GUEST POST: How to Study Poorly
By Douglas Kania
Doug is a Psychology student at Rhode Island College. He wrote this blog for an assignment while taking Dr. Sumeracki's Learning course. Doug plans to go to graduate school to enter the clinical mental health field.
Happy April Fool's Day from the Learning Scientists! When we saw Doug's blog, we thought it was very funny and clever, and a perfect post for April 1. So, in lieu of this week's digest, enjoy this guide on how to study poorly!
Need to study for an exam, but you don’t care if you fail? Have to read a boring textbook, but want to remember as little as possible? Aiming to see if there is a grade lower than an F? Well then this is the perfect guide for you! With my almost award-winning guide, I can show you exactly what it takes to be a champion among underachievers! What is behind this amazing promise? Well, let me show you!
Learning can get in the way of any budding underachiever. If you’ve ever gotten a D or, God forbid, a C on any exam, you may be tempted to study again for such an astonishing reward. This is caused by a process called Operant Conditioning. Desirable stimuli, or reinforcements, can increase how likely a behavior will be repeated. Undesirable stimuli, or punishments, can decrease the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. So, that good grade may cause you to study more. So, we have to learn to not learn!
Every time you sit down and crack open a book, you should spray yourself in the face with water. Through this punishment, you may become less likely to look in that dreadful book. Unfortunately, the shock elicited by this punishment will also make you less likely to spray yourself, so it’s even more effective if you have someone else spray you with water. An even more effective way at preventing any learning is to reinforce the behavior you want. In our case, we want to increase the likelihood that you will suppress and forgo any temptation to gain knowledge. Every time you feel the urge to read a book, or look up a definition, or explore Wikipedia, and you successfully resist that urge, reward yourself as soon as possible. It could be a yummy mint, a good cup of coffee, or simply smiling and saying out loud “good job!”
Another useful tool is to not be so motivated. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, motivation is positively correlated with performance (1). Performance will drop if you have too little motivation, but this isn’t a universal rule. There is an interaction between the difficulty of the task at hand and the level of motivation you possess. If the task is difficult, be weary that little or moderate amount of motivation can improve your performance in studying. In this case, try to have as much motivation as possible. In fact, work yourself into a panic and quickly drink three large energy drinks to make that angst skyrocket!
Now you’re on the road to failure, but perhaps you weren’t able to reject the urge to learn. Maybe you couldn’t resist the call of that book. Possibly you wanted to help somebody and accidentally went on a website with scientific information. Perhaps you turned off the History Channel and instead decided to learn about some actual history. We all make mistakes, but there is still hope!
What? Memory? Doesn’t that mean you already learned something? Not necessarily. Memory is a different animal altogether, and yet not separated from learning. The process by which we acquire and retain information is complex, and yet beautifully simple. Information processing theory uses computer terminology in describing how the words you’re reading right now are being processed by your brain. The process by which these words are perceived, interpreted, organized, and categorized is called “encoding.” This prepares the information for storage within the long term memory (LTM) portion of your brain, which is done so for later retrieval. The stimuli enter the short term memory (STM), and are maintained for only around 30 seconds unless it undergoes a process called rehearsal. When you recall something, it enters your STM for as long as you think about it, and afterwards recedes into long term memory (LTM) again. A common misconception is that STM accounts for most things that occurred within the last few hours and everything after that is LTM, or. This isn’t true- STM only accounts for what you’re experiencing and thinking within the moment, and everything outside enters is retrieved from your LTM. So, next time you say you have short term memory, be proud that you didn’t learn a thing from what I said.
We can separate memories into three general types: episodic memory, semantic memory, and procedural memory. The two most important types in learning new material are episodic and semantic memory. Consider these your enemy from this point forward. Learning the context of material may create episodic memory, while understanding the meaning behind it will create semantic memory. Semantic memory is especially dangerous as it involves the deepest level of processing.
To prevent any effective learning, be sure to be as distracted as possible. Have the TV on at all times, preferably watching something that isn’t intellectually stimulating. I suggest reality television, sports, or MTV. If you can’t stand studying in your house, study in the noisiest and most active place possible. A club, the side of a busy road, or a college library during finals week will easily suffice at flooding your senses with stimuli. This will divide your attention, greatly hindering your ability to acquire knowledge as it will disrupt your short term and working memory.
Because only a certain amount of information can exist in your STM at any given time, read as quickly as you possibly can! Don’t stop and think about a word or phrase, just move on and flip through that book until you’re finished. You are likely to be able to recall the beginning and end of the chapter, phenomena called the primacy effect (remembering the beginning) and the recency effect (remembering end or most recent). Be careful not to accidentally re-read that chapter though because, as Ebbinghaus discovered, repetition progressively increases the ability to remember the material. You will have no hope to fail the semester if you keep practicing. Ebbinghaus also discovered that spacing out your practice or studying can make it much more effective in retaining the material. This is aptly named the spacing effect, and brings me to my final word of advice.
I want to talk to you about “cramming.” I’m sure professors and your mother keep telling you that you should space out your studies throughout the semester, and that cramming is very ineffective in the long run. I’m sure you’ve heard it over and over and over, and you are sick of being told that you aren’t studying properly. Good, don’t stop cramming!
Don’t study throughout the semester; wait until it is right before the exam. Not only will this keep you up all night preventing you from getting enough sleep before the exam, not only will this render practicing and rehearsal effects less useful, not only will this undermine your ability to semantically encode the material, but the pressure to learn so much difficult material in so little time will cause your motivation and anxiety to skyrocket, which (as you know) will lead to very poor performance.
If All Else Fails...
If you still somehow manage to study well, if you practice, space, and repeat as your professors tell you, if you’re in danger of passing your exam, if you’ve failed at failing, there is one more desperate measure you can do. Go to class and sit down. Remain calm while your professor passes out the exams. Once you receive yours, take a deep breath, crumple up the exam, and eat it! Then, proudly walk out of the classroom, a champion of underachievers.
(1) Lieberman, D. A. (2016). Human learning & memory. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.