NEAL CONAN, Host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
All of us learn to study, and we're taught a few essential principles: Set up a regular, quiet spot, for example, and focus on one subject at a time. But it turns out that studies on how the brain best absorbs and retains information prove that the tried and true is tried and dead wrong.
And it turns out they've known that for quite some time now. So what worked for you? Did cramming help and how? Tell us your study story, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, it's now six months since the BP oil spill started Terry Tempest Williams joins us with stories from the oil-stained Gulf Coast.
But first, studying. And we begin with Benedict Carey, whose piece in the New York Times prompted this discussion. It's titled "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits," and he joins us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for coming in.
BENEDICT CAREY: Well, thanks for having me.
CONAN: And one thing we've all heard a lot about, especially in the last few years, is criticism of tests and quizzes. Teaching to the test is a phrase usually spoken with contempt.
CAREY: Right. Tests have a very bad rap as a measurement tool, as something that you give people, you know, at the end of the time when they're studying or when they're supposed to have mastered a topic.
But one of the things that psychologists, experimental psychologists find when they run experiments is that testing, tests - we think of them, quizzes maybe - are also a good way to learn; that is, that they slow down forgetting of material you've studied.
So if you study something once, and then you test yourself on it the second time through, you do better than if you study it two times over, for example.
So there's a whole bunch of findings along those lines in people kind of of all ages, elementary kids all the way through college students and older.
CONAN: And another study that may surprise people concluded, and quite some time ago, you point out, that the idea of setting a regular place where you go and study, a quiet nook where all your stuff is around you and you're used to studying in that space, that may not be the best approach.
CAREY: No, you know, that one's wrong. They've known that for years now. And it's one of the more consistent findings in this area, that if you move around and study the same material in several places, the idea is you may be forming different associations for that or multiple associations for the same material, the same words and so on, and so that, you know, it's better anchored in your brain, and you can pull it out easier.
And studies have shown that if you do that, and you can compare people who study the same material twice in the same place versus once in two different places, again, those who have the variety do better. So that does contradict, you know, what we all sort of are told.
CONAN: So simply changing the wallpaper makes a difference?
CAREY: Well, I don't know. You know, they haven't gotten down to that level. But certainly changing rooms, changing, you know, lighting, indoor- outdoor, that kind of stuff.
CONAN: So the other big change that we found is, well, you know, we should sit down and do all your French first. Do all that into one sitting, and then go on to the algebra.
CAREY: Well, so this finding's a little bit different than what you're suggesting there. This is called mixing problems and - or mixing types of information, types of things you're studying.
So in your example it would mean doing different kinds of French in one sitting. So I mean, do your verbs, you do a little speaking, a little bit of reading. You mix that French lesson up. And that's a better way, people do better on tests later on in all of those areas if they've studied mixed material - that is, in contrast to just doing verbs, for example, for an hour, which a lot of us do.
I mean we - you know, build up our own theories about what's the best study method, and one of them's that, just deep concentration. You know, just focus on these verbs and do this until I fall asleep. And what they're saying is at least for similar material you should mix it up.
Now, algebra, of course, is a totally different subject. So I think in that realm they would say the same thing - you know, do your equations, do your differential equations, do your, you know, do your factoring, whatever. Mix up the different features or elements in that one area.
CONAN: And there is also, speaking of staying up all night, the famous institute - all of us, I think, have done this at one time or another, staying up all night to cram for an exam.
CAREY: Right. Well, that's an honored experience. I think we all have it, and we, you know, we use different ways to get there. And there's no doubt that you can cram your way through an exam.
Again, if you're going to college, for that matter these days if you go to high school, you've done this. You know it's possible. The problem is that, you know, again, and everyone knows this who's been through it, is you forget that stuff so fast.
And you know, college professors will tell you, I mean it's not that you have trouble getting it back. It's gone.
CONAN: It's gone. You're never getting it back.
