5 popular myths about learning, debunked

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5 popular myths about learning, debunked

Many students overestimate how much they know about the most effective ways to study and learn.

Even high-performing students fall back on the same study habits over and over again, without analyzing whether they really work, writes Sudip Bose, a clinical professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. High-performing students might even be particularly susceptible; because they’ve always done well in school, they think their old habits are good enough.

“Generally speaking, most students I encounter have spent almost zero time studying outside of class in high school,” Jodi Meadows, an assistant professor and director of the honors program at Southwest Baptist University, told Education Week in 2017.

Meadows helps coordinate a two-semester course on self-directed learning that is mandatory for first-year students at Southwest Baptist. The course covers some fundamentals of time management, like how to break down a large assignment into smaller milestones, and also more sophisticated academic skills like how to evaluate arguments and conduct research.

“Some people are amazing and become autodidacts, but most others have apprenticed in a formal, structured learning environment,” says Justin Reich, the executive director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s Teaching Systems Lab.

This might explain why one of Coursera‘s most popular courses ever is “Learning How to Learn,” which combines neuroscience and common sense to teach students how to tackle complex subjects and beat procrastination.

Barb Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University who co-presents the course with her husband, says that when students feel frustrated or “really stupid” for not understanding a concept, it’s because “they don’t know how their brain works.” She says that her own struggles with learning and feelings of inadequacy have motivated her to help her students rewire their brains and find confidence.

Here are the five most popular myths about learning, according to a 2017 survey by Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of a book on the science of learning.

Myth 1: It’s important to know your learning style

Almost 90% of respondents to Boser’s survey believed that everyone has a unique learning style—and that it’s best to learn in that specific way.

But Boser says the notion of “visual learners,” “auditory learners,” and “kinesthetic learners,” each one requiring unique teaching methods, is false. Instead, he says, people should learn in ways that correspond to the material they’re learning. For instance, learning about music means listening to it, and learning to read requires actually reading.

Myth 2: The more times you read it, the better you’ll learn it

Around 80% of survey respondents agreed that re-reading is an effective study method—but Boser says there is no evidence that re-reading actually works. The problem is that re-reading is pretty passive, but our brains remember information better when we interact with it more actively.

For example, students could quiz themselves on the material they’ve just read or try to summarize the author’s argument. Studies show that the act of recalling information from your memory is more effective than simply re-reading your notes, says Thomas Toppino, a cognitive psychologist at Villanova University.

Myth 3: You should focus on one chunk of material at a time

This is another common belief that isn’t based in learning science, Boser suggests. Instead, research has found that it’s more effective to engage in “interleaved practice,” which involves mixing different kinds of problems and materials across study sessions or within the same study session.

Myth 4: Go with your gut

Instructors sometimes tell students not to second-guess themselves on exams, but Boser suggests that this is actually bad advice. “People are overly confident,” he says. “We actually need time to deliberate and reflect to understand something.” He points to research suggesting that giving ourselves a few seconds for information to “settle in” before we try to respond to it can help us learn more. 

Myth 5: The more hours you spend studying, the better

Quality is more important than quantity, Boser argues. He points to driving as an example of a skill where putting in more time doesn’t necessarily help. “Most of us drive every day,” he points out, “but most of us have not gotten better at driving.”

Instead of marathon cram sessions, students are better off spacing out their study sessions across at least a few days, says John Dunlosky, a professor of psychological sciences at Kent State University who was the lead author on a comprehensive review of study techniques published by the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

(Sawchuk, Education Week, 9/28/17; Schwartz, New York Times, 8/7/17; Vozza, Fast Company, 5/17/17)

Read more on effective study strategies

How to help students cultivate smarter study habits

3 proven study strategies even top students don’t know

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