Now it appears that, a couple of decades late, science supports my study habits.
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.
…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.
I know there are people who concentrate better in quiet conditions, or even in silence, but I’ve never been one them. If anything, I find it harder to focus when things are “too quiet,” let alone silent. In high school, I kept the radio going why I did my homework. In college, when I studied in the dorm, I’d have music going. If I tried studying in silence, I invariably ended up fleeing the library or the dorm for the student center, the campus “quad” or some other place where there sights, sounds, people, and noise.
Even now, if I’m working from home, I have the television on to keep things from getting “too quiet,” or I head out to the nearest coffee spot with wifi. Even if I’m reading, it’s likely the television is still on.
For whatever reason, my mind needs the background noise. I’ve always attributed it to my ADD. The reality is, because of my ADD, my mind is going to wander no matter what. My experience is that having music on or the television on gives it some place to wander to. It also makes that wandering finite where silence could make it infinite (or at least much longer), because the distraction is finite. The song, show, or commercial that caught my attention will end, and give me the opportunity to re-focus on the task at hand. If it’s too quiet, my mind might wander indefinitely.
Other parts of the article didn’t hold true for me, as well. I’m absolutely a believer in different learning styles.
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.
No two people learn the same way, and sometimes I think our cookie-cutter approach to education favors some learning styles over others. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how I learned and how I learn best.
I found out I was definitely not an “auditory” learner. I attended lectures, and enjoyed many of them, but remembered nothing of them once I left class. I tried taping lectures, but quickly found I’d forget to listen to the tapes. Taking notes during lectures helped somewhat, but I found I could never quite keep up. Writing down one idea or concept, I’d often miss the next one. Again, I think my ADD played a significant role, since I wasn’t diagnosed or treated until my mid-thirties.
What saved me was my love of reading, and my ability to write. (OK. Writing didn’t do me much good when it came to math and science, but it helped immensely in the other classes that served to balance out my grades.) I found that if I learned more when I did the reading, took notes on my reading and/or highlighted important information. I got better grades too. The lectures basically supplemented my reading. (But, again, I found I learned and retained more when there was some degree of interaction and student participation.)
Since then, I’ve kind of carried on my own ongoing “independent study” of whatever has interested me since then. I still read, take notes, underline/highlight what I want to remember, and (of course) write about it all eventually.
And I’ve never stopped learning. So, I must be doing something right.