CAREY: Yeah, you're not getting it back, yeah. So again, there's some findings that suggest that while cramming will get you through, you know, tomorrow's test, that spacing your studying - over time, for example, putting in an hour tonight, an hour a few days from now, an hour on the weekend - the same total amount of time that you might spend, you know, cramming, in fact it allows you to retain more of what you studied.
CONAN: Well, here's a tweet from Jin(ph) in Denver who disagrees, or JinDenver(ph) perhaps: Cramming can be helpful. It adds pressure, which heightens awareness. The best method is to discuss topics and teach to other people.
Well, I'm not sure that the material you've reported on goes to those questions.
CAREY: It does, that's true. The testing experiments suggest that - and for that matter the spacing - suggests that revisiting material on your own - that is, without studying it but going to get it - again, it's what you do if you're spacing, you're sort of revisiting stuff you've looked at before, that that works. That works to sort of anchor the information better.
So I think that, you know, talking about stuff after a movie, after a book, you know, studying in groups, that's the same thing, because people are noticing different things about different scenes they saw. You know, it's prompting you to remember those things. And in effect, it's having the same effect of(ph) the testing or the spacing.
And what else did she say? Oh, teaching. Absolutely, teaching is the same thing, or writing about it, I would say, because that is another way that you are essentially forcing your brain to reorganize and to grasp material that you've already studied passively, if that's the word.
So you're much more active in the second time through. So I think those are both really good examples of what probably is taking place when you're spacing studying or when you test yourself.
CONAN: And some of us, and I won't name names here, but it's the person speaking into the microphone now - we're not organized enough to space our studying. Our studying was done at the last possible moment in almost every aspect of our lives, from kindergarten til last night.
So these lessons are lost on a lot of people. But in any case, we want to hear your study stories, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's start with Jason, Jason calling us from Athens, Ohio.
JASON: Hi, Neal. I have a couple of keys to my studying success that I found throughout my years. One thing that I have to do is take the material that I'm reading and rewrite it in my own words. That's definitely helped me a lot.
And I also like to break the studying down into smaller pieces over a longer period of time. I can only study for about a half hour to 45 minutes before, you know, I just get - I can't do it anymore. So I always - have to take a break and do something completely different, you know, go outside, throw a football around, something like that before I pick the studying back up.
So definitely rewording it and then breaking it down into pieces and taking lots of breaks.
CONAN: Well, that seems to be going along with what Ben Carey's been talking about, breaking it up into different segments when you have to recall it, and throwing a ball around or something like that is a pretty good way to break it up.
And then writing it in your own words is another way of hauling those facts out of your memory and exercising that particular part of your brain. So Jason, I suspect - did that work for you pretty well?
JASON: It seems to be so far. So I'm glad that what I've been doing seems to gel with what your expert recommends. So it's good to hear.
CONAN: Okay, Jason, thanks very much for the phone call. It was interesting, though, he talked about - one other thing I wanted to discuss with you, Ben Carey, was this whole idea of right brain/left brain learning, auditory learning versus tactile learning versus visual learning. This is a theory of learning that a lot of people - or styles of learning - that a lot of people take as gospel.
CAREY: It's a bunch of theories. And they intuitively make sense. I mean, we all know that for ourselves, you know, we really like to see things or hear them.
You know, if you're learning a foreign language, I don't know about you, Neal, but I've got to see the word written down. I mean, you know, so that suggests a visual sensibility, something I need to sort of lock in and learn something.
So there's good reasons to have those theories, and they've been, you know, have been popular over the years, especially in education circles. But the implications really are that, you know, if you're an auditory learner, then there should be an auditory curriculum for you that would be better for you, or if you're a left-brain learner, then presumably - I mean, this is the idea - they could match, you know, your learning style with the teaching style with a left-brain design - I don't know how you'd do that, but a left-brain designed program, for example, or teacher.
So that's the idea. Now, last year, the end of last year, a bunch of psychologists, you know, education psychologists, reviewed all the evidence for this. There's a ton of stuff out there, very little that tries to rigorously test that, you know, that matching I just talked about, where you match up the teaching curriculum to the learning style.
