Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Want Good Grades? Ditch that Highlighter

The following (slightly adapted) essay was written for the Assumption College student newspaper, Le Provocateur, and appeared in the January 31st, 2018 issue.

I work and teach in a beautiful new building on my campus, one that contains many informal study spaces for our students.  As I walk through the building each day, I see some students poring over their work in comfy chairs or empty classrooms and conference rooms, and others gathering together in small groups to discuss projects or prepare for classes. 

Witnessing all of this informal study makes the heart of this teacher glad—except for the fact that I see so many students engaged in two unhelpful learning activities: highlighting and re-reading. It might surprise you to learn that these two beloved study activities, ones in which students almost universally engage, have very little effect on your long-term learning.  Worse still, highlighting course material and then re-reading it later gives you the illusion that you know your stuff, without any of the actual learning.

In 2013, a team of psychologists who study human learning published an overview of ten study techniques in which students commonly engage. They examined the bodies of research behind each of these strategies, and rated them from low utility (or not very useful at all) to high utility (very useful).  Their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, will likely come as unwelcome news to most students.

Both highlighting (or underlining) and rereading were rated as having very low utility.  Summarizing a large body of research on highlighting, the authors conclude: “In most situation that have been examined and with most participants, highlighting does little to boost performance” on quizzes or exams.  The findings on re-reading are almost exactly the same.  In other words, across a wide range of experiments on learning, in different disciplines and with students of different ages, these two strategies simply did not produce effective, long-term learning.

You might object that you have been highlighting and re-reading course materials for your entire school career, and you’ve done just fine.  You probably have this impression for two reasons.  First, highlighting and re-reading can be effective for very short-term learning.  If your only goal is to survive a test you have on Monday morning at 9:00 am, and it’s 11:00 pm on Sunday night, re-reading highlighted passages might help you get through that exam.  But whatever you “learned” during that re-reading cram session will fade from your mind very quickly. Your learning will be shallow and short-lived.

You also might believe that highlighting and-rereading work because you have no ability to make a scientific comparison between highlighting or re-reading and other, more effective learning strategies.  If you could clone yourself and the universe, you could study for your history exam using highlighting, and your clone could study for the exact same exam using a different strategy.  Afterward, you could compare your scores, and see who received the better exam score, you or your clone.  Without the ability to conduct that kind of experiment, you have no easy way to understand how other strategies might prove even more effective than the ones you are already using.

If you are currently earning all A’s without much effort, you should probably keep doing whatever you are doing, and can stop reading right now.  But if you’d like to understand how to study in ways that will increase your long-term learning, three study strategies—all of which have been proven effective by mounds of research—will help you become a much more effective and efficient student.

Practice Testing.  Memory researchers have learned in recent decades that our brains have enormous storage capacity.  The challenge for our memories is not so much cramming stuff in there; it’s being able to retrieve information or ideas from our memories when we need them (i.e., when you’re sitting down in front of a test).  It turns out that the more times you practice retrieving something from your memory, the better you get at it.  Highlighting and re-reading do not require you to use your memory at all; practice testing does.  So if you want your memory to go to work for you in the exam, give it lots of practice when you study. Close your book and test yourself.  You can use flashcards; you can take practice quizzes online; or you can even just practice writing and re-writing the key ideas or information that you want to remember.

Spaced Study.  You probably know this one already, so I won’t belabor it.  But the evidence for it is irrefutable.  You will have a much greater long-term grasp of your learning if you space out your study over multiple sessions instead of cramming it all into one.  In one very simple experiment that demonstrated this, students who studied foreign language vocabulary for ten minutes three days in a row outperformed their peers who studied the same vocabulary words in a single thirty-minute session.  Your parents and all of your previous teachers were right: spacing out your study sessions over time beats cramming—by a lot.

