What We Have Learned About Learning Is That We Have Learned Nothing

An article was written in the New York Times in correlation with students returning to school. The article is about the extremely limited understanding of how we learn and the old adages about studying that have been proven false. For example, students will hear advice from their teachers such as, “[c]lear a quiet work space” and study in one area. Studies now show that sitting in a single place everyday studying is actually less effective than varying the study location.

If the advice we are giving to students about studying away from school is wrong, we have to hope that the way we teach in class is correct. So we must consider the methods of teaching. What about all of those visual learners and auditory learners? What is to be done about teaching to the many ways students learn? Researchers are terrified that you even asked. “‘The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,’ the researchers concluded.” And by the way, it does not matter whether you jump through hoops in front of the class. Students will not learn any better.

However, not everything your teachers told you was wrong. Cramming before a test is still not a proper way to learn. Just as we always suspected, it might get a student through a test, but you will not remember a thing of it later. Actually, it is worse than not remembering. “‘[W]hen they move to a more advanced class,’ said Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis. ‘It’s like they’ve never seen [the material] before.’” Overall recall is far better when studying is done in short spurts over a long period of time.

Last, standardized testing, is not such a bad thing afterall. In fact it is a very effective tool, and the harder the test, the more likely students will be to remember the material. “The more mental sweat it takes to dig it out, the more securely it will be subsequently anchored.”

So as students head back to resume their trek along the road of pedogogy, just remember that our ability to recall of all of those axioms about learning proves only that we learned them over a long period time and must have been tested on a really hard exam.

5 Responses

  1. I found the debunking of “teaching to students’ learning styles” particularly interesting. Instead of trying to adapt our teaching methods to so-called visual, aural, spatial, and kinetic (etc.) learners, perhaps we should be helping our law students adopt the traditional read-write style of learning.

  2. While the article did seem to suggest that there was no educational benefit to teaching to a students learning style, the article that the NY Times refers to does not really say that there is no benefit to teaching to a students learning style. See: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/9/3/105.abstract
    What this article seems to be saying is that there hasn’t been a good scientific analysis of this theory and it suggests a methodology for doing such an analysis. While I acknowledge that the authors suggest that there would be no value in doing such a study, I can’t say that I agree. In my experience teaching a class by presenting material in a variety of learning styles does make the material more understandable for the student. I think the anacdotal evidence is highly suggestive of the benefit to teaching with learning style in mind and therefore, perhaps doing the study would be worthwhile before throwing the whole idea out. I did find the ideas of changing the context in which we study and varying the content of what we present to be very interesting and thought that made a great deal of sense. It seems to me that we need students to be working through legal problems, but that we want to be careful that we are not always grouping the problems together so that there is a clear pattern and the students are not forced to truly think about the possible solution.

  3. As someone who isn’t currently an educator, the article has me thinking of times I’ve spent as an adult learner – education that’s been continued simply because I want to.

    I think one valuable advice I’ve been given by an educator is to understand thoroughly how I learn, that it is essential to teach yourself as well as allow yourself to be taught. Oddly, it was a coworker that offered this advice, not a professor or other authority figure. It’s why I’m offering my opinion, just in case 😉

    I appreciated this approach and felt it gave me power over my education. In addition, learning in my adult life forced an ability to study in odd locations, when time allowed, around a full time job plus four hour daily commute. It’s the first time that I’ve thought perhaps that may have been a benefit to my general learning experience, with life forcing a constant change in where I studied. I have found that I enjoyed changing up where and how I studied quite a bit.

    • My colleague Sarah Kaltsounis – a fabulous teacher who founded our Learning Resource Center and has a masters in special education – circulated an email to our faculty that also suggested the NY Times article oversimplified the research. She offered an interesting perspective on motivation behind the research, links to two learning styles surveys, and her caveat to students. With her permission I share the following:

      1. “I suspect this study was undertaken in part because many K-12 school districts are pressured (typically by parents, in my experience) to purchase and administer costly learning style assessments. Schools are also often faced with parents who complain that a teacher’s methods don’t mesh with their child’s learning style, as revealed by the school-administered assessment or by some questionnaire the parents found online. As a former school attorney, I can see the real value in a study like this to bolster a school district’s refusal to shell out for a pricey commercial product or to bend over backwards matching each kid with his or her perfect soulmate of a teacher!”

      2. Two survey instruments: VARK (http://www.vark-learn.com/english/index.asp) and the Index of Learning Styles Inventory (http://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html).

      3. “Being more aware of their own innate preferences can help students determine whether they might enjoy meeting with a study group to discuss concepts out loud with others, or if they’d feel they were studying more effectively by making charts and diagrams, etc. I also tell them that, regardless of a questionnaire’s results, they are going to be faced with professors who have a wide variety of teaching styles and it’s the student’s job to adapt, not the other way around.”

  4. Here is a response to the New York Times piece from a blog for neuroanthropology entitled “From Good Study Habits to Better Teaching”. The post is one teacher’s reflections on his own classroom and how his teaching matches with the lessons stated in the NYT article.


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