Counterintuitive Study Strategies

by Suzita on December 2, 2010

I’ll start with an admission I’m not that proud of.  Ever since my oldest child was in first grade and began receiving real homework, I’ve been attempting to create a regular homework routine at our house.  Five years later, I still haven’t pulled it off.

Establishing a homework schedule shouldn’t be difficult!  At least that’s how it appeared from the outside, before I had three kids.  I figured I’d designate an hour, say from 4 to 5 each afternoon, as homework time.

When I recently analyzed our “much more erratic than this” homework situation, I found four main factors regularly sabotaging it.

  1. After-school meetings. “Please attend a meeting to plan the 4th grade Medieval Feast!”
  2. After-school activities or sports which twice weekly keep us away from home during the 4 to 5 o’clock hour.
  3. Time for free play at the playground on fair-weather days.
  4. Play dates.

I guess if I’m honest with myself, these four things are higher priorities to me than a regular homework time.  (Shhhh!  Don’t tell the teachers!)

Thus, homework at my house often has a catch-as-catch-can quality.  Again, I don’t feel great about this.  I will mention that I keep various homework implements with me when we are out and about: pencils, rulers, math workbooks, spelling word lists, etc.  Then when 20 free minutes present themselves, I whip these items out and homework commences.

For those of you who look a bit like me in this respect, I came across an article that may offer some relief, “Forget What You Know about Good Study Habits” (New York Times, September 6, 2010).  It describes research which found that studying the same thing in different places actually helps you better retain the information.

So, studying your vocabulary words in the sunny backseat of the minivan one day, then sitting in the carpeted hallway outside of your sister’s gymnastics class the next day, may actually facilitate learning them!

Another research finding “undermined the common assumption that intensive immersion is the best way to master” a subject.  Instead, it’s better to study “distinct, but related skills in one sitting,” such as free reading, writing sentences with spelling words, then studying some Spanish.

The author moves on to discuss advantages of testing students regularly.  Being quizzed on a subject after studying it over a period of time, helps to cement the information into one’s memory.  Scientists aren’t completely sure how this works, but think the act of retrieving information itself serves to reposition the data to an easier spot for subsequent retrieval.

Additionally, our brains are organized to focus (or obsess) on a question we’ve answered incorrectly on a test.  Thus we are also primed to remember the correct answer we later learn.  (For those of you who read the N.Y.T. article, this last fact is not in there, but was on my graduate school biological psychology comprehensive exam.  Do you think I still remember it because I got it right or wrong?)

“When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it,” Dr. Nate Kornell of Williams College states.  Blowing a test may very well be the first step toward truly learning the subject.

If you would remind me to re-read this piece the next time one of my children does just this, I’d be much obliged!

____

Update:

On the pet lizard/pet snake conundrum, I did indeed pitch my alternate idea of a hermit crab to Daniel.  I felt I presented a thorough and thoughtfully laid out case, and I was honestly taken aback when Daniel dismissed it out of hand.

When I mentioned this disappointing result to my biologist friend, Kim, she didn’t seem at all surprised by Daniel’s response and commented, “What did you expect, hermit crabs are from a completely different phylum.”  (I thought they were all part of the pets-you-don’t-want-to-touch phylum.)

The lizard research begins…  Any suggestions on types of lizards that are good as pets?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Christian Laugen December 2, 2010 at 1:02 pm

I will admit that this is very hard to do not just for elementary or even high school students – graduate students struggle with schedules and nailing down times to study. But I wonder if learning to devote time to studies when one is younger can help develop good habits later in life (when you get bombarded by much more than after school activities!).

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Play. Fight. Repeat. December 2, 2010 at 1:25 pm

You make a good point! I want to make this come true, I really do. I notice that our middle-schooler who can do much of his schoolwork on his own is naturally falling into more of a schedule with homework.

But with all three kids, it’s a constant balancing act… homework, downtime, exercise, eating well, social time (play dates), helping around the house, the kids’ neighborhood services business, music practice…
Wow, I felt a little tired just writing that list out!
Suzita

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Boulder Locavore December 2, 2010 at 1:09 pm

(Deep inhale…) Isn’t this a subject that could go on forever with so many different views? First off I commend you on your list of priorities. I’m not even organized enough to have a list and certainly don’t get to numbers 3 and 4 readily during the school week! I think factoring in your family needs/routines/demands, your childs study personality and over arching factors (sleep, distraction on a given day, etc) to formulate a strategy is a must. What works for one child may not for another even within the same family OR for the same child day to day. Keeping one’s knees bent, eyes open and maintaining flexibility is what I believe to be the key to success (or that’s how I ‘self medicate’; you can check that chapter in the kid’s future memoires to see how my theory fared in practice!).

And on lizards species, my vote would be anything plastic is probably the best choice!

Now Suzita we, your adoring public, needs you to watch Race to Nowhere and provide us your educated and reflective input!

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Play. Fight. Repeat. December 2, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Yes, I do need to see Race to Nowhere! Thanks for the reminder. It’s on our list.
You make a good point that each kid is so different. For some kids, it may simply be too hard to do homework on the go. If/when one of mine shows this type of response, I imagine I will re-work my priorities and a regular homework time would shoot to the top of the list.

I also notice that even though we may do homework in different places, I put a fair amount of energy into keeping a running list of homework tasks, so that I can regularly help the kids with studying more easily done with another person, like memorizing spelling or vocabulary words.

Thanks for your comments!
Suzita

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msmcd December 2, 2010 at 7:02 pm

First, great topic.
Second, Race to Nowhere is showing at Boulder Theatre, December 7 at 7pm. I have not seen it yet, but hear it’s a must-see.
Third, pretty soon you’ll need to add “lizard care” to your list of to-do’s….sorry, I couldn’t resist! I must agree, the plastic phylum sounds best at this point.

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lisa December 2, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Okay, good. So, Ben being given an oral practice spelling test this afternoon, with crazy screaming younger brother (driving around match box cars) was flexing Ben’s mind and creating good study habits?? 🙂
I can relate to all the above comments. We here at the Aube household just try to roll with it. Some days are smooth, and others end with a race to the finish…

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