Tuesday, September 07, 2010

study habits

Instapundit links to an interesting article about study habits. I read the article mainly because I had some very unusual study habits in college and I was very successful with them, so I wanted to see if this article had research showing that I had hit on some great technique. Not so much. My study habits in many of my classes went something like this:

(1) go to all of the lectures and pay attention
(2) read the assigned work right after the lecture
(3) go to the library and read science fiction (the University of Arizona library had one of the largest science fiction collections in the world).

This study technique only worked for non-technical classes and technical classes such as calculus, intro chemistry, and intro physics that contained a lot of review material from high school. In most of my advanced mathematics, chemistry, physics, engineering, and computer-science classes I added a fourth step:

(4) do the minimum assigned homework

I like to think that if I had been paying high tuition at a private college instead of minimal tuition at a state school, I would have worked harder to make the investment worthwhile. I also like to think that if I had spent a little more time working on my jump shot that I could have played in the NBA. I also like to think that I am an extraordinarily good-looking and desirable man who women can't resist. Of the three, probably only the last one is really true.

But back to study methods. It turns out that modern cognitive research does not provide a lot of support for my study technique --no mention of science fiction at all. But the article did support my preferred teaching method which nearly got me lynched by my classes.

I taught several summer-school classes when I was studying for my Ph.D. One of the classes that I taught a few times was a 300-level class that involved formal logic, mathematical induction and other simple mathematics that is useful in computer programming (that is, no advanced stuff like difference equations or automata theory).

My eductional theory involved two parts

(1) cramming for tests is a poor way to learn
(2) taking tests is a good way to learn

Apparently the cognitive science backs up both of these ideas. To be honest, I may have gotten these ideas from some cognitive science classes that I took rather than from intuition and innate brilliance. I no longer recall.

Unfortunately, I don't seem to have come up with a good way to apply them. My technique was to assign homework frequently and have it due in two or three days (this was summer-school, recall, so all the students were taking just one six-week class and had no work assigned from other classes). In addition, I had frequent pop quizzes. Each quiz contained minor variations on problems from the homework that was due that day. My theory was that if they had just done the homework in the last couple of days, then they should have no problem with the quizzes.

Boy was I wrong. First of all, it turns out that a lot of people don't do their own homework. They join "study" groups which apparently work like this: a bunch of parasites latch onto one effective student, either a smart kid who is able to do the work easily or a hard-working kid who is willing to put in the effort to do the work. They assign each member of the group to do one of the problems but the effective student does all of the problems anyway, either because it is easy or because he actually wants to learn, and the parasites do half-assed jobs on only the problems assigned to them. Then they get together in their "study" group, pass around their work, and all of the parasites copy all of the answers from the effective student.

Now, you might be wondering why, after six or seven years of college, I was unaware of this practice until I started teaching. Was I really that anti-social that I was never in a "study" group? Yes, I really was that anti-social. I was asked several times to join "study" groups but I didn't see how studying in a group could possibly be useful so I always declined.

Next you are probably thinking, "Gee, Doc, no one could be so dense that they don't realize that these study groups were also an opportunity for social interaction and getting to know people with similar interests and career paths." But you are wrong. Someone really could be that dense and I am living proof of it.

It's just as well that I never joined such a group. The people who invited me to join their "study" groups almost certainly expected me to be the effective student in the group, but they would have been sorely disappointed at both my work ethic and at my attitude towards sharing my work (as you can probably surmise by the term "parasite").

Anyway, I didn't understand how "study" groups worked until I became a teacher and started seeing the obviously-copied homework. When I discussed this with fellow instructors, they explained to me how study groups work. All of them, of course, had been in great demand as the smart kid in study groups so they had a lot of experience.

Now let's get back to the reasons for the failure of my teaching method. The second reason that it failed is because students really hate tests. This came as a great surprise. I will spare you another long digression on how I could have gone through six or seven years of college and not known how much other people hate tests. Suffice it to say that this was something of a shock to me.

Apparently many people find tests to be stressful and unpleasant activities. Naturally, these people found the method of taking two or three tests per week to be beyond the bounds of acceptable academic torture. They complained. They revolted. Worst of all, they cried. OK, no one actually cried, but I thought they were babies anyway. Not fair of me, really. Just because I personally did not find tests to be unpleasant, is not reason to be unsympathetic to those who do.

I was convinced that all of the complaining had more to do with the fact that my technique had the side-effect of rendering their usual cheating methods ineffective than any real antipathy towards test taking. I'm still convinced that I was half-right on that. Still, the rebellion was so wide-spread that I eventually had to relent and go back to normal teaching methods.

It's a shame, though. I think if I could have carried out my plan then those kids might actually remember some of what I tried to teach them. As it is, I doubt it.