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Since I will soon have a bit of free time, I thought I'd use it to enhance my knowledge pool. I chose four subjects that always interested me (but that are not related) and thought I'd dive in a bit more seriously.

However, now I have a question - Assuming I wish to make the most of my time (one month, four hours each day) and learn the most in the small time-frame I have, I can think of two approaches:

One: Study one subject intensely, say four hours a day, for a full week, before completely switching to another subject.

Two: Study all subjects simultaneously, say one hour each per day, for the full month.

My question is: Are there studies which show which of these two paths will lead to greater retention of the material studied in the given time-frame? In other words, which is better if you wish to study diverse subjects: Focus on one at a time or spread out equally?

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  • $\begingroup$ Look into interleaving learning. $\endgroup$ – David Hobs Jan 24 '19 at 5:04
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I think that this is one of those cases where it depends on personal preference and learning style.

The reason I say this is because the ability to shift from one task to another (also known as 'set-shifting') is a type of cognitive flexibility that is linked to one's individual executive functioning ability. In turn, this is usually mandated by one's frontal inhibitory activity.

On the other hand, those who often fall prey to a phenomenon called task perseveration (also known as 'hyperfocus') may have a reduced or impaired ability to switch between tasks. This seems to occur at above-average rates in twice-exceptional children. [1] For those predisposed to task perseveration, switching between several topics a day may be marginally more difficult.

Another thing to consider would be cognitive load, which is the amount of mental effort being used in one's working memory. As cognitive load increases, it becomes difficult to manage and learn new material. It is known that cognitive load increases in the face of difficult material (with 'difficulty' as perceived by the learner). For this reason, one common method of reducing cognitive load in teaching and learning is to divide subjects up into subtopics and teach these subtopics in isolation, and then later integrate them into the subject as a whole. Furthermore, it is known that there are individual differences in cognitive load capacity, particularly among experts and novices. [2] Experts have more knowledge associated with a topic or skill, which reduces the cognitive load necessary to learn more material within that topic. This lends itself to the idea that the more familiar you are with the material, the easier it becomes to learn more of said material. [3]

In short, there is no clear-cut answer; there are simply factors that may go into a contextualized answer. In the case of studying four unrelated subjects, it might be worth asking the following: How well do you know the subjects? Are you studying all four from the ground up? If so, it might be more effective to study one at a time in order to allow the fundamentals to sink in, thus decreasing cognitive load. The other factor to consider would be your overall discipline level. Do you fall prey to task perseveration, or is your ability to shift from one task to another generally uninhibited? These are all factors to consider in determining your own study plan.


Sources used:

[1] Misdiagnosis And Dual Diagnoses Of Gifted Children And Adults p.50-51

[2] Murphy, Gregory L.; Wright, Jack C. (1984). "Changes in conceptual structure with expertise: Differences between real-world experts and novices.". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 10 (1): 144–155.

[3] Voorhies, D. & Scandura, J.M. (1977). "7". Determination of memory load in information processing. Problem Solving, NY: Academic Press. pp. 299–316.

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  • $\begingroup$ I disagree with the answer above. I teach a ton of students, and personally love studying. I used to study multiple things at the same time, and as nice as it is the hyper focus has tremendous advantages. The idea behind hyper focus is that you sit your butt down and finish one thing in a single go! The one hurdle that I've experienced with my students is the mental barrier - they usually think that they can cover a chapter or four in a day. I've shown them that you can complete up to one entire subject in a single go (so, if you're taking a course in school, then within a day you understand, $\endgroup$ – Toronto Jan 24 '19 at 3:41
  • $\begingroup$ Can things like task-switching really apply to changing a topic of study? The experiments are done on short tasks with the other task done right after the previous experiment. $\endgroup$ – Borut Flis Aug 3 '19 at 8:21

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