Tuesday, August 27, 2019
When Difference Makes a Difference
Last year I wrote a post about "simulation training" that described the benefits of rehearsal and practice under conditions that are as close as possible to performance conditions. When preparing for a final exam, for example, taking practice tests under exam conditions of strict timing and silence in a room similar to the room in which you will actually be tested can help you score better on the actual exam. The improvement seems to be linked to the reduction of unfamiliar stimuli and the association of familiar conditions with execution.
Given the demonstrable benefits of creating consistency between exam practice and exam execution, I would have presumed that a similar effect might have been observed with respect to the precursors to exam taking -- namely, study and memorization. If it makes sense to practice taking law exams in silence and in one particular environment, wouldn't it also make sense to learn all the rules, exceptions, and examples under the same conditions? In his book How We Learn, Benedict Carey suggests that may not be the case.
Learning facts like rules of law is different from learning how to perform tasks like timed essay writing, largely because of the different roles of background stimuli. When learning tasks, the consistent quality of background stimuli is important, because it helps provide a comfortable environment that we associate with the task. While this is also somewhat true when learning facts, it turns out that the quantity of stimuli is of relatively greater importance. An absence of stimuli makes it more difficult to memorize material. In one experiment, students were asked to memorize a list of forty words. While they studied, the scientists played either jazz or classical music in the background, or, alternatively, no music at all. Students who studied while listening to jazz had the highest rates of recall when tested while jazz played in the background, and those who studied while listening to classical did best when tested while classical was playing. When each of those groups of students were tested while listening to different music, or to no music at all, their rates of recall were cut roughly in half. But the students who studied in silence did not have higher rates of recall when tested in silence. Their recall rates were also about half that of jazz listeners who were tested with jazz, or classical listeners who were tested with classical.
The explanation seems to be that, when we are learning facts, it helps to have some level of background stimulus. The external stimulus seems to provide a framework within which learners can organize and attach meaning to the facts they are learning. Thus, when the external stimulus is present at testing time, it is easier for the test takers to access the facts for recall, because they have access to the framework in which they learned them.
Most professors, however, do not allow students to crank tunes during exam administration. Not even smooth jazz. And duplicating the silence of testing conditions will not be as helpful for memorizing the rules as it is for applying them, since silence does not provide the necessary external stimulus. So how should students learn their rules and examples?
Carey suggests that the best strategy for this kind of rote learning is to work in a variety of different environments. He points to another word-memorization experiment, one in which subjects were asked to study in two separate, ten-minute sessions. Some subjects spent both sessions in an untidy basement room. Others spent both sessions in a windowed room overlooking a green courtyard. And a third group of subjects spent one session in one of those rooms, and the other session in the other room. When all subjects were tested for recall later in a third room (a classroom), those in the last group, who had studied in two different environments, had 40 percent higher rates of recall. While no one knows for sure, the theory is that those who studied in two different rooms had the benefit of two different sets of external stimuli, and thus built two different, overlapping "frameworks" within which they learned the words. Having two different frameworks provided additional memory access points that might be used in the neutral third environment.
So what are the lessons for law students? First, we should help them to recognize that there should be different study strategies for learning and memorizing rules and facts, versus developing one's skills in applying those rules. Second, we can suggest that students add some variety to their study environments when they are performing more of the basic rote memorization (such as at the start of the semester, when they are first learning the relevant rules). Encourage them not to spend all their time in the same spot in the library, but to break up their study into chunks of time spent in different milieus -- spending some time in the library, some time outdoors, perhaps some time in a coffee shop (especially one playing jazz or classical music). Students who associate the learning of the same rules to different external stimuli will be more likely to be able to recall those rules under any set of external stimuli, or even when there seems to be no external stimuli at all.