Class Warfare Blog

October 25, 2019

How to Study

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 9:49 am
Tags: , , , ,

A recent article on The Conversation web site (How to avoid distractions while studying, according to science) addressed several studies that showed which things are distractions for studying students and which are not. For example, listening to songs being sung is a distraction, listening to orchestral music is not. Some of these studies were surprisingly simple. In one they took the usual apparatus for monitoring eye movements and monitored students reading while people nearby were speaking to one another (“irrelevant background speech” in science-speak). They found that people reading under these conditions had to go back more frequently to re-read passages . . . because they were distracted.

Most of the things they discovered were not at all surprising to me (no TV, no ear buds in an iPod unless you are listening to classical or jazz music with no words), etc. But as I have argued before, none of this makes any difference unless students want to implement such things.

When I got serious about studying (didn’t happen until in college) I developed a routine. While I did study in the library during lulls between classes, I saved the hard stuff for the evening. Since basketball practice went until 6 pm and then I either had to travel home and eat or go back to the dorm cafeteria and eat, I usually didn’t get to my studies until late. (I was committed to a consistent sleep schedule, so “lights out” was at 11 pm.) My final routine was to turn off all of the lights in the room and turn on my desk lamp (creating a small zone for my attention). There was no music playing, no TV, no food, no drink, as few distractions as I could find. Then I worked my way through assignments until they were completed. (All my study tools were at hand: pencil, pen, slide rule . . . hey, this was before personal computers; heck, it was before handheld calculators.)

As a teacher I encountered more and more students who claimed they could multitask (they can’t, this has been shown to be just an illusion of task-switching), they could study with music playing, the TV playing, etc. This, I think is a consequence, an unintended consequence of “grade inflation.” One could participate with all of those self-imposed handicaps and still get Bs and even As.

I tended to cruise on my native smarts. But over and over I ended up with the highest scoring B in my classes. (this pattern was observable all through high school and into college; observable to anyone who looked . . . I didn’t). I eventually decided that I wanted to do better, which is when I addressed my studying deficiencies. It wasn’t just those which were the causes of my lack of better performances. I was attempting a difficult major and playing a sport, so I had three hours of basketball practice daily for six months out of the nine month school schedule on top of taking class work loads above normal. My program was a four and half year program and after four years, I had only three course left to take . . . and I had run out of basketball eligibility. As luck would have it, of those three courses, two were “Fall term only” and the other was “Spring term only,” so I decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to graduate mid year. I tool a 12 credit hour load in the Fall and nine credit hour load in the Spring (“normal” is 15 hours and I was used to more than that). This year felt like a vacation and my new study habits and the lightened load and no basketball allowed me to get all As save one B.

Now, I am telling you this, not because it is exceptional; it was not, but that this was normal. Each and every serious student has to “personalize” their education so that it suits themselves. This is not something that can be done for them, they have to do it themselves. It starts with “wanting to” and includes “being challenged” and some ability at introspection. This where I think we have been failing our youths to some extent. We keep thinking of an education as something we “do to them” as if it were some industrial process. Feedstock goes in here, then flows through converters A, B, and C and voilà, the finished product comes out there. But this is wrong, just as we do not want our doctors to just work on us as a veterinarian would, we want to be included in the process of maintaining or regaining our health, we feel the same way about our being educated. Teaching is what teachers are responsible for, learning is what students are responsible for. Figuring out how to learn most effectively is the responsibility of students, with teachers being, I hope, helpful.

I saw so many young people being cheated out of a good education by low expectations . . . by teachers, and teachers are at fault here—for giving out above standard grades for below standard learning, students do not end up being pushed to “trying harder.” Students have part-time jobs, study distracted if at all, and are sleep walking intellectually. Do not get me wrong, the best of our students are better than they ever have been, but those students check off all of the boxes (high expectations, high standards, and they “wanna”). I am talking mostly about the mass in the middle.

By the way, as an aside, it is well-known that Asians students perform better than other cohorts in college. Various conjectures have been offered as to why and the one that stood up to scrutiny? It was time on task, nothing else, they work harder, the “work ethic” that supposedly made American great.

I used to ask my classes “If you are taking a course and the teacher says, “Just chill, you’ll get a good grade” what do you think of that class? Most of the comments were along the lines of “Sign me up!” So, I continued “So, you like being cheated? Cheated out of a good education?” I said “I would immediately withdraw from that course and sign into one I could learn something in.” Education was apparently that rare thing that people wanted less of what they already had paid for.

I also went to the trouble (eventually) of clearly specifying what the expectations for the course were. Examination question examples were provided, with answers that would be given max scores, that sort of thing. Some students didn’t twig to the fact that all of these objectives, sample test questions, topic summaries (Chemistry 1A Cliff Notes, they were), etc. were provided until the very end of the course. One student asked in the final exam prep session whether it was worthwhile to read the syllabus I had been referring to all semester, to bewildered looks of the other students. These are things that frustrate teachers, but we all knew that students had to go through making such mistakes . . . and suffering the consequences . . . to wake up and smell the coffee/roses/etc.

So, I applaud the researchers who have identified things that work and things that don’t but the application of these can only be made by students. And I can’t tell you how many times I recommended them to turn off the TV, iTunes, etc. while studying, only to have them look at me as if I were an idiot and say “But I have been all along and getting As. . . .” but it was a great many times. (Students obey the Real Rules™ religiously. These are not the rules claimed to exist by most teachers.)

I must say, however, that when the light came on for a student, it was glorious. I told students that a study observation of mine that was really helpful was that Miller Time™ started on Friday at 6 pm. Since most of the college kids had no classes after, say, noon on Friday, the weekend started at noon. They would go home and watch reruns on TV or . . . whatever. So, I told them that in that Friday 12 Noon to 6 pm slot, their goal should be to get their homework for the weekend done. If they accomplished that, then their weekends would be truly free. There would be no nagging thoughts of “I gotta do that reading” or “I have to start that paper.” They would be done for the weekend and would start every week prepared.

I was coming back to my office one Friday afternoon to find a former student sitting at the table in the hall outside of my office door. He jumped up and shook my hand, smiling, and told me that he remembered what I said about using Friday afternoons and he had taken it to heart (He was doing it right then!) and that his grades were skyrocketing. I was so happy for him and while this wasn’t a frequent occurrence, it happened enough to keep me going and trying.

 

2 Comments »

  1. I’ve also heard the “train as you fight” advice for studying, at least studying for tests. So the idea there is to make your study space as much like your exam space as possible, including seating, lighting and background noise. I’ve even seen a noise generator that creates the background noises of a quiet exam room.

    Like

    Comment by Ubi Dubium — October 25, 2019 @ 10:08 am | Reply

    • Of course, students are in a trial and error mode in doing their personal research into how they personally learn best. Sounds like something to try. It works for athletes, even to the point of making the conditions worse that expected.

      On Fri, Oct 25, 2019 at 10:08 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:

      >

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 25, 2019 @ 10:18 am | Reply


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