Basic study skills such as improving focus, avoiding cram sessions, and structuring study time are part of developing successful study habits. But basic study skills can only carry students so far, especially in college.
Many useful tips and tricks can be found in information surrounding the psychology of learning. One set of factors students should consider when developing a study habit or plan is how the internal and external environment are encoded along with new information.
In 1974, Tulving suggested that while students learn something they also store or encode information about their physical surroundings and physical or psychological state. This is called “context-dependent learning” and “state-dependent learning,” according to UCC psychology professor Georgann Willis. The result is that people recall information better in the same environment that the information was also learned. “For some students, this may be a weaker of stronger effect, but a good practice is to make your learning and testing environment as similar as possible to reduce environmental distractions,” Willis says.
Authors Andrew Coveney, Timothy Switzer, Mark Corrigan and Henry Redmond in the BMC Medical Education journal also explain that understanding these factors can help students select optimal environments for studying and testing that best facilitate memory recall.
Dr. Saul McLeod, in a Simply Psychology article, explains that another factor to be aware of is state-dependent forgetting, “when your mood or physiological state during recall is different from the mood you were in when you were learning.” Recall is easier if the learner is in the same emotional state as the learning session. It’s harder if the emotional state is different.
The next important psychology tip for improving learning is understanding which learning habits and styles the learner relies on. Websites like howtostudy.com offer short quizzes to help students unfamiliar with their learning type identify their particular style.
For example, a 2017 study from the University of Waterloo found that studying materials out loud can significantly improve memory and recall. This effect can be even stronger when students verbally teach new concepts to each other, something also explained by the protégé effect.
The protégé effect states that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to someone else. Protégé research has found that student tutors understand the material, recall it more accurately and apply it more effectively than other students.
This effect is particularly pronounced for low-achieving students according to a Journal of Science Education and Technology study. Through teaching another, students were able to develop an understanding of the content at the same level as higher-achieving students.
Concept mapping, establishing relationships between new ideas and established concepts, is another strategy students can borrow from psychology. This research shows that students who take the time to think about how the new information relates to what they already know can dramatically increase recall of recently learned information.
Group study sessions are another informal way to improve learning, especially if the learning out loud, protégé models and concept mapping strategies are used.
For over a century, researchers have also demonstrated a correlation between sleep and learning. In 2014, ScienceDaily published research showing that sleeping after learning something new actually leads to physical changes in the brain. Sleep helped people to learn faster and remember better. “Ten minutes of studying over a few days is much more useful that trying to learn the same information in just one go of 2 hours. The brain can only process so much information at a time, and it takes time and sleep (REM sleep) to help the brain form memories that will be able to be retrieved at a later time. Regular sleep is vital to being able to learn and process information effectively,” Willis says.
Considering favorite sleep patterns may also help. “Most of us have a time of day when we are most attentive and productive; this is the best time for us to take in information, and it would also be the best time to test over that information. You wouldn’t want an 8 a.m. math class if you really don’t get going until 2 p.m. or a night class if you prefer to be asleep early,” Willis says.
A psychology tip that may surprise many students is to simply guess then find the correct answers. Guessing, even if the guess is wrong, then looking up the correct answer is better than trying to recall previously learned information because inaccurate recall can result in learning the wrong answers instead. On the other hand, correcting the mistake will increase a student’s likelihood of remembering the correction later.
Many people still believe multitaskers have the advantage at work and school. However, those students tend to have lower GPA’s. Research now suggests that multitasking can actually lower academic performance because switching between activities causes the brain to learn more slowly, become less efficient and make more errors. The research suggests that students should start by focusing attention on the individual task at hand and continue working for a predetermined amount of time.
Study skills aren’t the only obstacle in retaining newly introduced information. What should students do if they don’t understand what is being taught?
A Journal of Reading Behavior report suggests that re-reading materials a couple of times increases focus and understanding. Writing out key concepts is also helpful as well as asking questions in order to get clarification before the next lesson so that comprehension can build.
The organization “Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy” also suggests asking questions to look for evidence, clarification, connection between ideas, cause and effect, and summation or synthesis. They also suggest asking hypothetical or “what if” questions to build understanding.
While parroting can be helpful to check that something has been heard correctly, parroting alone isn’t advised as a study technique. According to Cumhuriyet University Faculty of Science, simply regurgitating the information or steps needed to get the answer is not the same as understanding or interpreting. When parroting requires only repeating the superficial form of the material, students will fail to integrate the new information. This can cause problems when questions on the exam are not exactly like the ones in the textbook or homework. The main point to consider is that parroting is not the same as understanding or interpreting if parroting requires only repeating the superficial form of the material.
Students should also keep in mind that failing to understand class material can reduce confidence. Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, found that out of 600 students in her research survey, 80% said they base their self-worth on academic performance. But, she also found that “students who based their self-esteem on internal sources –such as being a virtuous person or adhering to moral standards—were found to receive higher grades.” Since teachers are constantly learning how to improve the effectiveness of their teaching methods, and since not all classes may be conducive to the way an individual student learns, relying on grades for self-esteem may be problematic.
A student’s learning style and a teacher’s method of instruction may not always match. Also, most teachers are constantly learning how to improve the effectiveness of their teaching methods. The more students can share their struggles and insights, the better teachers can adapt to new and changing learning styles.
By learning how to learn, students can reduce the temptation to cheat or plagiarize, something UCC’s student Code of Conduct highly discourages.
For more assistance in learning, see the list of UCC resources.
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