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Forget All You Thought You Knew About How We Learn Forget All You Thought You Knew About How We Learn

Forget All You Thought You Knew About How We Learn

by Nikhil Swaminathan

September 14, 2010


The New York Times
ran a fun story last week about how we learn. Well, it's fun if you don't mind finding out that everything you thought about learning and studying may actually be wrong. Certain accepted truths and tips, it turns out—due to possibly flawed education research—aren't legit, according to various studies from psychologists.

For instance, clearing out a nook where one can do his or her homework isn't the most effective way to retain information. Rather, according to cognitive scientists, studying in multiple locations helps people hold more in their heads. Cramming also isn't a great way to learn—though you probably figured that out already. Instead, reviewing concepts for an hour or so per day leads to better absorption of material in the run up to a test. Perhaps most disappointing of all, as The Washington Post's Ezra Klein wrote when pointing to the Times piece, psychologists have determined that, "You are not so special"—i.e., the idea that we have different learning styles is a myth.

From the Times article: 

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. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

Another interesting finding: Testing helps us learn—in addition to serving as an assessment. So, getting something wrong on a quiz can help reinforce a concept in your mind.

Seems like the one truth about how we learn that still holds true, according to the piece, is that we learn best from our mistakes.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user John Althouse Cohen.

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