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September 6, 2010
Every September, millions of parents try a kind of psychological witchcraft, to transform their
summer-glazed campers into fall students, their video-bugs into bookworms. Advice is cheap and
all too familiar: Clear a quiet work space. Stick to a homework schedule. Set goals. Set boundaries.
Do not bribe (except in emergencies).
And check out the classroom. Does Junior’s learning style match the new teacher’s approach? Or
the school’s philosophy? Maybe the child isn’t “a good fit” for the school.
Such theories have developed in part because of sketchy education research that doesn’t offer clear
guidance. Student traits and teaching styles surely interact; so do personalities and at-home rules.
The trouble is, no one can predict how.
Yet there are effective approaches to learning, at least for those who are motivated. In recent years,
cognitive scientists have shown that a few simple techniques can reliably improve what matters
most: how much a student learns from studying.
The findings can help anyone, from a fourth grader doing long division to a retiree taking on a new
language. But they directly contradict much of the common wisdom about good study habits, and
they have not caught on.
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.”
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
relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of
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