Contrary to popular belief, research proves that studying several subjects in one sitting, studying them in different settings, and frequent testing helps students improve memory.
Benedict Carey wrote about the research for The New York Times on Sept. 6, 2010 in "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits."
“…psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong,” Carey writes.
1. Vary Your Study Space
Carey cites a study in which students who studied a list of words in a windowless room and again in a room with a view did far better on a test than students who studied only in the viewless room.
Surprisingly, that study was conducted in 1978, and still we haven’t learned.
“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,” writes Carey.
Dr. Robert A. Bjork, psychologist at the University of California, L.A. and senior author of the research, states, “What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting.”
2. Vary What You Study
The same principal may apply to what you study. Carey suggests that musicians and athletes have known this for years. They practice cross-training.
“Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time,” Carey writes.
3. Test Yourself Often
It also turns out that when a student is required to retrieve information, say for a test, that information is re-stored in the brain in a more accessible way for future use.
Carey reports that researchers don’t know why this is true, just that it is.
“It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff — and that that process is itself self-reinforcing,” he writes.
“The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning,” Carey quotes Dr. Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College, as saying. “When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.”
Practice tests, then, are powerful learning tools.