So ideally you want studies where, you know, you're an auditory learner, and I'm visual, and it shows that you do better with this auditory program than you do with mine, which is visual and vice versa for me.
So there's only a few studies that have been done, and a couple of them are negative, and it's just not convincing.
CONAN: So inconclusive at best.
CONAN: We're talking about studying. Our guest is Ben Carey, a New York Times reporter who wrote "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits." And we want to know what study habits worked for you. Tell us your study story, 800-989- 8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
When we come back, we're also going to be hearing the story of someone who went back to school a little bit later in life and what it's like to resume studying in a group of 22-year-olds when you're a little older than that.
Stay with us. Rebecca Roberts will join us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Students study, of course, or should. So do many adults? We learn new languages, go back to school or research topics for national radio talk shows. Science tells us what works and what doesn't when it comes to studying. Unfortunately, most people ignore the research.
Today, we're talking about the secrets of good study habits? What worked for you? Did cramming help, staying in one spot, what? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
CONAN: Ben Carey wrote "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits" for the New York Times. We've posted a link to that at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And a familiar voice joins us now. Rebecca Roberts is a long-time journalists and occasionally sits in this chair when I'm not here. She recently went back to school, where she's studying not journalism but forensic anthropology. Rebecca, so strange to be in the same, this studio with you at the same time.
REBECCA ROBERTS: I know. Almost by definition, we're never actually sharing the room, and I've never seen this side of the studio.
CONAN: It's a big banner (unintelligible). It's very nice. But what is it like to go back into the classroom after a few years away?
ROBERTS: Many years away. It's a big adjustment, I have to say. I mean, first of all, I think there's just some going-to-school muscles that get rusty, the sense of going through your reading and remembering it in order to discuss it in class and just the discipline to take care of something on your own time.
And there's a lot of rhetoric to being in a seminar that I've just forgotten. There was a time when I mastered it, but that was in the '80s. And, you know, it's sort of gone.
And I also don't necessarily care as much about mastering it now. So it's...
CONAN: When you talk about mastering, the rhetoric, what are you talking about?
ROBERTS: Well, for instance, do you remember back in college when you'd sort of try to impress the professor by parroting a certain language that came up, either in the professor's language or in the reading, and you'd sort of try to show that you knew the language that the subject matter was being taught in?
CONAN: That you were fluent in whatever it was that you were talking about?
ROBERTS: Right, and you didn't necessarily make any sense at all or have anything all that intelligent to say, but it sounded great. And that takes a little touch.
CONAN: I've never done that ever.
ROBERTS: Ever, certainly not, no. It takes a little time to sort of master the lingo. And not only have I not done it in a long time, but I also have much less desire to do it now. I just talk the way I talk.
CONAN: And you also have, your fellow students are a little bit younger than you and do not have three small children of their own.
ROBERTS: Right. I mean, I am delighted to discover that sitting in a quiet space every night and studying in this idyllic form is not effective.
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ROBERTS: Because a quiet, you know, uncluttered space is complete fantasyland in my life. You know, I work, I go to school, I have three little boys. And so I study. I bring my books with me everywhere I go. I study for an hour here, for 40 minutes there, in a cafe, on a park bench.
I've done it in a parked car. I'm not proud of that, but when I realize I'm actually a little early heading home and that the babysitter is still there for another half hour, I have pulled over to a parking space to get some reading done.
CONAN: And Ben Carey, this sounds like a formula for success.
CAREY: Yeah, I think she's got it mastered there.
Roberts: Oh, thank God.
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CAREY: Wake up in the middle of the night, do a half hour here, a half hour there, yeah. I mean, this is what - I mean, changing locations apparently really, you know, anchors the information better. That's pretty much what they find.
CONAN: And I have to ask you, Rebecca, how is different studying for something as focused as forensic anthropology as opposed to doing, you know, 18 different topics in a week for this program?
