Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Studying? Great--But Get a Plan!

New study techniques still require a plan

Recently, discussing "how to study" has been in the news. All of us, particularly those who are teachers or parents, have probably shared our own academic insights on "here's the best way to study" anything from algebra (all those xs to solve for!) to art history (all those painters, paintings, and artistic movements to memorize!). And as a psychologist, I've done more than my fair share of telling my students that while I don't plan to test them on theorists' names, "mentally linking a creator with his or her theoretical work" is the best way to learn retain both. Really? Am I sure about that? Where's the evidence? Maybe my observation is merely intuitive appealing to me but not--horribile dictu--true.

Perhaps. Consider this: That recent article in the New York Times countered various false but sometimes cherished assumptions about studying. For example, when I was a college student back in the early 80s, people believed that studying in the same place (that out of the way carrel in the library) was a sure fire way to retain information. After hours, I often studied in the same classroom where I would eventually be tested (how's that for a "true nerd" confession?). Was this technique valid--no, not so much. Switching study places--desk to lounge to library (just avoid the bed, couch, or comfy chair), for example, apparently improves what we recall much better than the presumed familiarity built up by repeatedly studying in the same place (sigh--I can still see the industrial beige walls and scuffed Formica flooring of those Baker Hall classrooms--oh, well). Flexibility, not stability, is the new pedagogical watchword. By varying contexts, the material we learn becomes enhanced by the setting shifts, which combats forgetting.

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Similarly, switching from one topic to a related topic, too, improves performance. Instead of intense focus on one thing for a long period of time, study some related things, too. Rote learning of one route to solving a math problem (doing many examples of the same problem type) turns out to be less effective than "mixing it up" by learning to solve a few different, if still conceptually related types of problems. Not surprisingly, such mixed challenges lead us to learn how to how to select the proper solution strategy much better than mindless, repetitive application.

Motivation, then, matters. Students who are a bit motivated can employ some of these new found tricks of pedagogy to improve how they study. One thing I've always told my students--and happily, this is still good advice--is to pace their review of course material. Steady but spaced studying is far superior to late in the game cramming. Begin reviewing for a big exam a week or so ahead by doing an hour or so a day (even on the fly) instead of a "mother-of-all-marathons" cram session the night before. And when you think about it, does anyone really enjoy doing "all nighters" like that, anyway? (Another true confession: I did precisely one--ONE!--during my college career and suffered the consequences by not doing as well as I might have on an exam--how's that for bitter self-recrimination--and decades later to boot?)

But I do think one other aspect of motivation does matter: Today's students still need to have some plan in mind for accomplishing their work. Higgeldy-piggeldy sorts of study won't help because there are already to many distractions and pulls on their time. Planning by thinking ahead and keeping some sort of planner or calendar of deadlines, do-dates, and upcoming exams can work wonders (there are apps for these things for iPods and iPads, but any old notebook will do). Just as spaced studying improves retention, having a plan allows you to work steadily on papers, projects, or whatever. When necessary, more focused work can be done on one assignment without letting the others suffer undue neglect (i.e., you are more or less caught up and can spare the time).

And it's not just about getting good grades: There are unheralded social and emotional benefits to being planful, too. When students keep on top of things, they can take (well-earned) breaks or quit early in order to socialize with pals (on many campuses, Wednesday night is the new Thursday night, which is the prelude to Friday and the weekend's debauches). Being in control of or on top of your work feels good, too--you are less anxious and edgy. Students who know what is due when and have a plan for it may well have a certain look of earnestness but they do look rested; their smiles are genuine, not wry or accompanied by sighs or eye-rolls--or abject panic.

As a professor, I see that difference all the time. Because the recent cohort of students is known for studying many fewer hours than past generations, I routinely remind students in my classes about due dates for things, including exams. I often ask "how many of you have already started doing x?", where x might mean reviewing for an exam, writing a book report or other paper, or designing an experiment. Those who raise their hands after the requisite sheepish looks always look more rested and relaxed than the rest (who look on with shock, if not always awe). Is this merely a correlational result, a coincidence, or a biased observation by a jaded instructor (not to mention that my samples are small and uniform)? Maybe. But maybe not, which means the investment of time to develop even a modest plan is likely to be worth it.

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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