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Reading, writing and remembering: Research on study habits reveals surprises

This artivle first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2010 - On Mondays, Maryland Heights parent Tami Hanford doesn't have to spell it out for her first, third, fifth and sixth grade children. They already know that the march toward Friday's spelling test begins right after school.

"Snow," Hanford called out on a recent 90-degree Monday.

"S-n-o-w," answered Macy, 6.

By the time the kids (and their mom) are proclaiming "TGIF," Hanford has quizzed Macy and her siblings on numerous occasions, and they've also used their spelling words in a variety of homework assignments. It's a successful routine.

"They usually do pretty good on their tests," Hanford said. "Maybe not 100 percent, but close."

Turning D's into B's, C's into A's

Unlike Parkway and Rockwood, Hanford's Pattonville district has retained the time-honored weekly spelling test. But no matter the district and regardless of the subject matter, frequent quizzing right after studying cements knowledge in a child's brain, according to learning and memory expert Henry Roediger, a psychology professor at Washington University.

For the best retention, students should hopscotch among homework assignments rather than finishing one before going on to another. For example, the child might study a little literature, some science and a bit of history, then return to each subject for another go-around.

"Although it's slower, this produces much more effective learning over the long term, which is the Holy Grail in my field," Roediger said.

Frequent quizzes are the rule in elementary school. But as students leave grade school for middle school, high school and college, testing becomes more infrequent, eventually limited to a mid-term and final exam.

If the tide turned, older students might groan about taking more tests, and teachers might complain about grading them. However, in a recent study of middle schoolers in Columbia, Ill., soon to be published in the "Journal of Educational Psychology," Roediger and his colleagues discovered that grades shot up by as much as 25 percent when teachers tested more often.

"We found we can bring students up from about a 'D-' or 'C+' average to more of the 'B+' or 'A-' range if we quiz them repeatedly on the material," Roediger said.

The Power of 'What If'

Learning, of course, is about much more than just taking in and regurgitating information. It's also crucial to gain a deeper understanding, according to Keith Sawyer, a creativity expert and also a psychology professor at Wash U.

"Students might be able to get an 'A' on the test, but if they're in a situation where they have to build on what they've learned, then they won't be able to do that if they don't have that conceptual understanding," Sawyer said.

Teachers can help students hammer home comprehension with long-term projects.

"It doesn't happen in 60 minutes; it needs to go on for a week or two," Sawyer said. "You need that level of frequent engagement with the material to get that kind of understanding."

Parents can foster deeper learning by asking their children questions, rather than being a know-it-all.

"A lot of parents tend to take on the role of the expert. Pretend like you don't know the answer and ask your child a question," Sawyer said. "Try to generate a broad array of possibilities. If you're reading a story, say, 'Well, it ended this way, but what are some other things that would be involved in ending the story another way?'"

Stand by Your Students

Having a single homework spot used to be a tried-and-true tenet. Now many educators believe that varying study locations is a better way to retain information because it gives the brain more "hooks" on which to hang the learned material.

The need to match an educator's teaching methods to an individual student's learning style is another myth, according to a 2009 study published in "Psychological Science in the Public Interest." Even those who stated a preferred learning style did not perform better under its implementation.

At Parkway West Middle School, educators employ a variety of teaching styles. But the diversity isn't designed to cater to a student's strengths but to help him or her learn to learn in a different manner.

"That way, the kids can develop a style they may have had a weakness in because life doesn't present life to you in one style," Debbie Difani, the school's literacy coach. "We try to approach all the learning styles to raise their level of ability within different styles so they can fit in wherever they go."

Hanford, a mother of four, may not have scientific study results to back up her opinions, but her expertise lies in the successes of her brood.

Get homework out of the way before playtime, sports practices and dinner -- don't wait until they're tired out, Hanford said. And stay close by while children work on their assignments.

"I find that the kids like me sitting with them and taking the time with them one on one," Hanford said. "They go through their homework a lot faster as opposed to me saying, 'Sit over there and do this and let me know if you need something.'"

Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.