Monday, May 7, 2012

Study Smart...Longer

UC Riverside:  Note cards in a Vending Machine??
Studying unimportant information is a waste of valuable time.

I teach an AP class to high school freshmen.  Let that sink in...  

There is active debate out there as to whether high school freshmen are educationally mature enough to handle to rigors of a college course.   I'm seeing kids succeed, but it is a difficult struggle for them.  It is not for the faint of heart.  

The two major hurdles I see are  writing and reading levels.  Absent these two skills, the class becomes a suicide mission.  Even my top students struggle with studying, so much of the class becomes a primer on how to study.

Note cards are a tried and true method for memorization.  I use a system called “Shrink the Pile.” In this system the point is to limit how much you study. It begins with telling the difference between what is and is not important.  It makes no sense studying unimportant information because that represents a waste of valuable time.  You identify the facts that are important, eliminate all that you already know, and study what is left.   

 This is where you must trust yourself.  If you know it now, the information is in long term memory and will be there come test time.  Now that you have your list, make the note cards and start memorizing.  Here is where the magic happens, go to sleep!  In his article "Sleep sorts the memory wheat from the chaff"  Ferris Jabr explains how sleep throws out useless information, so that what remains in the morning is long term memories.  That’s right, go to sleep and let the brain do its job of throwing out useless information.   

The problem is that some of that useless information is important and are terms you will need for the test, so don’t let your subconscious mind determine what information is best for the test.  You are just checking for what information has survived the night.  When you wake up, before looking at the cards, hand the pile to someone to quiz you.   

It doesn’t matter if you wait awhile; the important part is that you don’t look before someone quizzes you.  When you hand the pile to them, get a trash can, better yet a paper shredder and place it below the person who will quiz you.  Then you will utter these magical words.  “You are going to quiz me, and every card I get right you will throw away.”  These words have no magic if you don’t believe them.  As you watch cards fall into the trash, resist the urge to mix your hand with the remains of breakfast in order to retrieve your cards.  You will now have a smaller pile to study all day.  The next morning repeat the trashcan drill with your partner, resisting the urge to be a trash diver.   

What has happened is that when a concept makes it through the night and you are able to get it right, the information has moved from that portion of your brain that stores temporary information to that glorious place where information stays with you.  Long-term memory will be there for you come test day.  Don’t worry that the process of pushing new information into memory will force you to forget something you already know.  The brain doesn’t work that way, because according to J.R. Anderson in his book Learning and Memory: An Integrated Approach long-term memory capacity is limitless.  You aren’t going to start forgetting your phone number.   

Remember the play dough factory from when you were a kid?  You crammed the play dough in the top, pushed down on the plunger and watched dough squirt out in whatever shape you had selected.  The brain is not like a play dough factory where something going in has to come out on the other end.  In fact the brain is like a net that grows larger the more it is used and new memories and learning can be acquired more rapidly because they have older memories and learning to build upon.   
As you learn new things, you will be able to collect new information more efficiently.  This is why the “smart kids” seem to know it all.  The truth is that they don’t need to study as much as you, but you will get to where they are through hard work.
Shrink the pile and you will be seeing the most difficult terms over and over.  If you leave the note card pile too large it will take too long to get around to the terms you really need to work on.  You are allowing information you already know to keep you from learning new things.  Trust yourself.  The good students don’t study it all; they only study what is new AND important.