Habits: Challenging How We Think About Study Habits

A terrific article describes groundbreaking effective study strategies in “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits,” informing us about new cognitive research that challenges conventional ideas about the best ways to learn and study. I have never identified with boring and repetitive study habits, and instead have found that mixing up and varying one’s approach is the way to go when it comes to effective studying or work output. I was intrigued to find that this research confirms my own preferences and the methods I teach to Full Life clients.

There are two main ideas that the article takes issue with: first was the idea that students should have a set place where they always study. Actually, as I’ve found and as the article reports, it’s better to learn and work from a variety of different locations. The article explains that we make numerous subtle associations between the subject we’re studying and our surroundings while we study it; and by changing our location, we force the brain to make multiple associations to increase retention. I noticed this practice helped me greatly when I was writing my book, Fire Your Therapist, which I wrote in many different places: one day I would work from home, one day from the office, another day from Starbucks, then in Florida. This kind of alternating also helps you from getting fatigued: by varying your surroundings, changing the background “noise” and keeping the routine from getting boring.

The second convention that the article challenges is the idea that the best way to learn large amounts of new material is immersion in each separate subject. I’ve found that it helps more to turn studying into something of an exercise regiment—just as you vary speed, weight, and power training in a workout, you might consider sampling different kinds of subject matter in each study session to build mental connections between the different subjects, thereby replicating a multitasking testing experience while you study. Immersion may still have a place in a study regiment, but it’s good to see it supplemented with more innovative and effective study methods.

So new study approaches include:
1. Vary study locations
2. Vary background noise/music
3. Vary light, temperature, smells, tastes
4. Study by sampling and limit immersion

It’s always difficult to disregard conventional thinking, even in the face of empirical research. This has always been evident, and we can see it in the article: the research that led to claims that alternating a study space is helpful comes from 1978, yet students are still widely told to set aside a dedicated study space and stick to it. In fact, there are more conventional beliefs about learning that don’t hold up to scrutiny. Study habits are widely stuck in antiquated ruts, and need to be supplemented with modern innovations.

What are your thoughts?

JS

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