Focus and Concentration

College Students Seek Elusive Key to Success

New Data On Successful Learning

College is challenging. A Harvard Study in 2011 revealed that only 56% of private college students finished a four year degree in six years. Among 18 countries tracked by the OECD, the United States finished last – 46 percent – of students finishing college. That puts us behind former Soviet-bloc states such as Slovakia (63 percent) and Poland (61 percent).

Why are so many students bailing out? The reasons include not being prepared for the rigors of academic work; inability to cope with the competing demands of study, family and jobs; and cost, the Harvard report says.

How to beat the odds?

Researchers are uncovering new data about the way students learn and retain material. Some of the findings contradict previous recommendations and even seem counterintuitive. It is certainly worth experimenting to see what works on an individual basis. Recent studies have underscored variety, rather than stability, showing that a few simple techniques can improve how much a student learns from studying.

  • Instead of sticking to one study location, alternating the room where you study can improves retention. When the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this limits forgetting.
  • Studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing, also improves retention.
  • 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. In one study, those who had studied mixed sets did twice as well as the others, outscoring them 77 percent to 38 percent.
  • Research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, found almost zero support for the notion children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory.
  • Cognitive scientists see testing itself – or practice tests and quizzes – as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. 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. In one experiment, students studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session. They did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.

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