Just in time for school to start, we’d like to summarize some terrific findings by neuroscientists about the best ways to learn.
To prepare for a test, take a test!
It turns out that testing is an excellent way to cement information as it involves the practice of retrieving information. Scientists at Purdue University found that far from being a passive experience, taking a test helps people learn. It’s possible that the struggle involved in trying to recall something strenthens the memory associated with it. Compared with re-reading material or even concept mapping, taking a test promotes more meaningful learning. When students reread material, they may become complacent and assume “I’ve seen this already; I know this.” This effort is superficial in comparison with testing which requires more active involvement.
Testing gets a bad rap as students are submitted to increasing numbers of standardized tests, but testing or quizzing is actually an effective study strategy. Flash cards become test-like if you force yourself to answer without peeking, so you practice retrieving the information. Often, textbooks have end-of-chapter tests; it’s a great idea to use these. As it turns out, that’s a better use of your time than rereading the chapter.
The pen is mightier than the keyboard.
There is evidence that information is better retained when it is written by hand than when typed. While typing has the advantage of speed, handwriting activates more brain areas. According to a 2012 study at Indiana University led by Karin James, greater brain activation (in areas involved in thinking, language and working memory) is detected among children who learned new letters and numbers when they had written them by hand rather than tracing or typing them. Educational psychologist Virginia Berninger of the University of Washington conducted a study of grade school children showing that those who wrote essays longhand used more words and expressed more ideas compared to those using a keyboard.
And more recently, studies were conducted analyzing note taking among college students at Princeton and UCLA. Researchers compared students who took handwritten vs. electronic notes and found that on tests of retention of facts as well as understanding of the ideas of a lecture, those who took longhand notes did significantly better. Why? It seems the typists took more notes (since it’s faster), but they seemed to record the lecture verbatim instead of paraphrasing and summarizing as those who hand wrote their notes needed to do. Rewording helped the handwritten note takers to start integrating concepts right away. So keep pencils and pens on the school supply lists and encourage your children and yourselves to put them to paper.
And last, get a good night’s sleep!
Sleep scientists tell us sleep quantity and quality is critical in learning and memory, both before and after acquiring new information and experiences. Many studies show that sleep is a time for memory consolidation, both when short-term memories are converted to long-term memories and when existing long-term memories are reconsolidated. Sleep research consistently shows that people perform best on tests of new tasks when they have the chance to sleep in the period between the learning and the testing. Good sleep is important before learning as well. Sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce attention and to dull working memory. This is important since what is saved as a long-term memory can be adversely influenced by lack of sleep. Either way, when facing the dilemma of staying up late to study or getting a good night’s sleep, sleep is the winner.