Three Big Myths about Good Study Habits

Several decades ago I was involved in teacher training and taught educational psychology at the university level. A few traditional notions about good study habits were floating around, but unfortunately most had no evidence to support them. At best they were commonly held beliefs among most teachers, parents and students.

And today all these years later I find that my grandchildren are subjected to the same notions. The only difference is that now there is a lot more evidence that much of the traditional advice is just plain wrong. Let’s do something about it…

Fallacy number one: have one quiet place set aside where you can do homework and study.

I was brought up believing that. However the research evidence is that you retain much more of what you learn if you study in a variety of locations. Apparently the learning, mostly unconsciously, gets associated with many different environmental cues, and that more deeply embeds the learning in your brain.  Thus increasing study skills.

My advice: make a point of studying in the coffee shop, at the beach, at school, at the kitchen table, with a friend and with music. The point is the more variety in your study environment, the better your retention.

Fallacy number two: have a set study time.

I had to study every night after dinner. The research again is clear: studying at several different times, rather than in one block of time, provides for more effective learning.

My advice: if you need two hours for homework and study, do 20 minutes in the school cafeteria, another half hour right after school, a few minutes before dinner, 45 minutes after dinner, a few minutes before bed and a wrap-up while you are eating breakfast. This won’t work, of course, if you put off the homework until all you have left is a small block of time. So plan it and keep a log. The log will also help increase your study skills.

Fallacy number three: focus on one subject until you’re done and then move on to the next subject.

I recall feeling bad that I couldn’t handle this very well. Fortunately, the evidence now is that learning is deeper and more lasting if you move from subject to subject, mixing them up a bit.

My advice: jump around from subject to subject, not in a fixed order, but spend the same amount of time on each subject that you would have spent had you done them one at a time. You will remember better what you have studied. This strategy is particularly easy for anyone like me with a bit of ADHD. This is one place where ADHD provides an advantage.

These are the three big fallacies we need to challenge. But there are other things you can do to make your learning better. Make a point of getting some of your learning by reading, some by watching videos/demos, some by listening to audios, teachers and experts, and some by doing.

Whether you are a grade four student, a high school senior,or a university graduate student, challenge the outdated notions about study and find the mix that works best for you. After all, it’s your brain where what you studied will stick… or not.

Warning to younger students: you may raise some parental fear until they see your grades improving.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide.

3 thoughts on “Three Big Myths about Good Study Habits

  1. Although some of these suggestions are harmless enough, I can’t see a hard-to-motivate teenager able to follow these suggestions. It’s difficult enough to get them to start homework– I can’t imagine having them gear up in multiple shorter bursts of time. Again, jumping from subject to subject involves getting out the necessary materials on multiple instances in one evening and frankly, most teens pulling papers and books out for one subject, put it away, take another one out– way too much independent organization and motivation for most teens and middleschoolers. And, although you suggest changing locations to study, you don’t argue the fact that the need for quiet is still important. Distractions such as crowds, tv’s, music, etc. are proven problems to comprehension and attentiveness.

    Just my two cents…

  2. Yup. And I’ll raise you two cents: I admit it’s a scary thought!

    I’ve been a parent to six going through high school and I’ve also taught high school. If I learned anything it’s that the kids were capable of a lot more than I gave them credit for at the time.

    I invite your to at least discuss the ideas with the kids.

  3. The first poster got the basics wrong. This is an excellent study method that works. Shaking it up a little is like taking small breaks, refreshes your brain and presses the reset button.

    Whatever works for students is what works. Listening to music, having background conversations (i.e., coffee shop/radio) or sometimes people need complete silence.

    Personally, I am totally ADD and need silence when problem solving (while overcoming my dyslexia); I need calming classical music when doing regular routines that require accuracy and care & I benefit from more upbeat energetic music when I’m in creative mode or get into the ADD hyper-focused mode. Having a TV or radio (with talking/conversation) distracts me as I will gradually lose focus and focus on the conversation going on in the background.

    My daughter, on the other hand, can work with her DVD player running ‘I Love Lucy’ or her own music in the background while studying. She also has different locations for her work, not just sitting at a desk. The choice is up to her.

    Whatever works, works.

    Yes, parents are going to be frightened because the Victorian/Protestant age of strict discipline is being challenged and NONE OF THESE NON=TRADITIONAL STUDY METHODS WILL WORK IF THE STUDENT DOES NOT HAVE THE FOCUS OR SELF-DISCIPLINE IN THE FIRST PLACE (and the traditional methods will just force the child deeper into resentment, don’t be mistaken!).

    If your child has issues, no study methods will work unless those issues are resolved, so don’t be critical of the freedom we have to allow our children in spite of our uptight upbringings. I can honestly say that the traditional study methods did not work for me as a child and only led to more frustration, anger and ultimate depression.

    Personally, I chose to not follow the norms while raising my daughter, have allowed her creative freedom and it’s all paying off. she has ADHD, a touch of OCD and a couple of leaning disorders. The freedom and complete understanding and compassion I give her help her make good (successful) decisions for herself (trial and error) and she has thus far been able to avoid the depression that ‘silently’ plagues many students (i say silently because most parents don’t have a clue when their children are suffering). in Grade 11 she’s an honors student in academics in high school and we have alleviated her stress levels by using many of the methods Dr. Neill has outlined.

    The only way to know what’s best is to allow kids to try different things and if they achieve the best retention of knowledge and it’s understanding and application they are individually capable of then that’s whats best.

    thanks Dr. Neill, I really enjoy your interesting and bold statements.


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