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April 11, 2013

Move over IQ, these learning strategies trump smarts for success

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

We’ve got a national obsession with intelligence – especially outstanding examples like prodigies and geniuses. One of my favorite quips on the satirical site “Stuff White People Like” is #16: “White people love 'gifted' children, do you know why? Because an astounding 100% of their kids are gifted! Isn’t that amazing?” 

Are we obsessed with IQ?

There’s something so tantalizing about the concept of a high IQ. IQ testing’s been around since the early 1900s, and scientists have studied it ever since looking for sources (genetics, breastfeeding, etc.) and benefits (academic, economic, etc.) of having a high IQ.

Researchers have found a high IQ is predictive of many laudable outcomes. In his 2011 Scientific American article “Why is average IQ higher in some places?,” Christopher Eppig writes: “Higher IQ predicts a wide range of important factors, including better grades in school, a higher level of education, better health, better job performance, higher wages, and reduced risk of obesity.”

Score one for hard work

But ongoing research into what really helps a student succeed academically has yielded some surprising insight that makes the interplay of intelligence, hard work, and achievement considerably more nuanced. According to a new blog in Scientific American, certain learning strategies are more predictive of academic success than IQ. Score one for effort.

The entire blog “Learning strategies outperform IQ in predicting achievement” is worth reading to better understand the relevant research. (And if you really want to get down and nerdy, you can read the study.) But for parents and teachers trying to teach students solid study habits, here are the learning strategies that research shows can really help kids do well.

Skip the highlighter… these are the best learning strategies

Practice testing – Not to be mistaken for high-stakes standardized testing, taking practice tests and quizzing yourself is a highly effective study tool that improves learning. We’re not talking graded exams; instead, think flash cards, doing practice problems at the end of the chapter, and even asking yourself quick recall questions after reading a passage. More is more here, so practice testing with open-ended questions that require more than a simple fill-in-the-blank answer are even better, but both types of practice test are effective – and the strategy is good for students of all ages.

Distributed practice – Pretty much the opposite of cramming (which is better than no study at all, researchers note for cramming fans), distributive  practice spreads learning over time and it applies both to single and multiple study sessions, though the latter is most effective. This strategy isn’t about how students review the material (rereading notes, asking themselves questions, etc.), it’s about going back over things they’ve learned, and it’s effective for kids of all ages.

Elaborative interrogation – Basically, this approach amounts to asking, “Why?” and coming up with an explanation. It’s especially effective for learning sets of facts. Good for students in upper elementary grades and higher.

Self-explanation – No wonder teachers are always harping on students to show their work – it’s a highly effective learning strategy for kids of all ages, and it’s not just for math and logic games, though it’s great for those. The point is to help students not only think about the new material, but also to think about exactly how it relates to what they already know and to point out what new information they’re learning. One example from the study is to ask, “Explain what the sentence means to you. That is, what new information does the sentence provide for you? And how does it relate to what you already know?” Another example is showing your work in math in a way that explains all the steps involved in problem solving.

Interleaved practice – Sounds complicated, but essentially this is a mix-it-up approach to studying. Instead of doing all your fractions, then division, then area problems, research shows that doing a little of each in the same study period can be an effective way to learn. In the very short term, the blocked approach (all fractions, then all division, then all area) seems better because answers readily come from working memory, but research shows that students’ recall is better over time when they’ve studied a few concepts together because problem solving skills have to be retrieved from long-term memory. Though there’s some indication this strategy can work in other subjects, it’s best for math.

This particular study looked at 10 learning strategies. While the five above are effective, the other five are considered less so. Since some are well known and widely used, they’re worth mentioning here: highlighting, re-reading, summarizing, using keyword mnemonics, and using imagery for text learning. That’s not to say you should tell students to dump a strategy that’s working for them – or that these strategies offer no academic boost at all, but this study shows even the geniuses and prodigies (and almost certainly gifted children) among us can perhaps take a hiatus from the highlighting and give these learning strategies a try.


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