Where and how do your children learn best? When it comes to optimal learning environments and personal study habits, most of us have assumed that a concentrated session, in a quiet room, is the most effective way to learn.
Not according to the research: 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.
As for those last-minute study sessions the night before the big test, experts have likened the idea of cramming for an exam to hastily packing an inexpensive suitcase, with little care to its order or neatness. It might get you there (i.e., help you pass the test), but it probably won’t last very long. As quickly as you remember it, you’re likely to forget it.
Cutting to the bottom line, the research suggests that we would help our kids with their studies by doing two specific things:
1. Alternate the location of the room where they do their homework. According to the findings, if you study the same topic in two different settings, you’re more likely to remember the information than if you studied it twice in the same place.
2. Spread out the study sessions and alternate the topics of concentration. Children have a better chance of retaining what they’re learning if they study it over the course of two 30-minute sessions, as opposed to tackling it for a single 60-minute session.
Why? “The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning,” said Dr. Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College and lead author of the study. “When you forget something (which you inevitably do), it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.” There is another paradox to learning that, as the author of a new book on the power of struggle, Stronger, really resonates with me: The more difficult it is to remember something, the more difficult it’ll be to forget it once you master it. Hard work, strain and strife have always had its advantages. But you already know that, don’t you? After all, back when we were kids, we had to walk to school, uphill, in a blizzard – both ways!