CAREY: Well, I don't want to give away all your secrets, Neal. I don't think we want to reveal exactly what it's like to prepare to host a talk show. But I think it's the difference between asking the questions and answering them, right?
I mean, I think that when you host a show like yours, and you need to know a lot about a lot of topics for an hour at a time versus knowing a whole lot about a small topic for years at a time, it's a difference of both depth and breadth.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers back in on the conversation. Let's go to - this is Aaron(ph), Aaron with us from Nashville.
CONAN: And what's your study success story?
AARON: I've actually always had a problem with studying, but I found that my saving grace is paying attention during lectures and classes.
CONAN: I would echo that. I had a lot - I had big problems with homework, but if I paid attention in class, I could get through.
AARON: Yeah, I've always had, as I say, the capacity to be an A+ student but never managed more than a C or a B because I just never did the work at home. But I always managed to suck in that information during the lecture, and it seemed to turn out okay.
CONAN: Aaron, did you also, as I did, have problems in those courses where there was only one right answer to the problem, like math?
AARON: No, I've actually always like mathematics because there is only one right answer, and if you don't get it, you know you're doing something wrong, and there's a definite way to get the right answer.
CONAN: Oh, well, no, I had the opposite approach. If I could fudge it, the causes of the Civil War were several, you know, I was in good shape.
AARON: I kind of did that, where you kind of scribbled some word endings onto foreign adjectives, and you could tell what it was. But it's harder to get away with that when you move into higher education because there's more demands, and I've had to learn self-discipline a little bit longer along the lines that I probably should be doing.
CONAN: Aaron, thanks very much for the call. Are you still in school?
AARON: I am, actually.
CONAN: And what are you studying?
AARON: I'm studying some general ed courses at Nashville State.
CONAN: Good luck to you.
AARON: All right, thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Anna(ph), Anna with us from Sacramento.
CONAN: Hi, go ahead.
ANNA: So I found that I am not able to study in my room at all. I have to actually get outside of my room in like a school building or something to be able to study.
CONAN: And does that work well for you?
ANNA: It does, just the change of environment. I found my room is too comfortable. The things around me are too familiar. So I tend to fall asleep, as opposed to in, like, the library or our student union, where there's other people around to kind of keep my focused, or my mind can wander and then come back.
CONAN: I'm sure we could arrange a bed of nails for you.
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CONAN: Again, Ben Carey, this idea, the room is too comfortable, well, that's not the idea, but as long as you're going around to different places and doing the same kind of thing over and over again in different places, that's going to reinforce, that is, in fact, the way your brain works best.
CAREY: Yeah, I mean, I think it's a pretty great message. It means that, you know, you don't have to sort of sit in this sort of somber mausoleum of study and force yourself to absorb this information.
I mean, we all know how this works anyway. I mean, your brain, you can remember, you know, baseball scores, trivia, lyrics and everything. The second you sit down to do a study, the stuff you've been stuffing in there doesn't seem to show up.
You know, so it's kind of great to learn that, you know, that you can basically incorporate this into your life, move around, you know, pick up the kids, take breaks and study.
Now, it needs to be said that, you know, you've got to be motivated. This is - all these suggestions are fine, but, you know, if you want to go and hit the bar, and you can't stay there and do it, then none of it works.
So you need a little bit of discipline, a little bit motivation, but otherwise I think it - you know, the overall message is that studying can be sort of incorporated into a more varied life much more easily than we thought.
CONAN: Anna, thanks very much.
ANNA: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is John(ph), John with us from Grand Rapids.
CONAN: Go ahead, John.
JOHN: The single thing that made a difference for me was interest in the subject matter.
CONAN: Ah, and what particular subjects were you interested in?
JOHN: Well, right now, I'm studying philosophy.
CONAN: Going for the big bucks there, John.
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JOHN: Yeah, I'll be working at Meijer's when I graduate, I'm sure.
CONAN: But philosophy is what interests you, and you can get through Kant and Nietzsche and that sort of thing with no trouble at all?
