Category Archives: learning

The Intricacies and Joys of Arabic

I imagine that most people with a passing interest in linguistics read Maciej CegÅ‚owski’s short essay in praise of the Arabic language when it was ‘rediscovered’ by popular social networks a few months ago.

As one who has studied Arabic (albeit MSA and only for nine months or so), the essay brought back fond memories of struggling to comprehend the strange-yet-wonderful intricacies of the Arabic language. Here are just a few the ways that Arabic “twists healthy minds”, according to CegÅ‚owski:

  • The Root/Pattern System: Nearly all Arabic words consist of a three-consonant root slotted into a pattern of vowels and helper consonants.
  • Broken Plurals: Most of the time to make a plural you have to change the structure of the word quite dramatically.
  • The Writing System: The Arabic writing system is exotic looking but easy to learn, which is a rare combination.
  • Dual: Arabic has a grammatical dual — a special form for talking about two of something.
  • The Feminine Plural: Formal Arabic distinguishes between groups composed entirely of women and groups that contain one or more men.
  • Crazy Agreement Rules: e.g. [Maciej’s] absolute favorite is that all non-human plurals are grammatically feminine singular
  • Funky Numbers: Ù© Ù¨ Ù§ Ù¦ Ù¥ Ù¤ Ù£ Ù¢ Ù¡ – The names of the numbers come with truly terrifying agreement rules, like “if the number is greater than three but less than eleven, it must take the opposite gender of the noun that it modifies”.
  • Diglossia: This is where it really helps to love language study.

Infants Quickly Learn to Ignore Unreliable and Silly People

Children learn a lot from imitating the actions of adults, with recent research suggesting that infants as young as 14 months are selective imitators — taking cues from our behaviour in order to decide which of us adults to learn from and which to ignore.

In a study where researchers expressed delight before either presenting an infant with a toy (the reliable condition) or not presenting the infant with a toy (the unreliable condition), they discovered that infants detect “unreliable” people and choose not to learn from then, opting instead for adults that appear confident and knowledgeable — the reliable group.

“Infants seem to perceive reliable adults as capable of rational action, whose novel, unfamiliar behaviour is worth imitating,” the researchers said. “In contrast, the same behaviour performed by a previously unreliable adult is interpreted as irrational or inefficient, thus not worthy of imitating.” […]

The new finding adds to a growing body of research showing children’s selectivity in who they choose to learn from. For example, children prefer to learn from adults as opposed to their peers, and they prefer to learn from people they are familiar with and who appear more certain, confident and knowledgeable.

Hard-to-Read Fonts Improve Learning

Much has been written on the positive aspects of cognitive fluency (in terms of typography, accents, and almost everything else), but a recent study (pdf, doi) suggests that the opposite (cognitive disfluency) could lead to better learning. The theory is that harder-to-process material requires “deeper processing” and that this deeper processing leads to superior memory performance.

Earlier this year the ever-excellent Jonah Lehrer summarised the study, describing how long-term learning and retention improved when classroom material was set in a hard-to-read font (e.g. Monotype Corsiva, Comic Sans Italicized or Haettenschweiler).

This study demonstrated that student retention of material across a wide range of subjects (science and humanities classes) and difficulty levels (regular, Honors and Advanced Placement) can be significantly improved in naturalistic settings by presenting reading material in a format that is slightly harder to read…. The potential for improving educational practices through cognitive interventions is immense. If a simple change of font can significantly increase student performance, one can only imagine the number of beneficial cognitive interventions waiting to be discovered.

One of the study authors, in a comment published in a New York Times article looking at cognitive fluency in learning, emphasises how it’s not the font that matters, but the processing difficulty:

“The reason that the unusual fonts are effective is that it causes us to think more deeply about the material, […] but we are capable of thinking deeply without being subjected to unusual fonts. Think of it this way, you can’t skim material in a hard to read font, so putting text in a hard-to-read font will force you to read more carefully.”

Timed Exposure Can Be As Good As Practice

We know that deliberate practice is an important part of learning (and mastering) new skills–but what role, if any, does mere passive exposure play? Can relevant background stimulation help us to reduce the amount of effort and practice necessary to master a skill?

To answer these questions Jonah Lehrer contacted the authors of a recent paper studying exactly this and found that passive exposure can be as effective as practice, drastically cutting the effort required to learn.

These experiments […] demonstrated that listening to relevant background stimulation could be just as effective as slaving away at the task itself, at least when the subjects had practiced first. In fact, the scientists found that we don’t even have to be paying conscious attention to the stimuli – subjects still benefited from the stimulation even when distracted by an entirely unrelated task. […]

Yes you do have to do the task, just not for the whole time. The main result is that if you practice for 20 minutes, and then you are passively exposed to stimuli for 20 minutes, you learn as if you have been practicing for 40 minutes. You can cut the effort in half, and still yield the same benefit. […]

On a practical level, the present results suggest a means by which perceptual training regimens might be made markedly more efficient and less effortful. The current data indicate that it may be possible to reduce the effort required by participants by at least half, with no deleterious effect, simply by combining periods of task performance with periods of additional stimulus exposure.

Along with the obvious caveats (the study looked only at auditory discrimination tasks), the published article offers some practical clarifications:

Learning was enhanced regardless of whether the periods of additional stimulation were interleaved with or provided exclusively before or after target-task performance, and even though that stimulation occurred during the performance of an irrelevant (auditory or written) task. The additional exposures were only beneficial when they shared the same frequency with, though they did not need to be identical to, those used during target-task performance. Their effectiveness also was diminished when they were presented 15 min after practice on the target task and was eliminated when that separation was increased to 4 h.

Evidence-Based Study Tips

A recent issue of The Psychologist included a “rough guide to studying psychology” by the editor of the excellent Research Digest blog, Christian Jarrett. In his guide, Jarrett provided nine evidence-based study tips:

  • Adopt a growth mindset: [Students] who see intelligence as malleable, react to adversity by working harder and trying out new strategies. […] Research also suggests lecturers and teachers should […] avoid comments on innate ability and emphasise instead what students did well to achieve their success.
  • Sleep well.
  • Forgive yourself for procrastinating.
  • Test yourself: Time spent answering quiz questions (including feedback of correct answers) is more beneficial than the same time spent merely re-studying that same material. […] Testing ‘creates powerful memories that are not easily forgotten’ and it allows you to diagnose your learning. […] Self-testing when information is still fresh in your memory, immediately after studying, doesn’t work. It does not create lasting memories, and it creates overconfidence.
  • Pace your studies: The secret to remembering material long-term is to review it periodically, rather than trying to cram. […] The optimal time to leave material before reviewing it is 10 to 30 per cent of the period you want to remember it for.
  • Vivid examples may not always work best: Students taught about mathematical relations linking three items in a group were only able to transfer the rules to a novel, real-life situation if they were originally taught the rules using abstract symbols. Those taught with [a metaphorical aid] were unable to transfer what they’d learned.
  • Take naps: Naps as short as ten minutes can reduce subsequent fatigue and help boost concentration.
  • Get handouts prior to the lecture: Students given Powerpoint slide handouts before a lecture made fewer notes but performed the same or better in a later test of the lecture material than students who weren’t given the handouts until the lecture was over.
  • Believe in yourself: Students’ belief in their own ability, called ‘self-efficacy’, and their general ability both made unique contributions to their performance. […] Instructors that focus on building the confidence of students, providing strategic instruction, and giving relevant feedback can enhance performance outcomes.