Walking and Learning: GRE Words

Most of my earlier examples of the benefits of walking while studying involved treadmills and learning a foreign language. A Stanford student named Govind writes:

I found I was able to memorize GRE words very effectively while walking [compared to sitting]. It not only made the process much more enjoyable, but since I walked outside (around Oxford [England]), I also was able to associate words with physical cues. The difference between propitiate and propitious is now inextricably linked to Cowley. (I am now a memory palace convert.)

At Berkeley, I once assigned my intro psych students to do self-experiments. One of them measured how many French words she could study before falling asleep. She tried three body positions: sitting at a desk, lying on her side on her bed, lying on her stomach on her bed. She also tried three audio environments: silence, classical music, heavy metal. Best combination: lying on stomach, heavy metal. Worst combination: sitting at desk, silence. This amused me, but I now see that the real lesson of her experiment is that she didn’t try walking. It shows how little-known the walking-helps-memorize idea is, even though the effect is easy to notice, as Govind’s story shows.

3 Replies to “Walking and Learning: GRE Words”

  1. When I was studying for the GRE I would take a vocabulary book with me on my daily hikes. I ended up scoring in the 98th percentile on the verbal section. I’m not sure if memorizing words while hiking increased the quality of my studying. But it was enjoyable enough that it almost definitely increased the quantity of my studying. I would have never been able to sit at home and memorize words for 1-2 hours a day.

  2. I find that at home I can’t concentrate enough to listen to a podcast (unless I”m cooking or doing something else that doesn’t require the language part of my brain). I’m fine in a car too. It may not be walking so much as having two things going on at the same time.

    Seth: I see what you mean. Here the improved activity is visual (using Anki) rather than auditory (listening to a podcast). When your eyes are busy (with Anki), it isn’t clear what else you can do besides walk. So it isn’t clear how to test your explanation. Psychologists usually assume limited capacity — doing X makes it harder to do Y. Of course walking takes no brain power but it’s not obvious at all why it should make it easier to do something else (Anki) that does require brain power.

  3. Seth: When you write, “Best combination: lying on stomach, heavy metal,” did you mean “best for studying” or “best for triggering sleep”? Which combo was best for triggering sleepiness?

    Seth: Best for studying. In that situation she could study the most words before falling asleep.

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