JOHN: Yes. Now, when I was taking business classes, I was an average student because I wasn't really interested with what was going on, and then moving to something that really excites me and that I'm passionate about, and I have no problem studying.
CONAN: Good. Rebecca, let me ask you: You clearly at one point took Econ 101 and those kinds of things.
CONAN: Now that you're motivated to get your degree in forensic anthropology, is it easier?
ROBERTS: It makes all the difference. I couldn't agree with the caller more. I think that it - first of all, it just focuses your attention. I chose to do this program. I chose to be here. I didn't have to do it. And so you are already motivated to succeed. You've selected something you're already fascinated by.
And also, I think when you do have a very busy life, you want to get every second out of that school time that you can instead of the sort of messing around in college and all the things that you do when you're all - and that's very much a part of college. I'm not taking away from that experience at all. I think you need to learn how to be a grownup.
But once you are a grownup, and you're going back to study something you chose to do, it's much more efficient.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, John, good luck.
CAREY: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Kambunji(ph) in Grand Rapids: I once crammed for a full semester's work in two nights, and I completely forgot everything, even the easy stuff.
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CONAN: I had brain lock. Cramming did not work for me. And so, well, there's a validation of those brain studies. And this from Michael(ph) in Gainesville: Food. I love to study with a snack. Any comments from your guest?
CAREY: But, anything that works. I mean, we, you know, we all develop our quirks, right? I mean, you get to college, and, you know, the person's got to put on Al Jarreau, and they need the herbal tea and the purple, you know, sweat pants. And so if snacking works, then by all means, you know, by all means, use it.
I would say in addition to - loving the topic, of course, makes a big difference. But I think in almost all of these, you know, study areas. You know, there's a ton of, sort of, grim detail that needs to be learned along the way, even if you love it.
CONAN: Not in forensic anthropology clearly.
ROBERTS: Nothing. No. No.
CAREY: Well, no, except for that. Certainly, yeah. And then, you know, you sort of have to put - push yourself through that. And, you know, that requires, you know, memorizing stuff and so on where, you know, some of these things, I think, are good to keep in mind.
CONAN: James(ph) is on the line from Buffalo.
JAMES: Hi. Thank you. Well, I'd just like to, first of all, say I was 41 years old when I finally got my terminal degree. But while I was a student, I learned, of course, spaced studying is best rather than cramming. And, of course, if you're compulsive enough to space your studying then you can't not cram. But as a college professor nowadays, I like to tell my students that, for example, if you know where you're going to take a test, the best place to study is in that room.
JAMES: On the topic of associations and such.
CONAN: Any evidence for that, Ben Carey?
CAREY: Well, that's called context-dependent learning or state-dependent learning sometimes. It does make sense. I think there is something to it for sure. Now, remember, you know, the location findings, the stuff with, you know, changing rooms and so on, the idea there is just to, you know, multiply the associations you have with the information. So that, again, this is just the theory, the hypothesis of what may be happening is that the more, you know, the more links you have with the same information, the easier it is or the longer it'll stay in your brain.
So absolutely. I mean, if you can sit in the test room and study, you know, go for it. You know, the thinking there is that, you know, familiar surroundings will bring out the stuff that you study. It'll make it more accessible. One thing that they think is happening is just the sort of unconscious brain, which is picking all sorts of cues, you know, below your awareness, can trigger some of these things to, you know, to surface.
CAREY: But it's no reason to study only in that place. You could do there and some place else.
CONAN: James, I have to ask you. Most of us think of the terminal degree as your RIP. What's a terminal degree?
JAMES: Oh, well, in my field, it's a PhD.
CONAN: Oh, it's a PhD. Okay. All right.
JAMES: Rather than if (unintelligible) it might just be a master's degree.
CONAN: Oh, I - that's an intermediate degree would be.
JAMES: Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: Okay. All right, James...
JAMES: Let me just say this before I leave.
JAMES: Your guest is very right. Well, of course, there's a difference between studying to remember forever and studying to remember for the exam. But if - also, if you don't know where you're going to take the exam, studying in all different places is best in order to make those multiple associations. So he's very right there.
CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call.
JAMES: Sure. Bye-bye.
CONAN: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And, Ben Carey, I have to ask you the question. Some of the studies cite back to - before Rebecca Roberts was born, to the 1970s.
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CONAN: This is...
ROBERTS: I was born in the '70s.
CONAN: Well, it's a long time ago. Why do these theories of good study habits that are in outmoded persist?
CAREY: Well, again, I mean, I think they're - some of them are - make intuitive sense. I think this area of psychology, kind of psychology, the one - you know, these are the people who are doing these studies, they don't communicate much with the education system, or at least that's the way it's been for decades. And, you know, there's also sort of legitimate skepticism about results coming out of the so-called lab, which is, you know, rooms.
CAREY: And not being sort of tested out in classrooms out in real life and so on. Of course, these things are mostly about individual study habits, so I think they're valid. You know, it's just one of those areas that hasn't been widely covered. These - like any area of science, it's incremental, so you get sort of these findings sort of dribbling over time. So, for example, you know, the changing up rooms, that's been around forever. Spacing has been around a while. But there's still studying that, you know, they're trying to figure out what kinds of material is sort of best suited for this. There's all sort of learning.
ROBERTS: And meanwhile, Neal, you know, so much teaching and learning is digital now. And the method of distribution of the information has changed. And, you know, a lot of my classmates take notes on a laptop. I can't study off of laptop notes. And all the things people have been saying about associating with what you've learned, I also associate with how it looks in my handwriting, and whether it was a ballpoint pen and whether it's on the bottom right of the page. There's a lot of reading that comes to us onscreen. And I find it much harder to digest that. And I don't know whether that's because I'm a dinosaur or because it's harder to memorize things that are all in Times New Roman as opposed to varied. But it is - the method of delivering the information has changed quite a lot.
CONAN: If I'm going to remember anything, I have to print it out. Once I see it on a paper, no problem.
CONAN: But if it's on a screen...
ROBERTS: Even better if I've written it myself and had that muscle memory go through my hand.
CONAN: Here's an email from Ward(ph) in Changchun, China: I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. I returned to school when I was 50 after having left school in 1962. I found I could study best out in the open with lots of traffic. I now have a master's degree in education, and I'm teaching in China.
F: During my stint in the Air Force immediately after college in the late '60s, I ended up in a Chinese language program in Monterey. They're teaching philosophy, using a method developed at Yale, was learning through testing. My class of 72 students would take at least four exams a day, each would be graded by a full-time crew of Chinese language experts and then posted within one hour of the test. And the scores would be ranked one to 72. At each posting, you always knew where you stood and whether you'd have to go to study hall that night after a day of class. Added to the sign that showed a ship headed to Vietnam with the notation: you fail, you sail.
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CONAN: It was a very effective teaching method.
So there's a motivation that perhaps, Ben Carey, it's a little hard to impose on laboratory subjects.
CAREY: Right. I think the ethical IRB groups would not, you know, would not approve.
CONAN: Rebecca, I wanted to ask you, finally, when you went back to school, did you restudy studying? Did you make a conscious effort to say, this is how I'm going to do it.
ROBERTS: Well, I - first of all, I had to carve out a part for it my life. But, yes, I think that I'm a different person. I'm in a different environment. I want to get different things out of school. And I find that I'm much better at knowing what I need to know. I'm much more efficient at finding the essential information from the reading or from the lecture now. But I did, absolutely, have to relearn how to go to school. It's been a long time.
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CONAN: Rebecca Roberts, a familiar voice on this program. Thanks very much for your time today.
ROBERTS: Thank you so much for having me.
CONAN: And Ben Carey, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote the piece "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits." There's a link to that study at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. With us from NPR's bureau in New York. And Ben, thanks very much.
CAREY: Hey, thanks.
CONAN: Up next, bearing witness to the damage along the Gulf Coast six months after the start of the spill. Terry Tempest Williams will join us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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