How to Learn
This article on study skills research was fascinating to me. It corresponds well with my own experience, particularly this:
[M]any 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.
This is advice I’ve very often followed, though not consciously. On visiting my undergraduate alma mater last year, I was amazed at how my mind overlaid almost the entire campus with ideas and books — a table in the student center evoked the Great Leap Forward; a park bench, the labor theory of value; a bus stop, Czeslaw Milosz; a fountain, the precession of the equinoxes.
I’ve often wondered since then whether it would be a good or a bad thing to live in a place like that. While enjoyable, the sensation made it hard to think about anything else.