GUEST POST: Final Exams Have You in a Slump? Improve your Study Skills with these Tips!
By Briana V. Poole
Briana is a graduating senior at Rhode Island College. Working as an undergraduate research assistant, she found an interest in both Developmental and Cognitive Psychology. Within the next year, she will be applying to graduate programs to continue her education in Psychology.
Attention all college students who are trying to finish your semester strong. Do you have a Red Bull in your hand right now? Are you sitting in the library until 2 AM and studying for that one final exam that everyone is dreading?
If you are this person, I am sure you have come to the point of your semester where you are calculating the lowest percentage you need on that final to pass the class with the grade you desire. I am sure you are thinking: “How is a blog post going to help me improve my study skills?” This post is aimed to help you understand the strategies you should incorporate into your study sessions to improve your overall study habits. Researchers of Cognitive Psychology have gathered data on how individuals typically study information, and these data suggest that students do not study in the most effective ways. Considering the following information may improve both your study skills and overall test grade.
1. Space out your studying
Think about how you study. Are you the type of person who studies by cramming all the information in during one long study session, or are you the type of person who spaces out their studying? Research has shown that when it comes to studying material, spaced out studying is better than massed studying (cramming) (1); this is called the spacing effect. Why does this spacing effect help studying? Let me give you an example. Solve this math problem: (10/2+7). The answer is 12. However, in order to solve this you needed to remember that you must divide before you add (this was probably drilled into your head in middle school as: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally). If I asked you immediately after (massed) to solve this problem again, you would say 12. How about if I asked you an hour from now (spaced)? You would probably have to recalculate the answer. You are encoding (initially registering and acquiring new material) information to solve the problem. Your ability to encode information is weakened if you are immediately repeating the answer; this is because you do not need to think about how to solve the problem once you have the answer in mind.
2. Practice retrieval by recalling information
Another strategy that students fail to consider while studying is practicing recall and retrieval (accessing the information that is stored in memory). Rather than doing this, students often repetitively read their textbook and notes. However, we know that re-reading material several times in a row does not actually help our ability to recall that information during an exam (2). So, does retrieving information help us? In one study (3), students were asked to read text and freely recall them. Students either practiced repetitive reading and read the test 4 times, or read the material once and recalled information 3 times. Results suggested that actual learning was higher when student practiced recall compared with the students who practiced repetitive reading. What does this tell us? Students should recall information without their course materials open in front of them. You can practice recall by creating a set of questions about your course material and answering them without the answers in front of you.
3. Generate cues to help you remember
Generating cues can help us remember material that we have a difficult time recalling. For example, say I gave you a list of 25 words (e.g. bird, dog, table, etc.) and told you that you would need to remember these words on an exam for extra credit. You might try to memorize the words in order, or you could generate cues to help you remember (e.g. animal). Both bird and dog are types of animals; therefore, you might generate the cue of animal in your mind to help you remember that bird and dog were on the list of words. We also know that our own cues that we create are more beneficial to us than if we are given cues that other people create (4). If my cue to remember dog is bird because I once saw a bird sitting on a dog, then you would have a difficult time producing the word dog because that is something you may not have experienced.
These are just a few of several strategies that can help you improve your study habits. So, what have we learned? First, you must space out your studying. Create a schedule that includes times to study, and stick to it! If you start to feel tired, take a break! Second, practice recall and retrieval. Put your course material away and create a list of questions so that you are testing your memory without having answers in front of you. Third, generate cues to help you remember key concepts. You should generate meaningful cues that you are likely to remember if you are asked to recall the information on the exam. Using these helpful tips will hopefully help improve your study skills and overall exam grades!
(1) Jacoby, L. L. (1978). On interpreting the effects of repetition: Solving a problem versus remembering a solution. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 17, 649-667.
(2) Callender, A. A., & McDaniel, M. A. (2009). The limited benefits of rereading educational texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34, 30-41.
(3) Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249-255.
(4) Mantyla, T. (1986). Optimizing cue effectiveness: Recall of 500 and 600 incidentally learned words. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 12, 66-71.