The Data Bites Again: What We Really Know, and Don’t Know, About Study Skills
Study Skills classes have become de riguerer over the past 20 years. What seems to have started as fireman’s approach (quick and simple/fix the issue) to get students up and learning when they arrived in high schools less than fully prepared to do the work has become a line of warp in the educational tapestry- conventional wisdom and doctrine.
For some reason, we (educators) let go of the idea that study skills should be effectively imparted through traditional subject areas so we created study skills classes- settings in which the skill(s), in and of themselves, became the ends rather than a means. Study skills classes came laden with all sorts of prescriptions, or strategies, in the jargon of the operation.
Study skills classes (at least the ones with which I’ve been involved) purported to match a student’s ‘learning style’ as determined from the WISC III (now the WISC IV), or some other rudimentary learning style inventory, to the classroom teacher’s ‘style’, and, then prescribe proper strategies to employ when working with the information in class.
When I spent a short time involved in the learning skills endeavor it seemed a bit charlatan. I even worked for one administrator who would read a kid’s WISC; pronounce exactly how best to teach the student; the methods that the student should use to manipulate information; then, conclude with what kind of job would best the student as an adult. “This kid will make a great vice president in charge of production,” is seared in my memory some twenty plus years after the fact.
Even as a second year teacher, such predictions and confidence in a supposedly scientific approach didn’t fully pass the smell test- for all sorts of reasons. Much of what’s taught in study skills seems so obvious and common sensical, perhaps that’s why it’s apparently so wrong. I found watching “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits” jump- and stay at the top of the The New York Times most e-mailed list from it’s posting to my writing this at 4:15 Monday afternoon (9/6/2010)- fascinating. It’s also flying around facebook.
Many of you may have already read the article. If you haven’t, read it.
As regular readers know, it’s one of my favorite genre’s- debunking conventional wisdom with data. Suffice it to say, “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits” may finish off the conventional wisdom based study skills practitioners with one swing. The evidence just doesn’t support the study skills industrial complex and it’s claims.
I won’t re-cap the NYT piece. Instead, i’ll leave you with these quotes and the exhortation- read it.
“…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.
Ditto for teaching styles, researchers say. Some excellent instructors caper in front of the blackboard like summer-theater Falstaffs; others are reserved to the point of shyness. ‘We have yet to identify the common threads between teachers who create a constructive learning atmosphere,’ said Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of the book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’
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…
…Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills…
‘When students see a list of problems, all of the same kind, they know the strategy to use before they even read the problem,’ said Dr. Rohrer. ‘That’s like riding a bike with training wheels.’ With mixed practice, he added, “each problem is different from the last one, which means kids must learn how to choose the appropriate procedure — just like they had to do on the test.”
The finding undermines the common assumption that intensive immersion is the best way to really master a particular genre, or type of creative work, said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College and the lead author of the study. ‘What seems to be happening in this case is that the brain is picking up deeper patterns when seeing assortments of paintings; it’s picking up what’s similar and what’s different about them,’ often subconsciously…” (NYT)
How do change our approaches from here?