The Writing Excuses podcast has already had some sessions dedicated to the writing ambient and psychological part of it. But they all were from our old intuitions on learning, creativity and concentration.
It seems that all of that is completely being rewritten in the last years and that what we though as correct might have serious holes in it.
I am proposing here a podcast with the comments and experiences of the Writing Excuses team considering the following points (question and answers are taken from the appendix of the book 'How We Learn' by Benedict Carey. Without the author consent, but since they are used here as a quote and can help in the marketing of the book, i think he wont mind. Who knows he could even be a guest...):
Eleven Essential Questions
Q: Can “freeing the inner slacker” really be called a legitimate learning strategy?
A: If it means guzzling wine in front of the TV, then no. But to the extent that it means appreciating learning as a restless, piecemeal, subconscious, and somewhat sneaky process that occurs all the time—not just when you’re sitting at a desk, face pressed into a book—then it’s the best strategy there is. And it’s the only one available that doesn’t require more time and effort on your part, that doesn’t increase the pressure to achieve. If anything, the techniques outlined in this book take some of the pressure off.
Q: How important is routine when it comes to learning? For example, is it important to have a dedicated study area?
A: Not at all. Most people do better over time by varying their study or practice locations. The more environments in which you rehearse, the sharper and more lasting the memory of that material becomes—and less strongly linked to one “comfort zone.” That is, knowledge becomes increasingly independent of surroundings the more changes you make—taking your laptop onto the porch, out to a café, on the plane. The goal, after all, is to be able to perform well in any conditions. Changing locations is not the only way to take advantage of the so-called context effect on learning, however. Altering the time of day you study also helps, as does changing how you engage the material, by reading or discussing, typing into a computer or writing by hand, reciting in front of a mirror or studying while listening to music: Each counts as a different learning “environment” in which you store the material in a different way.
Q: How does sleep affect learning?
A: We now know that sleep has several stages, each of which consolidates and filters information in a different way. For instance, studies show that “deep sleep,” which is concentrated in the first half of the night, is most valuable for retaining hard facts—names, dates, formulas, concepts. If you’re preparing for a test that’s heavy on retention (foreign vocabulary, names and dates, chemical structures), it’s better to hit the sack at your usual time, get that full dose of deep sleep, and roll out of bed early for a quick review. But the stages of sleep that help consolidate motor skills and creative thinking—whether in math, science, or writing—occur in the morning hours, before waking. If it’s a music recital or athletic competition you’re preparing for, or a test that demands creative thinking, you might consider staying up a little later than usual and sleeping in. As discussed in chapter 10: If you’re going to burn the candle, it helps to know which end to burn it on.
Q: Is there an optimal amount of time to study or practice?
A: More important than how long you study is how you distribute the study time you have. Breaking up study or practice time—dividing it into two or three sessions, instead of one—is far more effective than concentrating it. If you’ve allotted two hours to mastering a German lesson, for example, you’ll remember more if you do an hour today and an hour tomorrow, or—even better—an hour the next day. That split forces you to reengage the material, dig up what you already know, and re-store it—an active mental step that reliably improves memory. Three sessions is better still, as long as you’re giving yourself enough time to dive into the material or the skills each time. Chapter 4 explores why spacing study time is the most powerful and reliable technique scientists know of to deepen and extend memory.
Q: Is cramming a bad idea?
A: Not always. Cramming works fine as a last resort, a way to ramp up fast for an exam if you’re behind and have no choice. It’s a time-tested solution, after all. The downside is that, after the test, you won’t remember a whole lot of what you “learned”—if you remember any at all. The reason is that the brain can sharpen a memory only after some forgetting has occurred. In this way, memory is like a muscle: A little “breakdown” allows it to subsequently build greater strength. Cramming, by definition, prevents this from happening. Spaced rehearsal or study (see previous question) or self-examination (see next question) are far more effective ways to prepare. You’ll remember the material longer and be able to carry it into the next course or semester easily. Studies find that people remember up to twice as much of material that they rehearsed in spaced or tested sessions than during cramming. If you must cram, do so in courses that are not central to your main area of focus.
Q: How much does quizzing oneself, like with flashcards, help?
