Study Tips Based on Sound Psychology

Academic Guidance

Study Tips Based on Sound Psychology

In my last blog post, “Tips for Performing to Your Peak Potential,” I mentioned a few psychological studies regarding study skills. Among these were studies out of Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis, which found that repeated test-taking is more effective than repeated studying and can increase long-term knowledge retention by 50 percent. These studies were of great importance, especially to students faced with the soul-crushing task of taking a standardized test. 

Other studies out of Harvard Medical School indicate the importance of spaced repetition (i.e. repeatedly practicing in intervals over many days, weeks, or months), which has been common wisdom to educators for decades. Why does repeated testing and spaced repetition work better for studying purposes?

Well, there are basically two ways to memorize something, and they should really be used together. 

Of course, rehearsal (repeated trials) and repetition are important, as the studies mentioned in the previous paragraph clearly indicate. However, it is also very important to make the lesson you are learning emotional. 

To do this, it helps to have a great teacher who is also an entertaining and engaging storyteller. Yale University recently published psychological studies researching pedagogy (i.e. the science and art of teaching) and found that the most effective teachers also had a high Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ), that is the capacity to be aware of and properly express emotions and use that ability to create healthy interpersonal relationships. However, it is rare to have a high EQ and a high IQ, which makes finding effective teachers who can teach advanced subject matter that much more difficult. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said, “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

The brain is predisposed to remembering stories, and so those teachers who can contextualize the lesson they are teaching in the lives of their students in a relatable way will be more effective. For a teacher to tell a story that will whet his students’ intellectual appetites and tantalize their attention, the teacher has to know his students fairly well, in addition to knowing how to tell a good story. But what can you do if your teacher is not predisposed to storytelling? Come up with your own stories. Not sure it might work? Let's test it out.

For instance, let’s say that I was trying to teach you the word “febrile.” Do you know what it means? If not, why don’t you first try to learn it the rote way, by looking it up in the dictionary, writing it down, and memorizing it by repetition. This might help you commit the word “febrile” to your long-term memory eventually. However, a more effective way of learning the word would be for me to teach you the word’s meaning in the context of a meaningful sentence or story. Let me try to tell you one:

My senior spring, I was still without a job. I had worked internships in New York City in post-production and publishing, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to pursue those fields post-graduation. These industries were on the periphery of my dream job, which would be in entertainment; however, I was not able to afford to work an unpaid internship in LA (internships in some creative industries are traditionally unpaid). So, I “settled” for New York City. Come senior spring, I was still applying to jobs, and prospects were not great because companies were hiring very conservatively as the economy was still suffering from economic scars inflicted by the recession. I didn’t have any contacts in film or television, and I wasn’t sure how to go about making them.

That spring, HBO released a new show called “Game of Thrones.” The Creator, Executive Producer, and Writer is a Dartmouth alumnus named David Benioff. Of course, other Dartmouth alums such as Shonda Rhimes and Mindy Kaling have created, produced, and written their own shows (Shonda is known for creating ABC hits such as the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” and the political thriller “Scandal,” and Mindy for her hit comedy “The Mindy Project” on Fox), but a lowly undergraduate like me does not have access to their contact information.

The weekend before I graduated, I was in the library reading for “Contemporary Africa,” and I had to look up the word “febrile.” I felt like such a fool! I was graduating in only one week, yet there I was, still having to look up words in the dictionary! Later that day, as the Baker Berry bell towers chimed our alma mater, I sat in the library writing my final papers. I turned down my headphone’s music to listen to the bells—I was already becoming nostalgic for the place and people I had not yet left. Then, all of a sudden, I get a tap on my shoulder. It’s my roommate, he ran all the way from our fraternity house to tell me that David Benioff was at Phi Delt. Serendipitously, he was in the same fraternity as me. It seemed so surreal—I thought I might be dreaming. I ran to Webster Avenue, and as my feet pounded the pavement I looked up to see him walking towards me with his father. In that moment, I embodied the word “febrile,” which is probably the best way to learn a word. It means “nervous, excited energy.” I was so febrile that I could hardly communicate a coherent sentence. I was also out of breath. However, Benioff did give me his up-to-date gmail address, and has sent me some sage advice.

Instead of simply sharing the definition of “febrile,” I tried to teach the word’s meaning by using it meaningfully in an emotionally charged story, in which my hopes and prayers seem like they are about to be answered. I hope that febrile’s definition has been indelibly ingrained in your memory because of my story. 

However, I often tell my students that to learn something and truly take ownership over it, you have to hear it, see it, say it, and do it. You cannot just hear febrile’s definition to consider it included in your lexicon. You have to be able to use it, to say it, in a meaningful sentence to take full possession of the word. I theorize that this may be due to the necessity of activating both Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas in your left hemisphere, which largely processes verbal information. Wernicke’s area is in charge of speech comprehension, and Broca’s area is in charge of speech production. It is my hypothesis that you have to use both areas to help indelibly ingrain new words into your lexicon. Didn't get all of that? That's okay. Just remember that learning is a process of constant practice and repetition. Any material you want to commit to memory should be attempted with both. 

Try it out for yourself! Learn new vocabulary words by telling your friends a story that exemplifies the word. You will also benefit from the protégé effect, which is a psychological phenomenon that further crystallizes knowledge that is taught.