 Making Connections.  When we learn something deeply, we relate it to other aspects of our lives and our existing knowledge. We have thick networks of connections between what we know already—or what we experience outside of school—and what we are learning.  As you are studying, try to make connections between what you are learning and other things you have learned or experienced.  Ask yourself connection-making questions: Have I ever encountered this before?  Have I learned anything similar in another course?  In what real-world contexts would this concept or skill operate?  Why is it significant?  This strategy will work best if you write these ideas down; fill out your notebook or your texts with new connections, rather than with highlighting or underlining

All three of these strategies require more work than highlighting or re-reading.  Learning isn’t always easy.  In fact, some learning researchers suggest that struggle in learning is beneficial.  When we grasp things easily and quickly, we also forget them easily and quickly. (This is one reason why we have learned in recent years not to worry so much about people's learning styles, which at one time were all the rage in education.  We all do have preferred ways of learning, but it's not always helpful for a visual learner to learn with visuals; it might be more effective for that person to struggle with other ways of mastering the material.)

The real problem with highlighting and re-reading arises when they represent your only study strategies.  They are easy and comfortable strategies for many students—which also means that they are largely ineffective.  They can, however, provide good starting points for your study, if you combine them with these other, more effective strategies.

If you really love it, then, you can hang onto your highlighter, and start your studying with it.  Just make sure that eventually you put it down, pick up your pen, and use study strategies that actually work.

Professor Lang is the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, located in TFAC, and the author of the 2016 book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. For more on the research behind these recommendations, check out and The Learning Scientists.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

An Open Letter to President Trump, from an English Professor, on Random Capitalizations in His Tweets

Dear Mr. President:

I would like to begin by commending you for demonstrating to students of all ages that writing remains an important skill for successful people to master.  Previously students might have suspected that if they aspired to careers as business leaders, reality television stars, or politicians—and you’ve been all three, look at you!—they could leave behind all of the lessons they learned in their high school English classes. 

The influence you have wielded over American culture by Tweeting your random musings to the public demonstrates the value of continuing to hone your writing skills throughout your life.  As I say to my students, writing can change the world.  Your Tweets have certainly helped demonstrate my point.

I have noticed, however—and please forgive an English professor’s perhaps annoying attention to detail—that your Tweets contain an excessive amount of random capitalizations.  Put more plainly, you capitalize words that just have no business being capitalized. 

Consider two of your more recent Tweets—chosen at random, but very representative of your capitalization habits:

We don’t generally capitalize random words in sentences, as you have done in these Tweets.  Inappropriately capitalized words include:

Tweet One: Military Strength, Border Security, Shutdown
Tweet Two: Staff, Fake

The good news is that you got some right.  The following words were capitalized correctly:

Tweet One: Nobody, The, Dems
Tweet Two: Thanks, White House, General John Kelly, Long

Forgive me for reminding the President of the United States about a basic writing rule—and I won’t try your patience with too much detail here, because I know you’re a busy man—but generally we reserve capital letters for the beginning of sentences and for proper nouns (which would include your name, your title, your office, your address, and your political party).  You can even capitalize your first name: Donald! These rules would also apply to your wife (and ex-wives), your Russian friends, the addresses of your golf courses, and any porn stars you have dated in the past. 

But capitalization rules are a great equalizer in life (one might almost suspect they were developed by communists).  Much to your annoyance, they would also dictate the capitalization of names like Robert Mueller, individuals who immigrated illegally to the United States, and even the names of shithole countries. Low as these entities may be in your esteem, even they receive the benefit of capital letters at the start of their names.

Your random capitalizations are not an uncommon problem, you’ll be happy to know.  Inexperienced writers frequently capitalize words when they want to emphasize them.  Writing teachers like me try to explain that it’s better to revise the sentence in a way that emphasizes the key word through its location in the sentence, or perhaps through punctuation, than it is to break capitalization rules.

But, you might be objecting to yourself, some great writers used Random Capitals just like me. (See what I did there?)  True. You might be thinking of Emily Dickinson, a favorite American poet, who capitalized many words in her poems.  We generally give poets and other creative writers a little bit more license to break the rules than we do in nonfiction writing like your Tweets.  We do so especially in the case of brilliant and talented writers like Emily Dickinson. 

Even though I hear you are a stable genius, we typically don’t extend that license to official nonfiction communications like a politician’s Twitter account. And after all, remember that you are modeling the writing of English for people around the world.  We need you to Make Capitalization Great Again!