A: A lot, actually. Self-testing is one of the strongest study techniques there is. Old-fashioned flashcards work fine; so does a friend, work colleague, or classmate putting you through the paces. The best self-quizzes do two things: They force you to choose the right answer from several possibilities; and they give you immediate feedback, right or wrong. As laid out in chapter 5, self-examination improves retention and comprehension far more than an equal amount of review time. It can take many forms as well. Reciting a passage from memory, either in front of a colleague or the mirror, is a form of testing. So is explaining it to yourself while pacing the kitchen, or to a work colleague or friend over lunch. As teachers often say, “You don’t fully understand a topic until you have to teach it.” Exactly right.
Q: How much does it help to review notes from a class or lesson?
A: The answer depends on how the reviewing is done. Verbatim copying adds very little to the depth of your learning, and the same goes for looking over highlighted text or formulas. Both exercises are fairly passive, and can cause what learning scientists call a “fluency illusion”: the impression that, because something is self-evident in the moment, it will remain that way in a day, or a week. Not necessarily so. Just because you’ve marked something or rewritten it, digitally or on paper, doesn’t mean your brain has engaged the material more deeply. Studying highlighted notes and trying to write them out—without looking—works memory harder and is a much more effective approach to review. There’s an added benefit as well: It also shows you immediately what you don’t know and need to circle back and review.
Q: There’s so much concern that social media and smart-phones and all manner of electronic gadgets are interfering with learning—and even changing the way people think. Is this merited? Is distraction always bad?
A: No. Distraction is a hazard if you need continuous focus, like when listening to a lecture. But a short study break—five, ten, twenty minutes to check in on Facebook, respond to a few emails, check sports scores—is the most effective technique learning scientists know of to help you solve a problem when you’re stuck. Distracting yourself from the task at hand allows you to let go of mistaken assumptions, reexamine the clues in a new way, and come back fresh. If you’re motivated to solve the problem—whether it’s a proof, an integral, or a paragraph you just can’t get right—your brain will continue to work on it during the break off-line, subconsciously, without the (fixated, unproductive) guidance you’ve been giving it. The evidence on this is discussed in chapter 6.
Q: Is there any effective strategy for improving performance on longer-term creative projects?
A: Yes. Simply put: Start them as early as possible, and give yourself permission to walk away. Deliberate interruption is not the same as quitting. On the contrary, stopping work on a big, complicated presentation, term paper, or composition activates the project in your mind, and you’ll begin to see and hear all sorts of things in your daily life that are relevant. You’ll also be more tuned into what you think about those random, incoming clues. This is all fodder for your project—it’s interruption working in your favor—though you do need to return to the desk or drafting table before too long. The main elements in this “percolation” process are detailed in chapter 7.
Q: What’s the most common reason for bombing a test after what felt like careful preparation?
A: The illusion that you “knew” something well just because it seemed so self-evident at the time you studied it. This is what learning scientists call “fluency,” the assumption that because something is well known now it will remain that way. Fluency illusions form automatically and subconsciously. Beware study “aids” that can reinforce the illusion: highlighting or rewriting notes, working from a teacher’s outline, restudying after you’ve just studied. These are mostly passive exercises, and they enrich learning not at all. Making your memory work a little harder—by self-quizzing, for example, or spacing out study time—sharpens the imprint of what you know, and exposes fluency’s effects.
Q: Is it best to practice one skill at a time until it becomes automatic, or to work on many things at once?
A: Focusing on one skill at a time—a musical scale, free throws, the quadratic formula—leads quickly to noticeable, tangible improvement. But over time, such focused practice actually limits our development of each skill. Mixing or “interleaving” multiple skills in a practice session, by contrast, sharpens our grasp of all of them. This principle applies broadly to a range of skills, and can be incorporated into daily homework or practice—by doing a geometry proof from early in the term, for example, or playing arpeggios you learned years ago, or intermingling artistic styles in studying for an art history class. This kind of mixing not only acts as a review but also sharpens your discrimination skills, as described in Chapter 8. In a subject like math, this is enormously helpful. Mixed-problem sets—just adding one or two from earlier lessons—not only reminds you what you’ve learned but also trains you to match the problem types with the appropriate strategies.