A roundup of research in the science of learning concludes that traditional, responsible study habits don't help people learn things very well . The New York Times reports:
[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.
Also, working diligently on one particular skill or subject is less effective than studying a mix of things in one session. When one group of fourth-graders was given four study sets, each dealing with a single kind of equation, while another group was given study sets mixing the four kinds of equations,
The children who had studied mixed sets did twice as well as the others, outscoring them 77 percent to 38 percent. The researchers have found the same in experiments involving adults and younger children.
Before the proponents of loosely structured schooling can get too happy, though, the Times reports that cognitive scientists believe test-taking is important—not necessarily for evaluating students, but part of the learning process:
The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.
Cramming still leaves you stupid, however. (But it does get you through the exam.)