Picture your preschooler’s teacher pulling you aside at pickup time to say that your child was “not taking responsibility” for learning the alphabet. You’d be puzzled and probably angry. It’s not up to a 4-year-old to make sure he learns the alphabet. That’s the teacher’s job.
But as your child gets older, he’ll increasingly be expected to teach himself. High school seniors must read difficult books independently, commit information to memory, schedule their work, cope with test anxiety and much more.
These demands build slowly across the grades, essentially forming a second, unnoticed curriculum: learning how to learn independently.
For most American students, that curriculum goes untaught. In a 2007 survey, just 20 percent of college students agreed that they study as they do “because a teacher (or teachers) taught you to study that way.”
And that lack of instruction shows. Students don’t know much about how they learn.
In one study, researchers asked college students to select which of two scenarios would lead to better learning. For example, students were asked to compare creating one’s own mnemonic with using one the teacher provides. (Creating your own is better, previous research shows.)
For two of the six scenarios, students picked the worse strategy as often as the better one. For the other four, most students actually thought the worse strategy was superior.
How could they be so misinformed? You would think that after years of studying and then seeing their test results, students would figure out which methods work and which don’t.
Students get studying wrong because they don’t assess whether a method works in the long run. Instead, they pay attention to whether the method is easy to do and feels like it’s working while they’re doing it.
By analogy, suppose I were trying to get stronger by doing push-ups. You watch me train, and are surprised that I’m practicing push-ups on my knees. When you suggest that push-ups on my toes are a better exercise, I reply: “I tried that, but I can do lots more on my knees. And this way they’re not so hard!”
Students try to learn by doing the mental equivalent of push-ups on their knees.
For example, student surveys show that rereading notes or textbooks is the most common way students prepare for a test. Rereading is easy because the mind can skitter along the surface of the material without closely considering its meaning, but that’s exactly why it’s a poor way to learn. If you want to learn the meaning — as most tests require you to — then you must think about meaning when you study.
Yet, insidiously, rereading feels effective.
Rereading a textbook makes the content feel familiar. But judging that content is familiar and knowing what it means — being able to describe it, being able to use that knowledge when you think — are supported by different processes in the brain. Because they are separate, familiarity can increase even if knowledge of the meaning doesn’t increase. That’s what’s happened when a person looks very familiar but you can’t identify her.
And so, as students reread their textbooks, the increasing familiarity makes them think they are learning. But because they are not thinking about the meaning of what they read, they aren’t improving the knowledge that actually builds understanding.
Psychologists have developed much better ways to study, some of them counterintuitive. For example, if you’ve only partially learned some material, trying to remember it is a better way to solidify that fragile learning than studying more.
In one experiment demonstrating this effect, students read educational passages of about 260 words (for example, about sea otters) under one of three conditions. Some students repeatedly read and studied the text for four consecutive study periods, each lasting five minutes. A second group read and studied the text for three periods and in the fourth, which lasted 10 minutes, wrote as many ideas from the passage as they could remember. A third group studied for one period and tried to remember the material during the other three.
After the four periods, students judged how well they had learned the material and, unsurprisingly, the more students had studied, the more confident they were in their knowledge.
A week later, everyone returned for another test, and the results showed how misplaced student confidence was. The people who had studied just once (and recalled the material three times) remembered the passage best. The worst memory was shown by those who had studied the most — and had been the most confident about their learning.
When students read textbooks, they again gravitate toward easy methods that, misleadingly, feel effective. They like to highlight, which adds little time to reading, and which students assume can guide future studying. But research shows there’s little benefit to highlighting over simply reading, in part because students mostly highlight definitions, not deeper concepts.
Educational psychologists have developed strategies for effective reading that even middle school students can use. Readers are told to perform a task while they read, for example, to identify conclusions and ask themselves how they are supported. This task requires that students focus on high-level themes as well as the details that support them.
Psychologists have even developed strategies to address one of the most pernicious problems in schooling: Students cram for tests and rapidly forget what they’ve learned.
In one study, college students used a flashcard-like program to test themselves on a subset of concepts from an introductory psychology class they were taking. There were six practice sessions, each separated by a couple days or more.
On the course exam, students scored modestly better on the practiced than the unpracticed content, 80 percent correct versus 69 percent correct.
But the real payoff came three days later, when students came to the laboratory for another test of the concepts.
Researchers expected that students had crammed for the course exam and would have forgotten most of the content. And indeed, students scored 14 percent correct on the unpracticed content questions, even though only three days had passed.
But when tested on the content they’d reviewed in those six brief practice sessions, students got 66 percent correct. On a follow-up test three weeks later, they still scored 65 percent correct.
These are striking results, but studying days in advance of an exam requires planning, and most college students don’t see the need. When surveyed about how they decide what to work on, 13 percent of college students mention following a plan. The most common answer is that they just work on whatever is due next.
This is another challenge to improving study skills: Students think some tasks are so straightforward that they don’t require a strategy.
For example, most of my students see no need for a strategy when listening to my lectures. It feels like they’re part of an audience, attending a performance. Who uses a strategy to watch a movie?
And they’re right; comprehending a movie is easy. True, they must piece together the individual scenes to understand the plot, but movies are structured as narratives, and that familiar framework helps. What’s more, movies are honed and reworked by experts to be easily understood and instantly entertaining.
Just as movie scenes must be knit together into a plot, a student attending a lecture must not simply understand facts but understand how they relate to form a theme or argument. But my lectures are not entertaining stories, devised by an expert communicator.
As they have for reading, educational psychologists have developed strategies for listening that encourage students to relate individual points to broader conclusions. That helps them discern the organization of the lecture and thus understand it more deeply.
Or would, if students knew about this strategy and were persuaded it would help them. And that seems to suggest an obvious next step: High schools should require a study skills class.
Carefully structured classes of this sort show promise, but they would be more effective if all teachers could help students tune those skills to their specific classrooms.
Often, teachers can’t, because they don’t know the best study strategies. You would think that comprehensive knowledge of how children learn would be part of teacher education, and most programs do require a course in educational psychology or child development, but the impact seems limited. Teachers in training don’t know the best study strategies, either.
State lawmakers can help by reviewing teacher licensing examinations. Most require knowledge of principles of learning, but the expectations are low and many even refer to scientifically discredited ideas like so-called learning styles.
Most people hope that schools will encourage each child to become a lifelong learner, which means teachers must show students how to learn effectively on their own. That’s unlikely until teachers have that knowledge themselves.
Daniel T. Willingham (@DTWillingham) is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of “Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy.”
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