GUEST POST: Making Three Years of Learning Stick or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Prepare for My Comprehensive Exam
By Mike Hart
Mike Hart is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at the University of Louisville. He currently spends much of his time dissertating, but he prefers spending time with his wife and their dog. He enjoys traveling, music, baseball, and running. When he graduates, he plans to work as a mental health provider.
This past May I passed my doctoral program’s comprehensive exam, becoming a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology. This was easily the most daunting academic challenge I’ve faced: A grueling, week long gauntlet of writing in which I produced close to 100 pages of material (this is about average for students taking the exam). Amazingly, given that I felt as if I were in a fever dream by the end of the week, the product wasn’t 100 pages of gibberish.
Fortunately for me (and not by design), I took the exam immediately following a semester in which I was in a class that focused on learning strategies (taught by Kate Snyder, PhD, and her graduate assistant Allison Williams, at the University of Louisville). I capitalized on this opportunity by making my final paper for the class a guide for future students preparing for the program’s comprehensive exam. The guide was essentially a product of my efforts to integrate lessons from the class into my own preparation for the exam, and I needed it because our comprehensive exam is mysterious. Fear of the unknown breeds anxiety, and the idea of a week long, take-home essay exam with questions potentially covering anything you’ve learned over several years is like a Lovecraftian monster. I became so anxious in the months leading up to the exam that I started grinding my teeth while sleeping.
With each week of content in the class, I added new strategies to my studying. Integrating all these learning strategies into my comps preparation wasn’t easy. I frequently had to go against my natural inclination. When I think about how much I had to remind myself to use these strategies in my comps preparation, and how quickly I’d abandon them if I wasn’t vigilant, I’m reminded of the difficulties of sticking with an exercise routine.
Fortunately for those of you who might be staring down a similar exam, I’m sharing my guide, which draws heavily from the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (1), our main text for the class. Everything I’ve included here I used when I prepared for my comprehensive exam, and I made it through successfully, so it’s a proven method (n = 1). With my advice and some empirically-based learning strategies—okay, so, really, with some learning strategies—we’re going to turn the exam awaiting you from a hulking Cthulhu into a harmless kitten. Grab your favorite beverage as we walk through how to prepare for your comprehensive exam.
Structuring Your Comps Preparation
The first step you should take is talking to students who have already passed. Take notes on everything they did that was helpful for them, things they wish they had done differently, and any other tips they have. Afterward, take your notes and create a to-do list. You might find that your list includes content areas you already feel confident about. Even if you perceive yourself to be strong in a content area, it would probably be beneficial to spend some time reviewing it to ensure you aren’t falling victim to what Brown and colleagues call illusions of knowing, which occur when you are so familiar with content you think you understand it (1). The classic example is repeatedly re-reading text and mistakenly believing you understand it because you’ve seen it multiple times. Before marking that content off your to-do list, engage in some retrieval practice with it first (more on this shortly).
Next, reflect on your coursework throughout your program, making note of content areas that you struggled to understand. If it’s content that seems like it could be part of a question on the exam, add mastering that content to your to-do list. Consider this to-do list a living document, as you’ll be adding to it throughout your time preparing for the exam. Now that you have a to-do list, review the tasks on it and prioritize them based on how weak you think you are in each area and how much time you think you need to become stronger in that area. Next, develop a loose schedule of when you will complete each task on the list (I’ve provided an image of what my list looked like at the start of my preparation).
So Much to Learn, So Little Time
To maximize your time, try to develop a weekly routine that sets aside time on certain days to devote to whatever tasks you’re working on. My weekly routine consisted of beginning each week by looking at my to-do list and choosing one to three tasks to focus on. I then chose days during the week that I would work on these tasks. At the end of the week, I’d reflect on what went well, what could have gone better, and what I needed to spend more time on. I would often discover new tasks to add to my to-do list by using metacognition while studying, taking note of questions that arose and areas that I realized I lacked knowledge in. Developing an awareness of these “blind spots” was crucial for me.
