The Difference Between Studying and Learning: Study Habits versus the Habit of Thinking
Are study skills important for success in school? Is success in school essential for success in life? And where does thinking come into all of this? If you spend too much time thinking about the material but not enough time studying for the test, will this jeopardize your chance of making a good grade? Is the person who made the best grade the person who understands the material the best? Or is it just the one who studied with the test in mind? Are exams a good tool to help students learn the material, or does teaching to the exam jeopardize a student's opportunity to learn? These are questions that teachers, parents and students would do well to ask themselves. Ultimately, what is more important, studying or learning?
What do you like to do?
What do you like to do? Why do you like it? Why are you taking this class, and what do you hope to get out of it? These are questions worth asking yourself, if you are a student, and well worth asking your students, if you are a teacher.
If the answer is: this a required class and I have to pass it, but I really have no interest in the subject, then we are already in trouble. Most of the learning problems in classrooms throughout the world are precisely because of such an answer. It's almost impossible to learn something without developing an interest in the subject. And yet many, many students manage to get fairly decent grades without doing so. What does this tell us?
Putting the Cart Before the Horse
A Star Trek fan may know all the names of the episodes of the original series and be able to place them in the right order. But if you are not a Star Trek fan, do you imagine that memorizing the names of the episodes will make you a fan? Not only will it not, it will probably make you hate the show all the more. And if you think you could fool real fans by spouting off that kind of trivia, then you are sadly mistaken.
Someone who really understands a subject, any subject, is like a fan. To become better at math, you have get to the point where you are truly, intrinsically interested in math. If you want to learn history, you have to breathe, eat and drink history. To become a good speller, you need to develop an interest in words and what they are made of.
But when students are told to study, this is seldom what they are instructed to do. Instead, they are asked to upload information into their brain without processing it first. There it sits, isolated, with no connections to anything else. And with connection strength weak, eventually the fact will fade away.
Trying to get a good grade by memorizing facts is not all that different from trying to get a better page rank by buying links. This kind of studying is cheating, only the person most cheated is the student himself.
Memorizing Versus Understanding
Every educated person is aware of certain facts, just in the course of having acquired an education. The dates of certain battles, the multiplication tables, the names of certain historical figures, the words to certain poems and the music to specific musical pieces. When we discover that someone we know is lacking in a key piece of information on any subject -- math, history, literature or music -- we may conclude that his education is lacking. Conversely, when people are trying to appear better educated than they actually are, they try to dazzle us with the amount of "high class" trivia that they have stored in their heads.
A well educated person may in fact have certain trivial dates and numbers and verses and tunes embedded in his memory, but it is not trivia that makes him educated. The trivia is a by-product of the education.
When educators try to spoon feed trivia in order to create an educated person, they invariably fail.
The Dateline: What Does it Mean?
Imagine a typical American child asked to memorize the following dates for a test in social studies:
- 1803 The Louisiana Purchase
- 1804- 1806 The Lewis and Clark Expedition
- 1812 Missouri Territory defined
- 1820 The Missouri Compromise
- 1821 Missouri achieves statehood
- 1861 Civil War begins
- 1863 Battle of Gettysburg
- 1865 The Confederacy Surrenders
Now say the the child has perfectly memorized these dates and this timeline. If you ask him, when did the Battle of Gettysburg take place, he will answer "1863". If you ask what important event happened in 1803, he will tell you "the Louisiana Purchase." As long as you ask for exactly what has been memorized, you get the right answer, and the child can make an A on a test which is written with this study method in mind.
But if you ask: "What happened first, the Louisiana Purchase or the Missouri Compromise?", you might very well get a blank stare. "How should I know?"
The child knows that the Louisiana purchase took place in 1803. He knows that the Missouri Compromise took place in 1820. But to know which happened first, the child has to understand the timeline and numbers. Or failing that, he has to take an interest in the plot of the story leading up to the civil war.
Cause and Effect
Knowing the date when something happened is a natural by-product from having an organic, holistic understanding of a series of related events and how they unfold. Someone knowledgeable in American history understands that the Lewis and Clark expedition took place right after the Louisiana Purchase, because it was necessary to map out the new territory. Someone interested in the topic would naturally understand that the territory could not be split up into subparts until after it had been mapped, and that a dispute and a compromise about the slave laws in the subparts could not have taken place until after the territory was divided into parts. So the Louisiana Purchase had to have happened before the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition had to have occurred before the Missouri Compromise. All of this can be determined without knowing the exact dates, if you have a feel for the cause and effect inherent in this story.
But if you do have the exact dates, you might ask, how is it possible not to know which happened first? Well, the dates are numbers. Did the teacher bother to explain what the numbers stood for? Was the timeline drawn explicitly, and did the students discuss what time is, how we measure it, what direction it flows in?
You may still be skeptical that a child could fail to know that 1803 happened before 1820. But ask yourself this: How is anyone supposed to know, if we don't specify A.D. or B.C.?
Grade school children in the United States today could not tell you if Caesar conquered Gaul before or after WWII. They have no background and no context by which to judge anything.
What We Take for Granted
We as adults and as teachers take for granted a lot of background knowledge that we already possess. When we are trying to impart this to children or even adults with less background than ourselves, we need to try to understand what key concepts and ideas may still be missing. That's much more important than giving a student a list to memorize.
Knowing any given fact by itself is of very little use, unless you understand its relationship to other facts. Take the multiplication table. It would be hard to dispute that knowing the multiplication table is on the whole very useful, if you're going to be able to solve arithmetic problems. But those children who do well in arithmetic understand numbers and what they stand for, and without that understanding, having memorized the multiplication table is of no help at all.
The average school child in the United States is asked to memorize the multiplication table, and to know the answers to 0x0 all the way through 12x12. They memorize dutifully. But ask them something else, like 4x25, and you may get this answer: "I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"You're not supposed to ask me that."
"I'm not responsible for that. It's not in the multiplication table."
A Holistic Approach to Knowledge
An educated person sees how seemingly unrelated facts are connected. True knowledge is a deep understanding of those connections. That is what education is supposed to foster. Telling students what they are "responsible for" and what they are "not responsible for" creates the opposite effect: graduates who have heads full of disconnected facts, and no idea how to use them.
Exams, in order to be good diagnostic tools, should be so designed as to make it impossible to study for them. Students should be encouraged to think about the subject, and those who have thought the deepest should do best on the exam.
Students who are good at spelling don't get there by memorizing unrelated words. They need only glance at a word once to know what it is and how it is spelled. This is not because they work hard at studying, or because they have a photographic memory. It is because they understand the spelling system, such as it is, and how one word's spelling is related to the spelling of a similar word. Students who are good at reading music don't get there by memorizing mnemonics for the letter names of notes. They understand the relationship of the notes and the music they hear. Students of history remember dates because they understand what those dates stand for and what events must necessarily have preceded others.
Students who are not doing well in a subject may think that their classmates are harder workers, but that is seldom the case. Those who do well have a context against which they judge the truth or falsity of any given fact. They know that if the Louisiana Purchase occurred in 1803, then the Lewis and Clark expedition must have happened later. Students who are good at arithmetic can re-derive the multiplication table at will, so even if they do forget one of its elements momentarily, it is no big deal.
Today, students who are doing well are doing so despite their teachers and the curriculum. They are doing well because instead of memorizing, they think. But there is no reason it has to be this way. Everyone is capable of thinking. Everyone can learn. To help a student do better at any given subject, we need to get him to stop studying and start thinking.
Copyright 2010 Aya Katz
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