Study Smarts: Variety improves your practice

comic strip on memory

Memorization is often discussed in opposition to critical thinking, as though a person did one or the other – not both. The epitome of the reviled form of memorization is the rote recitation of facts and content. Many faculty – I’m one – believe that students can’t think critically without having solid command of some facts to think about.

We are often dismayed when our students seem unable to retain even very basic information: the kind we think could be learned by rote memorization. Even more troubling, our students wail, “Look at my flash cards! I studied for hours!” How could they work so hard and achieve so little?

Learning how to learn

Research has already demonstrated a variety of memory techniques to augment rote memorization.  A new study, reported in Science Daily, shows that even the simple process of repeatedly reviewing material can be made more effective by one simple change: breaking it up with other activities, according to Dr. Carolee Winstein.

“We gravitate toward a simple, rote practice structure because we’re basically lazy, and we don’t want to work hard. But it turns out that memory is enhanced when we engage in practice that is more challenging and requires us to reconstruct the activity,” Winstein said. “In the variable practice structure condition, you’re basically solving the motor problem anew each time. If I’m just repeating the same thing over and over again as in the constant practice condition, I don’t have to process it very deeply.”

While the study focused on learning complicated movements, these findings are in synch with other research.  When rote study is combined with questioning, categorization, explanation and other study methods, students learn at a deeper level.  Until now, I had presumed that these other methods were simply more effective study skills.  Now I see the possibility that the act of changing among a variety of study practices can, itself, be a practice.

Engaging the brain

Variety in practice requires you to choose what you’re doing and remember how to do it – and engages different and higher level parts of the brain. It may also enhance those critical thinking skills that we’re all eager to see in students. When we approach the material from a variety of angles, we’re likely to make more connections and perceive it more deeply.

  • DO memorize facts you need to know
  • Memorize in short chunks of time
  • Practice and test your knowledge in a variety of ways

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One comment

  1. The biology teachers (both professors and high school teachers) that I have had in the past have always epitomized the varied learning styles that you brought up in this post. From the structure of cell membranes with jelly, lettuce, and other produce sundries in high school, to heating up chunks of potatoes to see what happened to the proteins (they became denatured, which I theorized also explained why baked dairy goods are a kind of dairy I can indulge in), to the assimilation of this information into written explanations, biology teachers seem to have understood this for sometime. However, I believe that this is also made simpler to implement with their subject, as it is based in more concrete, and less abstract thinking. (You can look at a cell, you can’t ‘look’ at a schema, since they’re not a physical object, but simply a construct.)

    I’ve found the psychological and social theories that I have retained most readily were pertinent to a situation in my past or at the present moment. Teaching the student to make that connection more often, and to reinforce that connection, is a large part to making the student retain that information.

    I think the only draw back of all this is that it all takes more time, so a professor either teaches less material, or understands that the students won’t retain everything they are taught. When students can’t recall the intricacies of a subject, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about the course, but simply that they’re splitting their time between multiple subject matters and jobs they’re working in order to continue attending school.

    I got off on a bit of a tangent, but that’s how this post has applied to me in the past three years!

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