Your Study Skills Suck: Part 2 - Practice until Perfect is Overrated

(This is part 1 of our multi-part series based on the book How We Learn: the Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why it Happens.  We strongly recommend reading the entire book.)

Pretend that you're going to sit down to study something you've never before learned.  In this case, it's 19th- and 20th-century landscape painters.

You can either study the paintings one artist at a time, looking at paintings for 3 seconds each (along with the name of the artist).  Thus, you might see three consecutive works by Georges Braque:

Braque 3.jpg
Braque 1.jpg

This is what we call Block Studying, where you study all items of a given type in one block of time.  In this case,  you notice the nuances of the artist's style by looking at painting after painting before moving on to the next artist.

Or you could do what's called Mixed Studying, looking at the same set of paintings but not sorted by artist - a Braque followed by a Mylrea followed by a YeiMei, like so:

Braque 4.jpg
Yeimei 1.jpg

Now, which method would you choose for studying?  Block Studying or Mixed Studying?

If you're like most people, you chose Block Studying  Block Studying seems natural, doesn't it? Ever since I was a kid, I was given the advice to "practice until it's perfect."  Piano lessons.  Baseball.  Trigonometry.  Biology.  No matter the subject, we drill until we get it right, one skill at a time.  Block Studying is the natural extension of that mantra, to perfect one artist before moving on to the next.

So ingrained is Block studying that you probably won't believe me when I tell you that it's inefficient.  Mixed Studying produces significantly better results in a faster amount of time.

Kornell and Bjork, two psychologists at UCLA, ran an experiment to test who could learn to recognize landscape artists, including some of the ones above. At the end of the experiment, the two groups of students - the Mixed Group and the Block Group - were quizzed on paintings they had never seen before to see who best recognized the signature styles of each artist. The results were clear - 65 percent correct for the Mixed Group compared to 50 percent for the Block Group.

This isn't an isolated finding.  Groups of fourth graders in a Mixed Group outperformed their Block Group peers when learning geometry (77 to 38 percent), and a Mixed Group studying bird species outperformed those studying bird species one block at a time. 

The most interesting part of the finding?  Kornell and Bjork asked their participants - after showing them that the Mixed Group had performed better - which study method they preferred.  Nearly 80 percent said that they preferred Block Studying, even knowing that Mixed Studying yielded better results.  It seems that old habits die hard indeed.  We prefer the comfort and familiarity of Block Studying even though we know that its results are inferior.

Why prefer Block Studying?  In addition to staying in our comfort zone, it's a perception problem.  There are two essential skills to succeeding on a test:

  • Application of a technique
  • Recognition of which technique to use

Block studying helps us hone only the former.  When we know which formula to use, we can use it well from block studying, because we have repeated it in context several times.  And we feel good about being able to apply our knowledge repeatedly - we get a number correct all in a row.  That makes us believe that we are learning well, when we're neglecting to practice the way that we will be tested on the material.  

The other skill, recognition of which formula to use, is just as important.  These two skills are tested together in Mixed Studying, because we have to first figure out which formula to use - or in this case, which artist's style we're trying to decipher.  The corollary of using Mixed Studying, though, is that we're getting a lot of questions wrong at first since we haven't mastered the nuances of a particular artist's style.  This is uncomfortable, obviously, because we are carrying more cognitive load - we first have to practice recognition and only then can we practice application.  It's tedious, and it makes us feel like we're not learning as quickly.

I would wager that this mistake - overly relying on Block Studying - is the central failing of how unsuccessful pre-meds prepare for their MCAT.  Most pre-meds "study" for months but don't take their first practice test until three weeks before their exam.  Think about that.  They fail to practice the essential skill of recognition until their exam is almost upon them!  Then, they're surprised that their "studying" hasn't paid off enough and they have to delay their test. 

One of the reasons I so strongly urge students to take practice tests throughout their MCAT preparation is not because the score will be good - indeed, it will not.  It's because to learn the material most efficiently is to study it just like it will appear on your MCAT: mixed between isolated questions and passages, physics and general chemistry, psychology and sociology.  The first scores will suck, but in the end, you will progress far faster in a shorter amount of time.

But you probably don't believe me anyway.  The lure of Block Studying is strong indeed.