Running out to buy school supplies? You might first want to hear the latest on how kids actually learn best. Recent findings in the field of learning science – a blend of cognitive science and educational psychology – are debunking popular assumptions about what works in the classroom, the study hall and even on the way to school.

Just listening doesn’t pay off

New research suggests that the traditional approach – a teacher lecturing rows of attentive students – isn’t the most effective. Techniques that give kids responsibility, such as active learning and learning by teaching, are gaining scientific support.

“We’ve moved from a passive view of learning to one that’s very active,” says Krista Muis, an educational psychology professor at McGill University. For example, a recent meta-analysis found that active learning, which engages students through discussion or activities, improves academic performance in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and adds half a letter to report-card grades. And in a study that is under review for publication, Muis found that learning by teaching helped students in Grades 5 and 6 develop more of the cognitive strategies essential for learning mathematics.

Nothing good comes easy

Catering to a child’s learning style has been popular for decades, but the popular belief that people are auditory, visual or tactile learners simply isn’t supported by research.

In fact, making things too easy may hinder their progress. Research is finding that children are more engaged when they experience some frustration. Struggling to find a solution forces kids to grasp the structure of problems (rather than only working for the correct answer), which fosters a way of problem solving that’s more applicable to the real world.

Put down the highlighter

Our studying practices are out of sync with what actually works. A January, 2013, review of more than 700 studies found that two popular techniques aren’t worth the time: Rereading doesn’t improve comprehension, and highlighting may hurt a student’s ability to make inferences. Self-testing, however, is a helpful tool. “We totally say thumbs-up for flash cards,” says John Dunlosky, lead author of the review and director of the Science of Learning & Education Center at Kent State University in Ohio. The practice of spacing, or studying information several times spread out over a period of days, weeks and even months, is another extremely important technique for learning.

One thing at a time

Multitasking may seem like a skill, but some research says it’s not a good idea for kids: If they are doing their homework on computers or tablets, they may be splitting their attention between studying, exploring the Internet and playing games, which may hinder their learning. Encouraging kids to write on paper – whether it’s cursive or multiplication tables – is valuable because it require focus and nurtures sophisticated thinking, says Linda Pagani, a professor of psychoeducation at the University of Montreal.

She recommends that parents motivate kids to exercise sustained attention well before they get back on the school bus. “It’s like training for a marathon.” For example, a week or two before school starts, encourage kids to commit to reading for an hour a day.

Always sleep on it

Sleep efficiency – or the time spent sleeping compared to the total time spent in bed – has been significantly associated with higher performance in math, English and French as a second language, says Reut Gruber, a psychiatry professor at McGill who presented her research this summer at the Canadian Paediatric Society annual conference.

Lack of sleep not only leads to difficulty paying attention or learning efficiently, it also cuts into a child’s ability to consolidate information. “A portion of this can only happen when we’re offline, when we sleep. So when this is interrupted, our ability to integrate information properly, to benefit from learning, is diminished,” Gruber says.

Is music fine-tuning the mind?

Ever since a 1993 study found that listening to Mozart temporarily improved performance on a spatial reasoning test (often erroneously interpreted as a test of general intelligence), parents have tried to help their children by blasting classical music. But the idea that merely listening to music increases intellect is a “dead horse,” says Glenn Schellenberg, a psychology professor at University of Toronto who studies music and cognition.

Current research shows a connection between intelligence and music lessons. “In general, kids who take music lessons are very good students, and they are better at school than you would predict from their IQ,” says Schellenberg. A recent study found that children and adults with music training had more brain activity related to executive functioning, which correlates with academic skill. Yet it’s still not clear how the relationship works: Does music make kids smarter, or do smart kids turn to music?

Watching isn’t working

Little kids may learn something about life from TV shows – Arthur explores issues such as dyslexia and even cancer – but some research shows that television has an overall negative effect on academics. A study published last year found that more TV time at a very young age led to less engagement in the kindergarten classroom as well as less-developed vocabulary and math skills. “Sure, the frontal lobe is snapping” while watching television, says lead author Pagani. “But it’s nowhere near the kind of activity level you’d see – and oxygenation in the brain that you’d see – if the kid was doing a crossword puzzle or answering a difficult analytic question.”

A recent study found that even background television can be bad for the brain because it distracts children from playing, which has been associated with learning. “Turn the TV off when no one is watching it,” says Deborah Linebarger, lead author of the study and a professor of education at the University of Iowa. “If you’re going to use it, select something high quality, let your child watch it and, when it’s over, turn it off.” The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends no more than two hours of entertainment screen time per day for school-aged children.

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Aug. 17 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Aug. 18 2014, 9:10 AM EDT