Saturday, February 5, 2011

Mix It Up When You Study

If you’ve always believed the best way to learn was to focus on one specific area of study, you may be surprised to find that method is not the best way to learn. As a piano student, my piano teacher would assign me scales, technique exercises, method songs, fun songs, classical songs, and gospel songs to practice all in the same week. The teacher never began a lesson by saying, “Today, we will only be playing classical music” or “We will only practice scales today.” Incorporating a variety of related skills is the key to faster and more effective learning. It’s not only more effective, it’s less boring. It's been said that variety is the spice of life. Variety can go a long way in making your study time more effective.

Study more than one type of problem at a time. Rather than practicing 5 multiplication problems, 5 division problems, and 5 fraction problems separately, try practicing those 15 problems in series of 2-2-2, 2-2-2, then 1-1-1. When studying for a history test, don’t review names, then dates, then geographical terms, etc. Mix it up.

You may be thinking that switching back and forth impairs a child’s focus and ability to master a specific type of problem. But the opposite is true. While moving from one type of problem to another, the brain makes associations and contrasts differing concepts. This takes the learning to a deeper level, and, consequently, makes remembering easier .

Study in different locations. Studying in the bedroom with the door shut may not be the most effective method. The back porch, the dining room, a library, or perhaps even a park bench could be profitable locations. As long as every location is without distractions, the variety will enhance the memory. Editorialist Benedict Carey of the New York Times illustrates this with a 1978 study1 in which college students reviewed vocabulary words two different ways. One group studied twice in the same room; the second group studied once in the room without windows and again in a room with a view. Interestingly, the students who studied in two different rooms scored better on the test. Throughout the years ensuing, several studies have revealed similar benefits when studying in different locations. The brain seems to recognize elements of the atmosphere surrounding the student, relates the atmosphere to the information learned, providing more associations the brain can process.

To relate how this can help a student’s memory, here’s a non-scientific way of illustrating this. Suppose you are traveling to a relative’s house to give him an important message. To make sure you remember the message accurately, you could write the message several times on the same sheet of paper. Another method could be writing the message once on paper and voice record it once on your smartphone. You just stored the same message twice, but in two different venues. It’s obvious which method make retrieval more reliable. 

Distractions are bad, variety is not. You might even find it beneficial to vary times of study. Variety not only wards off boredom (or frustration), it gives the brain more associations to link to information the student will want to remember.

1. "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits", by Benedict Carey, New York Times,