September 12, 2010
Best Ways To Enhance Learning?

Benedict Carey of the New York Times surveys what is known about techniques for enhanced learning. Varying your study locations is cited as a technique which has been confirmed by much research.

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.

“We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.”

Carey mentions other techniques including varying how many kinds of things you learn at one setting.

Curiously, a new report in Science finds the opposite result about learning environments: evidence that varying learning conditions does not help to enhance learning.

The researchers conducted three studies at Beijing Normal University in which subjects were shown different sets of photographs or words multiple times in different orders. The scientists recorded subjects' brain activity while they studied the material. They were asked to recall or recognize those items between 30 minutes and six hours later, in order to test the decades-old "encoding variability theory."

That theory suggests people will remember something more effectively — the name of the third President of the United States, for example — if they study it at different times in different contexts — a dorm room, the library, a coffee shop — than if they review it several times in one sitting. The different sensory experiences will give the brain various reminders of that information and multiple routes to access Thomas Jefferson's identity.

Based on that theory, Poldrack and his colleagues predicted subjects would retain memories of the photos or words more effectively if their brains were activated in different ways while studying that information multiple times.

Instead, the scientists found the subjects' memories were better when their pattern of brain activity was more similar across the different study episodes.

The researchers say they haven't disproven the theory that Carey reports is well established.

The Times piece also quotes the accomplished Washington U of St. Louis memory researcher Henry Roediger about the value of testing and time intervals between learning and recall. I've covered Roediger's research and think it quite valuable.

Educational institutions really ought to take Roediger's results and use them to revamp the presentation and testing of materials that students are meant to learn. Students need access to practice tests that pop up an optimal number of days after they first get taught some material. Also, it might make sense to present more material near the beginning of a course in order to provide more time for the brain to go thru optimal cycle times for learning followed by retrieval to enhance memory consolidation.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 September 12 11:39 AM  Brain Memory

Dog of Justice said at September 13, 2010 12:21 AM:

I would not be surprised if there were some racial variation here--East Asians may perform better under low environmental variation than others.

Chris T said at September 13, 2010 10:02 AM:

Education is a field that could benefit tremendously from the scientific method; unfortunately, they also seem the most resistant to it. They would rather go with what feels good than what studies say works.

GT said at September 15, 2010 9:47 AM:

I can't help but think location is an individual thing, but I agree that Roediger's research would have some relevance here.

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