Michael S. Ofsowitz
Associate Professor, Psychology



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Study skills based on sound psychological research

As with any skill, the more you practice the better you will get. Studying psychology will require you to work and practice understanding and knowing the vocabulary, concepts, theories, and facts of psychology. You will also have to make all this new knowledge available in your memory.

Memory is a complex ability, and we are often under the impression that it works much better than it actually does. Or you might be under the impression that yours works poorly and there's little you can do to change that. In reality, it is a faulty instrument that is strongly influenced by practice. (Although the tests in most of your courses are not going to simply assess rote memorization of statements in the book, your ability to remember vocabulary, concepts, theories, and facts is of utmost importance to understanding college-level material.) So what do we know about memory for new information, and how can you put this knowledge to use?

1. Distribute your studying and do not try to cram for extended periods of time. Your brain needs rest to process the new memories created when you study. Burdening your brain for more than about 50 minutes at a time becomes self-defeating: you overload your brain with stimulation without giving it time to absorb the material. Take 10-minute breaks after about 50 minutes of solid attention and do something relaxing and easy. Spread out the studying over days and allow yourself to review material you studied the day or week before.

2. Quiz yourself. When you quiz yourself you will be practicing the act of retrieving memories from their dormant state of storage in your mind. Don't cheat by looking at the book or your notes while practicing, because then you won't be training your brain; but check to see if you are remembering the right things. Do this often: take it in short steps; read or study a small section of material and then quiz yourself on that small section. Use flash cards. Add headings to your notes in the left margin so you can cover up the descriptions and quickly quiz yourself with your notes. The more successes you experience while doing this, the better your brain will get at it.

3. Your memory works by making connections. You remember things because something on your mind at the moment is somehow connected to another thing, and the one thought triggers the other. For material that you are struggling to remember, it means you should create as many connections as possible; we call this a process of elaboration, and of course it is easier said than done. What you want to do while studying, to elaborate, is to take a moment as you learn something new and think about it in connection with something else that you already know. The more you do this, the better. One way to start elaborating is to ask yourself "why" something is the way it is. For example, if you want to remember what we just said about elaboration, try to think why elaboration might work. As you think about it, you are creating new connections in memory, which is an act of elaboration. A similar, though less beneficial technique for remembering scholarly information is the use of mnemonics (pronounced 'nemmonics'), or memory "tricks" to make distinctive associations that are easy to recall. Mnemonic devices are often unique associations that stand out, like rhymes with list items in them or names made from each first letter of a list; mnemonics are good for memorizing lists or specific sequences of things.

4. The best thing to connect new information to is some memory of your own life history. This is part of the process of elaboration, and of forming a stronger (we say "deeper") memory for the thing you're trying to remember for later. This "self-reference effect" (tying it to your biographical memories) is a fantastic method of learning new material because you tend to remember your life memories easily. For example, if the textbook describes how rewards are used to establish new behaviors, and you can think of a time when you rewarded someone else and that person started doing the behavior more often, you have tied this psychological knowledge to your own life history and will remember it more easily.

5. Write and rewrite your notes. Because raw memory is so fallible, take notes in class, even when you think you don't need to. And then rewrite your notes into full sentences and in your own voice (don't just copy wording): you are elaborating when you do this, and you're also creating multiple memories for the same material (the memory of hearing the material is added to by the memory of writing and thinking about it). Also take notes from the book and then incorporate those into your classroom notes. Remember, skills don't improve without practice, and all of this extra work is your practice.

6. Avoid distractions. Your phone, TV, music, other people talking, etc., are all things that draw your attention away from your studying. Some people like to think they study best with some background sensory experience (like music), but studies clearly show this does not work (unless the background noise is drowning out some other distraction).

7. Don't undermine yourself. "I can't learn this," or "I'm no good at this," or even "But I'm a visual learner" are all self-defeating thoughts that will stop you before you try. Any one of these can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you think to yourself, "I can't learn this," then you will stop trying so hard, and because you stop trying you'll get a bad grade that proves that you couldn't learn. Instead, stick with it: hard work and persistence are the keys to improving any of your abilities.

8. Don't waste your study time using ineffective study methods. Highlighting what you're reading, and rereading, although popular, are relatively ineffective. They are easy, passive activities, and they don't make your brain work much. (Memorizing the wording of the vocabulary in the margins is probably not time well spent either, unless you really don't know what a concept refers to.) If in doubt, speak to your professor.