 hours.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Variety turns out to matter. Here are the results of an interesting study: "But individual learning is another matter, and psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics."

And varying the subject matter studied matters too: "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. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills."

The article posits that frequent testing is important. The more we make the brain retrieve information, the more solidly the brain stores that information.

The article tells us that what we think we know about teaching may be wrong. Different teaching styles can all work; as someone who manages a large department full of different teaching personalities, I was relieved to read that.

And we've spent several decades now learning about how some children are visual learners and some are auditory learners and some are kinesthetic. This article says that there's no evidence for these theories. Shocking! It even dismisses the idea of some students being right brain learners and some being left brain.

The article is full of ideas about the best ways to help the brain learn. These techniques can be adapted for all of us, since the best way to age gracefully is to continue learning new things.

So, happy back to school, back to a more structured life, back to rigor. We won't have fall weather here in the southernmost tip of the continental U.S. for at least 6 weeks, maybe several months. But already, I feel a change in the air (metaphorical not meteorological), a slight tilt in the sun's light.

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