Here’s good news for those of us trying to pick up new skills and information. Experts on how learning happens within the human brain have identified the two most reliable methods for transferring new information into our little grey cells.
One method requires that students revisit and build upon their study of a particular topic or problem over time, preferably at monthly intervals.
The other most effective technique requires students to take repeated practice tests on the information — again, over periods of time. Students can administer the quizzes themselves, solo or with others, by using flash cards, study charts, practice sessions or other study tools.
Both methods force students to repeatedly draw on and build upon their memories of the information, tasks or skills they’ve learned. The recurring engagement of memory consolidates the learning and builds multiple neural pathways within the brain, so students can more easily access and retrieve the information from memory.
The techniques benefit students of all ages and abilities, and enhance performance in most areas of learning.
On the other hand, the researchers say, some popular study habits should be ditched. Reading information over and over doesn’t work for most people, and cramming works only in the very short term.
Other evidence suggests using laptops while learning might also harm information uptake.
According to a study published in the journal Computers & Education earlier this year, students who use computers in the classroom hurt both their own grades and their classmates’ marks.
Distraction explains the negative community effect of classroom laptop use. The bright colours and flashing movement of a Netflix movie playing on the laptop three rows up and one seat to the left is more visually arresting than someone droning on at the front of the room.
Despite efforts and intentions to focus on the lecturer, a flickering laptop screen will capture your attention again and again.
The other distractions and temptations provided by computers in classrooms are more obviously detrimental to learning. For instance, if you repeatedly interrupt your concentration to check your Twitter or Facebook accounts, you won’t absorb much information at all.
Other than where your friends are meeting for lunch.
In fact, too much time spent online seems to compromise performance generally. In a study at one U.S. university, first-year students reported spending nearly 12 hours a day engaged in some form of online media.
At term- and year-end, the same students also reported — no surprises here — low grades.
There were exceptions. Students who spent significant time online listening to music or reading newspapers did well academically.
The music-lovers might have been harnessing a version of the Mozart Effect.
Twenty years ago, a much-publicized study suggested that students who listened to 10 minutes of Mozart improved their IQ for a short time.
This led to years of Tiger Moms forcing Mozart down their kids’ auditory canals.
But it turns out Mozart isn’t all that special, after all. New research suggests if you engage in any pleasant activity that increases your brain’s levels of dopamine, you can experience the same smarts spike of the so-called Mozart Effect. For you, that pleasant activity may indeed be listening to Mozart, or to Arcade Fire or Daft Punk.
Or your “Mozart” might involve going for a run, talking to someone you like or — hurray! — eating chocolate.
As to the effects of reading newspapers online, my editors would probably argue that reading newspapers makes you smart, end of story.
Of course, this may be a chicken-and-egg question. Smart people may tend to like reading and be more interested in the world around them, which could lead them to develop a newspaper habit.
Or they might just enjoy reading newspapers, thereby also enjoying the temporary smarty-pants boost that is reported to come after doing something they like.
Provided it doesn’t distract them from something they’re trying to learn.