Preparing for comps is a marathon. Just as a marathon runner needs to consume calories periodically through the race to keep them going, you can give yourself a boost by celebrating each milestone you meet. Binge-watch your latest Netflix obsession, play a video game, grab a beer with a friend. It’s also a good idea to plan a big reward for yourself after you’ve finished comps as something to look forward to when you’re done with the whole mess.
Speaking of getting a beer with a friend: If possible, find a study buddy to work with. I met with a study partner on most weekends. I’m not typically one for studying with others, but it was helpful for staying on track. It might also increase your intrinsic motivation by giving you a sense of belonging, one of the ABC’s of intrinsic motivation (autonomy, belonging, competence), according to self-determination theory (2). It can be hard to find intrinsic motivation to prepare for comps, but I found that over time, through a sense of camaraderie with my study partner (belonging), developing my own approach to preparing that emphasized my needs (autonomy), and the satisfaction gained as my knowledge gradually expanded (competence), I began to enjoy the process. Really. I swear.
The Learning Strategies
Once you’ve identified your goals, a timeline for completing them, and a game plan for chipping away at them each week, you’re almost ready to begin. To make the most of your time, rely on learning strategies proven to work. I have highlighted below the strategies I used when preparing for comps:
Retrieval practice – Rather than re-reading, which risks creating an illusion of knowing, use retrieval practice. When studying content for comps, quiz yourself by trying to recall key ideas, terms, and how these relate to what you already know. In addition to strengthening your memory of concepts, you can use this to identify the blind spots in your learning.
Spaced practice – Spacing refers to placing time between your study of certain content. Rather than “cramming” for hours on one concept area, it’s more beneficial to step away from it for a while and return to it. Doing so allows some forgetting to occur, which then requires that you work harder to retrieve the information. It’s kind of like working out at the gym. You want the exercise to be hard so that you build muscle.
Interleaving – Interleaving involves mixing up your studying. Rather than focusing on one topic at a time, jump between content from multiple topics. It helps you to differentiate and identify similarities between concepts, thereby improving your knowledge of those concepts.
Elaboration – When you’re learning something new and connect it to something you already know, that’s elaboration. For example, if you’re learning a new theoretical model, thinking about it in the context of something from your life will make it easier to learn. It works because you’re attaching that learning to something that makes it more meaningful.
Generation – The idea with generation is to attempt to answer a question without having yet learned the correct answer. By creatively coming up with an answer, you enhance your learning by having a framework of what you’re missing. This one was hard for me to use because it seemed so counterintuitive. I had to fight the urge to just look up the answer.
Reflection – Reflection fits into self-regulation. It’s a process of thinking about what you learned after completing a goal and reviewing how that learning went. Ask yourself if you could have done it better, or if there are still things you could do to better understand the concept. I did this through keeping a weekly journal.
Calibration – Calibration is assessing whether what you think you know or don’t know is accurate. If you quiz yourself on concepts, after answering, check a reference to see if your answer was correct. You can also use a study partner to calibrate.
Mnemonic devices – If there’s something you’re struggling to memorize, try making a mnemonic. One of my favorite mnemonic devices is what Brown and colleagues (1) call a “memory palace,” which involves associating concepts with imagery from a place. I created several memory palaces for my comprehensive exam while jogging through my neighborhood with my dog. I’d associate buildings and landmarks with concepts I was trying to memorize, and then when I needed to retrieve them I just thought about my run.
These strategies might seem straight-forward, but they’re not always easy to implement. Most of us have established ways of studying that have worked for us well enough to get us this far, so why change something that’s not broken? Well, just because something works, does that mean it’s the most efficient? You’ve got your goals, you’ve got a timeline for completing them, and you’re armed with the tools for learning them efficiently. Go forth, own your exam. (If you’re still feeling anxious about your exam, here’s a picture of a puppy giving a high-five to make you feel better).
(1) Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Harvard University Press.
(2) Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67.