It’s starting to catch on, the idea that different learning styles are bunk. A paper that was only cited as forthcoming evidence for this old post of mine has now been published, and it argues that there’s simply no persuasive evidence that there’s such a thing as different learning styles.

(Now, as a parenthetical aside, just because there’s another study with these kinds of findings doesn’t mean that the idea of different learning styles will disappear. That idea has been accepted widely, so it’ll be hard to eradicate it. The seeming anecdotal evidence (“I knew this kid, Johnny, who couldn’t learn till his teacher put the information in Mayan pictograms…and then he became an A student!”) will be taken to outweigh simple scientific fact. So people will believe in learning styles in spite of evidence to the contrary. And it’s such a convenient excuse: if a kid underperforms, well, chalk it up to bad teaching that doesn’t take into account Susie’s learning style. Any idea with that kind of legs is going to be with us for a long time.)

Anyway, let me get to my favorite part of the article:

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.

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.

To which I say, well of course! If a student studies the same information twice, more learning will occur. It’s elementary, my dear Watson.

Of course, a student has to study the information once in order to study it again. For some students, that’s going to be where the entire exercise breaks down.

And then again, the article is careful to remind us:

None of which is to suggest that these techniques — alternating study environments, mixing content, spacing study sessions, self-testing or all the above — will turn a grade-A slacker into a grade-A student. Motivation matters. So do impressing friends, making the hockey team and finding the nerve to text the cute student in social studies.

Apparently even science can’t create motivation ex nihilo, so until it can, it would appear we’re stuck with having some good students, some average, and some not-so-good.

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