I hope this little lesson wasn't too painful for you.  Next time we'll consider the use of exclamation points in our writing, which should be spare.  But for now, keep on Tweeting!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Travel Lessons

I didn't grow up as an adventurous traveler. As a child my primary travel experiences consisted of long car rides from Ohio to South Carolina for week-long summer vacations, all seven members of my family crammed into the station wagon or the van.  One year we made it all the way to Florida.  But many years we drove just an hour west of Cleveland to stay in small cabins on Lake Erie, returning to the same location year after year. My first plane ride occurred when I was in high school, and my father took me to visit Duke University for a campus tour.

None of those trips gave me any special love for travel; if I enjoyed them, which I did, it was for the usual reason that a child loves travel--the break in routines, the opportunity to see one's parents fall into more relaxed versions of themselves, nights playing board games with my siblings.

In the late 1990s I took my first journey outside of the US, and began my recent decades of travel with a wallop.  I boarded a plane in Chicago that took me first to London, and then to Cairo, where I was met by my older brother, who was at that time teaching at the American University of Cairo. I approached this trip with nothing but anxiety and fear; I had a wife and two small children at home, and was terrified of the many ways in which a trip to the Middle East could part me from them forever.  Still, some part of me must have been so intrigued by my brother's invitation to visit, and give a presentation at his university, that it pushed away the fears just enough to get me on that plane.

I can remember more details of that trip than many journeys I have taken since: I can still see the massive crowds of people trying to pass through customs, and the university driver who hustled me to the front of the line and pushed me through; I can picture the walk my brother and I took through the warren of lanes and alleyways in a Cairo bazaar; I can feel my back aching as we descended, hunched beneath the low ceiling of the tunnel, into the deep chamber of a Giza pyramid.

Every experience on that trip--from the food my brother and his wife prepared for our lunches to the belly dancing show we watched on a Nile river boat cruise--set off little fireworks of wonder and awe in my mind. The world contains places and people like this?  In spite of the intensive reading I had done in graduate school, where I passed Ph.D. exams in contemporary international fiction, I was astonished to see the world come to life in such startling new clarity.

From that moment on, I was hooked on travel.  In the two decades since that trip I have boarded hundreds of planes and trains, visited close to twenty countries, and set foot in dozens of new US states.  Much of this travel has occurred as a result of the books I have written about higher education, which have earned me invitations to speak with faculty in many parts of the world.  But in recent years my wife and I have made travel a high priority in our lives, both ourselves and for our children.  When we get a financial windfall of any kind, or manage to squirrel away money for a while, we inevitably blow it on travel.

We do so in part because I have come to recognize travel as one of the most powerful ways to inspire new learning in 21st-century humans, especially when we leave formal education behind. Travel has the potential to engage every part of us that connects to learning, and can do so in ways that far exceed the kinds of learning we do in classrooms. I want my children, when they have finished their schooling, to feel regularly the itch to get out and re-kindle their sense of wonder, to meet strangers on the road and hear their stories, and to discover that other places exist where they do things differently.

Hydra, Greece. 2017
"The point of travel is knowledge, not information.
Its purpose is to create new thoughts."
Russell Banks, Voyager
Travel, of course, can be done in ways that expand our perceptions, our empathy, our wonder at the created world; it can also be done in ways that are at best oblivious and at worst damaging to ourselves and the places we visit.  Over the past few years I have been thinking a lot about the lessons of travel, both what we can learn from travel, and how we can learn to travel in ways that take advantage of the best it has to offer our hearts and minds.

Those reflections are coalescing into the next book project, which will return me to my roots as a writer of memoir and personal essays.  But they will also tie a thread to my more recent work in education, as I hope in the book to consider especially the connection between travel and learning. That thread will be a loose one, as this book will remain more in the realm of literary nonfiction than the kind of researched books I have written in recent years.

I have been immersed in the literature of travel in recent months as a result of this project, and gathering lots of excellent quotes from writers throughout history.  To help launch the writing of the book, I've created an Instagram account where I will post regular photos from my travels, both past and present, captioned with some of those quotes on travel, like the one you see pictured above.  If you wish to join me for the ride--and you are most welcome--you can find me on Instagram at @jimlang7