On Studying Smarter

Studying is hard. I know that statement isn’t earth-shattering, but it’s remarkable to me how tough it can be for people to figure out what it means to study effectively. Recently, I’ve read two books that address this problem in great detail and with great energy. I started to assemble a bunch of quotes, but I realized that the best thing would be to exhort you to run to your nearest bookstore or library and pick them up yourself. They’re terrific. They are: How We Learn, by Benedict Carey, and A Mind for Numbers, by Barbara Oakley, PhD.

Both books have excellent thoughtful, specific tips on how learning works and how different study methods can play to the brain’s strengths. I realized that there were about thirty block quotes I wanted to include, but I realized that the best (and most provocative) might be the one that follows. Instead of characterizing a series of solutions, it captures the problem.

The following passage is from A Mind for Numbers. It’s from the preface by Dr. Jeffrey D. Karpicke, James V. Bradley Associate Professor of Psychological Studies at Purdue University. Dr. Karpicke writes:

What’s surprising is that a lot of learners use ineffective and inefficient strategies. In my laboratory, for example, we have surveyed college students about their learning. They most commonly use the strategy of repeated reading — simply reading through books of notes over and over. We and other researchers have found that this passive and shallow strategy often produces minimal or no learning. We call this “labor in vain”–students are putting in labor but not getting anywhere.

This is exactly the challenge I’m seeing in so many of my students–students who are spending hours reading, re-reading, copying, and re-copying their notes and trying earnestly to internalize insights from their teachers’ lectures and their textbooks. The bad news is, this method will fail them. The good news is, there are tons of other things students can do that will help them learn–and most take a lot less time than transcribing their textbooks.

For an overview of some DOs and DON’Ts, check out these lists of rules for good studying and rules for bad studying from Dr. Oakley’s website.  Then really: go read these books. They’re thoughtful and warm and terrific. You won’t regret it.


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