Learning About Learning

Most of what passes for conventional wisdom about learning is wrong.

Most of what passes for conventional wisdom about learning is wrong.

For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing.

“We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.”

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.

Ditto for teaching styles, researchers say. Some excellent instructors caper in front of the blackboard like summer-theater Falstaffs; others are reserved to the point of shyness. “We have yet to identify the common threads between teachers who create a constructive learning atmosphere,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of the book “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

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.

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

[…]

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.”

At West Point, they have a name for that: “spec and dump.”   But our system tends to encourage this, by giving periodic quizzes and then not revisiting the material.

An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.

[…]

That’s one reason cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.

But most classes never require students to revisit the material after demonstrating proficiency (or lack of same).

It’s not shocking that practice is behind pedagogy at the college level.  Professors seldom have any formal training in teaching, so they tend to copy the methods used in classes they took and found most stimulating and then adjust by trial and error over the course of their careers.

But it’s amazing that primary and secondary education, which is governed and manned almost entirely by products of Colleges of Education, is still holding on to antiquated methods.  If all that time spent studying about how to teach isn’t translating into adopting the leading edge teaching methods, then they might as well spend it instead mastering the subject matter.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    Over the  years I’ve had to interview a lot of people fresh from college for jobs and it’s illuminating. Firstly I’d say that the products of the best schools (Ivies, MIT etc) are absolutely outstanding in their intelligence and reasoning power, most of them were far more clever than me, but there were sometimes surprising blind spots. Even the most technically accomplished were often not widely cultured and would be totally unfamiliar with for example routine classic novels or European history. When you come to the products of lesser schools the picture was much less reassuring. Once you take them out of the region of rote learning and presumably multiple choice question exams, many are completely lost. To be fair some were obviously intelligent (although many were not!) so they could learn on the job but certainly in my generation learning to think was what university attendance was all about. It certainly wasn’t just about cramming a load of facts.        

  2. Michael says:

    Even the most technically accomplished were often not widely cultured and would be totally unfamiliar with for example routine classic novels or European history.

    I can attest to that first hand.  I’m currently reading the History of the Peloponnesian War, a History of Russia to 1917, and the Art of War voluntarily.  But I was never even encouraged, let alone required, to read anything like that in school.  It’s tragic how much our students are not being exposed to.

  3. Todd Kiehn says:

    Is there a link to the original article in this post?  Apologies if it’s staring me in the face and I just missed it.

    Omitted in haste to publish. Added. – jhj

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Our educational system is based on what’s easy to administer not on what’s most effective.

  5. john personna says:

    I think I mentioned that I’d been reading Mark Frauenfelder’s Made By Hand. It’s a pretty good book on the “maker movement.”  That movement itself is learning by doing, with the hands, and the book is a pitch for lifelong learning by that path.  Much of it relates to the first text above.  People are encouraged to try, fail, and try again as they find their way.
     
    There is a chapter on kids and learning.  I was surprised there to learn of the “unschooling movement.”  Apparently bright and successful parents are taking advantage of the homeschooling rules to (a) register as home schools, and (b) let their kids do what they want.  Apparently it (sometimes) works.
     
    That both things work is a testament to the fact that learning and mastery are one of our drives.  We want to know how, and to know better.
     
    All fuel for change when the [education] revolution comes.

  6. john personna says:

    I guess I could throw this link as illustration, the opening of a “hackerspace” in Iowa:
     
    http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2010/09/qc_co-lab_grand_opening_midwest_hac.html

  7. grampagravy says:

    A great title for this post would be “Profit Motive Subverts Education.”
    Or
    “Administrative Efficiency Undermines Education”
    Yep, Capitalism just keeps on giving.

  8. Anon says:

    Our educational system is based on what’s easy to administer not on what’s most effective.

    There’s unfortunately a lot of truth to that.

    It’s not shocking that practice is behind pedagogy at the college level.  Professors seldom have any formal training in teaching, so they tend to copy the methods used in classes they took and found most stimulating and then adjust by trial and error over the course of their careers.

    I would agree with this, but say that it’s not so much because they don’t have any formal training, but because incentives are not very well-aligned. First, there is the issue of research vs. teaching. Time spent pioneering new teaching/learning strategies in the classroom are unlikely to have much impact on one’s career at any department with a Ph.D. program.
     
    Another factor is that teaching is evaluated solely with student evaluations of teaching and having other professors sit-in. This is going to tend to preserve the status quo.
     
    I’m a professor in computer science.
     

  9. c.red says:

    I agree with everything you say, but what of it? There are still far more children needing a basic education than there are capable providers even using the simplistic cookie cutter methods, much less cater to opyimal individual talents and learning styles. And I mean that in both terms of people in the role and resources to support those people.

    To use an imprecise anology, a master chef can create a wonderful burger individually suited to each persons personal taste, but we still need MCDonald’s to feed everyone.

    Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t constantly make improvements on the margins, or stop talking about improvements that possibly could be made.

  10. sam says:

    @JJ
    “But it’s amazing that primary and secondary education, which is governed and manned almost entirely by products of Colleges of Education, is still holding on to antiquated methods.”
    Not antiquated enough, if you ask me, at least at the primary level — Plato wrote that the best way to teach children anything was to make the experience as much like play as possible.

  11. Wayne says:

    If we are discussing what is the best learning\teaching style then I have to take the cheap way out and say it varies. In college many people came to me for tutoring. Some came to me when the school provided tutors failed and some from word of mouth. I found, especially in the hard cases that varying methods were needed with various people. It also greatly depended on what they were studying. Memorization is much different than problem solving.
     
    I found that what works for one person may not work for the next. It takes time to understand a person thought process. However that is hard to do on a mass scale. As some have mention above, people like using the cookie cutter method.  It is practical on the large scale but one should be cautious in thinking it applies to all.
     
    P.S. Yes I did tutor in English even though that has always been a very weak area for me. Amazing enough I was able to tutor subjects that I was not good in or was not familiar with. Math, Sciences, and history were much more preferable.

  12. Tim Noyce says:

    Interesting article. I am abashed, as I am a dedicated trainer and thus always interested in increasing quality, but I shared some of the misconceptions cited.. Could you please point me at the studies behind this article?
    In my experience retention is indeed improved by repetition, particularly after a period of application of the knowledge or skills taught. Retention is certainly improved by any kind of “hands on” exercise (even philosophy ;-)). I believe also, but cannot prove, that pacing and placing of breaks helps a great deal.

  13. Sam says:

    Different people learn in different ways. I had a supervisor that could learn to do a task just from reading about how to do it.  I needed the “look – see – do” for skills, but did fine with reading for getting a gasp of the topic or subject.  Another peer had to sketch it out to see the “pattern”
    And that’s for training adults to learn new knowledge and develop new skills.  I’m trying to learn pedagogical verses androgenic learning.  There is a huge gap between the two.  Maybe that’s way some “instructors” can pick up on teaching children, but many “teachers” have trouble with instructing adults.
    As to learn and forget it.  That is also very true for many individuals.  Until many years later when that “forgotten fact” just might be the key to something else.  We don’t teach children and young adults to be SELF-LEARNERS anymore.  Not like it was done (barely) for my generation, or in previous generations.
    Many people do not find learning to be “fun” or “exciting” but a process to get through quickly as possible.

  14. lyn lasneski says:

    This cracks me up.  On one hand there is the comment that there is no such support for “that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students.”  On the other hand, then they claim “the brain makes subtle associations between … background sensations … It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.”
    Excuse me, but isn’t the latter all about the visual and senses?  Isn’t that all Right-Brained?