Debunking Popular Learning Myths

Some of the things we believe about learning and teaching are wrong. Here’s why… 

There are so many misconceptions about what the best ways to learn are or how to enhance learning and academic performance. However, most of these beliefs are not well supported by research and simply have become obsolete information that, unfortunately, a lot of people still rely on.  

The progress in fields like education, psychology and neuroscience has brought to our attention a lot of new information that debunks most of these learning myths. However, some of these misconceptions are still being taken as facts.  

In this article we will debunk some of the most common learning myths and explain with scientific facts why they are not true (or at least, not completely).  
#1 – Students should receive the information in their own learning style 

The learning styles hypothesis has had a major influence within the education field. We have all heard about auditory, visual and kinesthetic learning and how it is better for pupils to receive information in their own personal learning style. 

This is probably one of the most common education myths but it turns out that the most recent research findings do not support the existence of these (or similar) categories. 

In an extensive review led by Harold Pashler (University of California) in 2009, the authors concluded that at present, there is no valid scientific evidence to justify the incorporation of learning style assessments into general education practice.  In fact, most studies have had important methodological limitations and the different learning styles categories that have been proposed, have not been properly assessed and tested. 
#2- Cramming, an effective revision strategy

A lot of students cram by starting to study all the material at once three or four days before the exam (in the best-case scenario). Sometimes they do it because they lack of organization skills to schedule their study sessions in advance, but they also do it because they think that the closer the study time to the day of the exam, the easier will be to retrieve this information. This is FALSE. 

Although it is truth that cramming is better than no study at all and it might work sometimes, the most effective way to study and therefore to actually learn, is by distributing practice of the material over time. 

It has been proved that spacing study time leads to better memory of the material than cramming, but how much spacing is necessary? This will depend on how complex the material is and how much material you need to study, but for school students this can range from weeks to months.  

This fact tends to be counterintuitive to some, according to this research this happens because when an unfamiliar fact is studied several times in immediate succession (short periods of times) students can feel like the material is better embedded in memory than it actually is.  
#3 – Highlighting and re reading are effective study strategies

This is probably one of the most common studying myths amongst students, who use these techniques on a regular basis under the idea that these are effective strategies. This is so far away from true. 

Re read the material can be useful to refresh some of the information, but that does not necessarily means you are learning it or that you will remember it in the long term. Same happens with highlighting. 

In a study run by Dunlosky, et al. (2013), authors found that re reading and highlighting are low utility techniques (summarization, keyword mnemonic and imagery use for text learning were also included in this category).  

What study techniques can you use then?  Authors recommend spacing out your study sessions and try retrieval practice to test your memory; this can be done by quizzing yourself, for example.  

Both of these techniques proved to benefit learners of different ages and abilities by boosting their performance across different tasks and educational contexts. However, authors warned that a lot of research still remains to be done in order to find the most effective studying strategies.   
#4- The purpose of studying is memorizing the information

Many students tend to use memorizing techniques to study the material with the intention to reproduce the exact information when taking the exam. This can work under certain circumstances (for example if you need to remember specific dates or names for a history exam) but a deep study approach needs to be encouraged in order to become more proficient with complex material. 

Research shows that memorizing is not always an effective strategy and it can be counterproductive in the long term.  Students that use memorizing as the main study strategy will often forget what they have tried to memorize, won’t be able to differentiate between important and unimportant information and will fail to make inferences.  All these are basic skills to respond correctly to tests that demand the construction of elaborated answers.  


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Additional resources:

Do You Know Your Personal Learning Style?
Finding Your Own Learning Method
Learning from Failure

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