The Digest guide to … studying

10 years of the Research Digest

This month is the tenth anniversary of the launch of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest (as an email newsletter back in 2003). To mark the anniversary, this week I’m going to delve into the archive and publish a series of six “self-help” posts, all based on past Digest items that have practical lessons for real life, starting today with evidence-backed tips on studying:

Adopt a growth mindset. Students who believe that intelligence and academic ability are fixed tend to stumble at the first hurdle. By contrast, those with a “growth mindset”, who see intelligence as malleable, usually react to adversity by working harder and trying out new strategies. These findings come from research by Carol Dweck, a psychologist based at Stanford University. Her research also suggests lecturers and teachers should offer praise in a way that fosters in students a growth mindset – avoid comments on innate ability and emphasise instead what students did well to achieve their success.

Get handouts prior to the lecture. Students given Powerpoint slide handouts before a lecture made fewer notes but performed the same or better in a later test of the lecture material than students who weren’t given the handouts until the lecture was over. That’s according to a study by Elizabeth Marsh and Holli Sink, reported by the Research Digest, which involved dozens of undergrads watching video clips of real-life lectures. The researchers warned their results are only preliminary but they concluded that “in situations where students’ notes are likely to reiterate the content of the slides, there is no harm from releasing students from note-taking.”

Forgive yourself for procrastinating. Everyone procrastinates at some time or another – it’s part of human nature. The secret to recovering from a bout of procrastination, according to a 2010 study covered by the Digest, is to forgive yourself. Michael Wohl and colleagues followed 134 first year undergrads through their first two sessions of mid-term exams. Those who had forgiven themselves for procrastination prior to the initial mid-terms were less likely to procrastinate prior to the second lot of exams and tended to do better as a result.

Test yourself. A powerful finding in laboratory studies of learning is the ‘testing effect’ whereby time spent answering quiz questions (including feedback of correct answers) is more beneficial than the same time spent merely re-studying that same material. In a guest post for the Research Digest, Nate Kornell of UCLA explained that testing “creates powerful memories that are not easily forgotten” and it allows you to diagnose your learning. Kornell also had a warning: “self-testing when information is still fresh in your memory, immediately after studying, doesn’t work. It does not create lasting memories, and it creates overconfidence.”

Pace yourself. The secret to remembering material long-term is to review it periodically, rather than trying to cram. In a 2007 study covered by the Digest, Doug Rohrer and Harold Pashler showed that the optimal time to leave material before reviewing it is 10 to 30 per cent of the period you want to remember it for. So, if you were to be tested eleven days after first studying some material, the ideal time to revisit it would be a day later. If it’s seven months from your initial study of the material to an exam, then reviewing the material after a month is optimal.

It’s okay to study short texts on an e-book. Some people feel that their comprehension is adversely affected when reading on a digital device. A study we reported on earlier this year tested students’ understanding of factual biographies they’d read either in print, on a computer screen or with a Kindle. Their performance was stable at around 75 per cent regardless of the way they’d consumed the text. The study only involved short passages of text so we need more research to establish if the same result would apply with longer texts.

Don’t be lulled into overconfidence by an engaging lecturer. The most skilled teachers are able to present complex material in an entertaining fashion. This is good news in many ways, but be careful that you don’t mistake the ease with which you understood a fun lecture as a sign that you’ve mastered the material. A study published this year found that student participants were overconfident in their knowledge after watching a more polished lecturer.

Time your learning according to the type of material. Research published in 2012 found that “procedural learning” – the kind that you use when learning a skill like dancing or a musical instrument – is best performed in the evening, nearer to bedtime. By contrast, learning factual material was found to be optimal in the afternoon (although the evidence for this was less robust). The researchers weren’t sure why this difference exists but they think it has to do with time until sleeping and the way sleep consolidates different kinds of memories. Other research shows the importance for learning of getting a good night’s sleep.

Believe in yourself. Self-belief affects problem-solving abilities even when the influence of background knowledge is taken into account. Bobby Hoffman and Alexandru Spatariu showed this in 2008 in the context of 81 undergrad students solving mental multiplication problems. The students’ belief in their own ability, called ‘self-efficacy’, and their general ability both made unique contributions to their performance. “In learning situations,‘ the researchers concluded, ‘there is a natural tendency to build basic skills, but that is only part of the formula. Instructors that focus on building the confidence of students, providing strategic instruction, and giving relevant feedback can enhance performance outcomes.”
This is the first in a series of six self-help posts drawing on the Digest archive to mark the tenth anniversary of its launch in Sept 2003. Compiled by editor Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer).

7 thoughts on “The Digest guide to … studying”

  1. “Get handouts prior to the lecture” – Heh. When I was at uni, they specifically made it difficult to do that, sometimes making the notes available only at the end of the talk and only in the lecture room itself. I think the idea was to encourage people to attend. But people just took extra copies for their friends…

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