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.