Research News

Scientific American special issue highlights paper co-authored by UW’s Nathan

January 13, 2015

An paper co-authored by UW-Madison’s Mitchell Nathan that examines the effectiveness –- and ineffectiveness -- of various learning techniques is being highlighted in a special edition of Scientific American Mind magazine.

Your Inner Genius coverThe “Your Inner Genius” special edition, released earlier this month, features a write-up headlined, “What Works, What Doesn’t." The article preview notes: "Some study techniques accelerate learning, whereas others are just a waste of time — but which ones are which? An unprecedented review maps out the best pathways to follow.”

This article is based on a 2013 paper co-authored by Nathan for the journal “Psychological Science in the Public Interest.” The original paper is titled, “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques:  Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.”

The preview of the article that appears in the Scientific American special edition notes: “Education generally focuses on what you study, such as algebra, the elements of the periodic table or how to conjugate verbs. But learning how to study can be just as important, with lifelong benefits. It can teach you to pick up knowledge faster and more efficiently and allow you to retain information for years rather than days.”

It continues: “Cognitive and educational psychologists have developed and evaluated numerous techniques, ranging from rereading to summarizing to self-testing, for more than 100 years. Some common strategies markedly improve student achievement, whereas others are time-consuming and ineffective. Yet this information is not making its way into the classroom. Teachers today are not being told which learning techniques are supported by experimental evidence, and students are not being taught how to use the ones that work well. In fact, the two study aids that students rely on the most are not effective. One of them may even undermine success.”

Mitchell Nathan
Nathan has ties to the highly ranked departments of Educational Psychology, and Curriculum and Instruction within UW-Madison’s School of Education, and to the Department of Psychology. He also is director of the Center on Education and Work, which is housed within the School of Education.

Just weeks after the original paper was published in January 2013 alerting people to the fact that popular study strategies employed for decades are ineffective, major news outlets from across the country -– and even the world -- began to highlight the study conducted by a team of leading psychological scientists, including Nathan. The report initially received play in mainstream media, with Time Magazine blogger Anni Murphy Paul first writing about the findings.  also posted a piece about the paper, as did the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Huffington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others.

John Dunlosky of Kent State University is the lead author of the report, with Nathan one of four other co-authors who all are distinguished psychological scientists. Another co-author is Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who wrote the popular book, “Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.”