How to Succeed in College

Dear students,

The science of learning has identified many study strategies that can increase retention and comprehension, yet most college professors rarely talk about these strategies. Below I cover four topics: efficient study skills, accountability structures, distraction blockers, and additional tips. If you apply these strategies to every college course you take, and your life in general, the good news is that you will get better grades and improve your overall success in college, and the even better news is that it will probably take you less time than your current strategies and will improve your well-being.

Efficient Study Skills

The single worst way to remember something is to read it. That is, the single worst way to study is to read your notes. If you want to remember something, you have to practice remembering it. The first study strategy I am going to suggest to you is retrieval. In cognitive science, the retrieval effect suggests that if you want to remember or retrieve something from your memory, you have to PRACTICE remembering or retrieving it from you memory! If you do not practice retrieving it, then why do you expect to be able to retrieve the information on your exam, or, later in life, as most college professors would like you to do as you apply the concepts from your coursework to the real world. In fact, according to science, the more times you have to remember something, the more likely you are to remember it in the future. Thus, practice retrieval.

Try making flashcards, using resources from your textbook which may include flashcards, or use Quizlet or other applications or websites that allow you to create your own flashcards or games. You can try creating regular flashcards, or try a strategy I once heard an ADHD coach suggest – create a visual depiction along with the word you are trying to remember. If you are a visual learner, you may remember better with the visual cue in conjunction with the word. Have a friend quiz you – perhaps a friend you make in this class, or another friend. Take turns quizzing each other on material from your respective courses.

The second study strategy I am going to suggest to you is prediction. In an experiment, UCLA researchers found that the simple act of predicting what you are going to be taught, even if it is wrong, increases retention of material. Specifically, according to James Lang’s book Small Teaching, when you use prediction: “you are compelled to search around for any possible information you might have that could relate to the subject matter and help you make a plausible prediction. That search activates prior knowledge you have about the subject matter and prepares your brain to slot the answer, when you receive it, into a more richly connected network of facts.” (p. 49). If you want a better grade in your courses, try predicting what you think you will learn in a reading, in a lecture, or in a video or podcast before you consume the material. Specifically, try reading the title of a chapter or video. What do you think it is going to be about? What do you think will be the four main points? Read the chapter or watch the video. Were you right? Even better, go back and correct your answers. This strategy will help you retain the material for the exams, and even later in life.

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A Publishing Primer

One irritating thing about starting anything new, whether it is grad school or a job, is all of the jargon that no one seems to like to explain. So, in this post I  explain what publications are, and the publication process.

What Academics Mean When They Talk About Publications

A publication generally refers to a piece of writing that is published in a journal or in a book. Popular press (i.e. magazine, newspaper) and blog pieces generally do not count as “publications.”

It would be cool if we could get credit for publishing in these journals. photo credit: Moleskines mostly. via photopin (license)

It would be cool if we could get credit for publishing in these journals.
photo credit: Moleskines mostly. via photopin (license)

All Publications Are Not Created Equally

There are several different types of publications, and they are not all equally respected. And, further, the respect that each gets varies across disciplines. If you are in psychology, journal articles are generally most highly respected. If you are in some subdisciplines of sociology, books are most highly respected.

Journal Articles

Journal articles in peer-reviewed journals are held in highest esteem, and the more the journal the article is published in gets cited, the higher the esteem of the journal, in general.

Peer review means that the paper was reviewed by other scholars in the field, most likely professors or advanced graduate students, and the author had to respond to the reviews to get published.

Editor reviewed means that the paper was reviewed by the editor only, and the author only had to respond to editorial comments to get published.

There are also journals where authors can pay to have their papers published, and this are usually regarded as the lowest quality.

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Kill Your Darlings (or Kill Your “Research has found that”s)

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photo credit: Unhindered by Talent via photopin cc

When I took our university’s Course Design Institute [which I highly recommend], I learned to think about my teaching in a new way.  One of the first questions I was asked was “What do your student need to know to move from novice to expert?” As we reflected on this question, we were supposed to think over what our students needed to know that were content-related and skill-related.  I was designing my research methods course at the time, so I reflected on what my students would need to know to successfully conduct research not only from a content standpoint, but also from a skill standpoint. The most important skill that I could think of was writing well. A researcher can be phenomenal, but if she or he cannot clearly explain their research, she or he will not be successful.

Writing is a particularly salient skill for me because when I first started submitting my papers, I regularly received negative feedback on my writing. My pattern of thinking then, which I think is common to many young scientists, was that if I do high-quality, methodologically sophisticated research, reviewers will see the value in my research and will react favorably.  Papers from scholars with this mindset tend to have longer result sections and shorter literature reviews. What I quickly learned in submitting my research was that nothing could replace good writing.  Reviewers do not like to read poorly written work, even if the data and methods are good. So, I would get comments from reviewers that commented on the poor quality of my writing and typos. I was tired of these comments, and the possibility that my papers were being penalized because of them.

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