Learning to Learn
Mark F. Griffin
Georgia Perimeter College
Among the many topics of interest to psychology is that of how students
can improve their academic performance. Educational psychologists
have been searching for and refining the answers to this question for many
years. Their research along with the experience of many educators
has resulted in numerous findings and the development of many strategies
based on these findings. One thing is clear, students are usually
able to improve their educational performance by better understanding the
factors that promote learning and by taking an active role in learning
to learn. The findings of memory researchers are directly relevant
to improving academic performance. These findings along with other
research by educational psychologists form the foundation for the guidelines
Weiten & Lloyd (2000) summarize many of the strategies that have
been demonstrated to make a difference in the classroom performance of
college students. Their summary indicates that success in college
is most often a result of several different factors which work together
to enhance academic outcomes. The first of these is developing
sound study habits. They suggest that the first hurdle which
many students must leap is realizing that studying effectively involves
hard work . A student doesn't have to look forward to studying but
a successful student does have to accept that he or she must make an effort
to put in the necessary time and energy. Based on the research that
they have reviewed Weiten & Lloyd make the following suggestions regarding
Good Study Habits:
Improving Your Reading:
Allocate time specifically for studying and plan ahead.
Allow time for study breaks to avoid fatigue.
Write down your study schedule - begin by setting up a general schedule
for the semester which includes all of your time commitments (e.g. work,
study, and class times).
Then at the beginning of each week make a specific schedule of how
you will use your study periods during the week. This will help assure
that you are able to get tasks accomplished on time. Avoid putting off
major tasks like papers and reports - break bigger projects down into smaller
Find a place to study where you can concentrate. Choose a
place that will help you to avoid distractions (i.e. a place away from
TV, telephones, stereos and distracting conversations). It would
be ideal to select one or two specific places for study and try to use
these places for nothing else. That way they will become associated
with studying and will serve as cues to encourage good study behaviors.
Reward your studying. The payoffs for studying often are rather
far removed from the behavior necessary to perform well. For this
reason it is a good idea to set up a system to reward yourself for
doing what it takes to perform well in your classes. Consider tangible
payoffs such as a snack, a TV show, or a phone call to a friend when you
finish studying. Set realistic goals for your studying (such as reading
a specific number of pages or spending a specific amount of time reviewing
for a test) and then reward yourself when you accomplish your goal.
To get the most out of your reading you must read actively.
Reading (even if you do such things as underlining or highlighting) is
not useful unless its done selectively and actively. There are a
number of methods for active reading. One of the most effective is
the SQ3R method developed by Francis Robinson, a psychologist
at Ohio State University (1970 cited in Weiten & Lloyd, 2000 and Myers,
. The techniques developed by Robinson are designed to facilitate
the transfer of information into long-term memory. SQ3R includes
survey, question, read, recite and review.
You can experiment with this method and adapt it to work for you.
You may find that it works best to apply the method paragraph by paragraph
instead of section by section.
Survey. Before you begin reading look over the topic headings
in the chapter . This will help you get an overview of the material
and an understanding of how the segments of the chapter relate to each
other. If the authors provide you with a summary or outline of the chapter
Question: After surveying read through the material one section
at a time. As you read each heading translate it into a question. This
gets you involved in the material and helps you pick out the main ideas
of the chapter. For example on page 46 of Myers (1999) one
of the section headings is "Spinal cord and Brain." You might ask
yourself before you read, "What is the spinal cord and what is the brain
and how do they relate to each other?"
Read: Read each section as if it was an assignment unto itself.
As you read keep in mind the question you have devised and look for the
answer to it. Read and (if necessary) re-read until you can answer your
question. Along the way notice (and write down) any other questions
raised by the section and answer them as well.
Recite: Recite the answer to your question out loud to yourself.
Put the answer in your own words. That way you will assure
that you understand the answer. Rote memorization is not an
effective strategy to improve long-term memory. Don't move to the next
section until you understand the main ideas of the current section.
Write them down for later review. When you do move to the next
section repeat the question, read and recite steps.
Do this with each section until you complete a chapter.
Review: After you complete the chapter test your memory by going
back over the key points. Review your questions and try to answer
them without using notes or the book. Then go back and review the
material related to any questions you have difficulty answering.
Getting More Out of Lectures:
Researchers have produced ample evidence that attendance at class is
related to better academic performance. Even if you find lectures
boring and tedious you can benefit from paying attention to them.
If nothing else, you may learn what is important to the instructor and
how he or she thinks. This can help you in preparing for exams. Taking
accurate notes has been found to be related to better test scores.
Weiten & Lloyd (2000) summarize the results of research on note-taking
strategies and make the following suggestions:
Use Memory Principles:
Use Active Listening Procedures: Focus full attention on the speaker,
try to anticipate what's coming next and seek to understand deeper meanings.
Attend to any non-verbal signals (tone of voice, gestures, etc.) which
may suggest what the speaker considers important or hint at his/her intent
Read Ahead: You will be better prepared if you have read the material
that the lecturer will cover in advance. In this way the lecture
will help you clarify and reinforce material with which you are already
Write Notes in Your Own Words: Try to translate the lecture's thoughts
into your own words. This is a way of actively and deeply processing
the material. You will be organizing the material in a way that works
for you. Pay special attention to those areas that the lecturer indicates
(directly or indirectly) are important.
Ask Questions: This will not only assure that you stay actively
involved but will allow you to clarify confusing or difficult points. Remember,
if you are confused, the chances are good that other students are as well.
Psychologists have been interested in memory since the very early days
of the field of psychology. Weiten and Lloyd (2000) review research
on memory principles The following memory principles based on these
research findings may help you perform better in your classes:
The key point to remember is that learning is a purposeful activity which
requires not only the necessary investment of time and energy but also
the use of effective strategies. You may have to work hard but it
is also important to work smart. The findings of researchers in educational
psychology and memory can help you learn to be an effective learner.
Practice: Repeated review of information usually leads to improved
retention. Rehearsal also helps improve understanding. It can
even help to "overlearn" material. Overlearning means to continue
to rehearse material even after you believe you have mastered it.
Distribute Your Practice: If you are going to spend six hours studying
for an exam should you put those hours in all at once (i.e. should you
cram) or should you spread the them out, for example, by studying
two hours at a time for three days in a row? Research says that spreading
the time out (distributed practice) is more effective than cramming (massed
Minimize Interference: A major cause of forgetting, according to
memory researchers, is interference. Interference occurs when one
set of information competes with another. You can minimize interference
by allocating study for specific courses to specific days and times (with
a break in between). This is especially important if the material from
one course is similar to the material from another. Other types of
interference (besides studying for another course) also occur. Therefore,
it's a good idea to conduct one last good review as close to exam time
as you can.
Organize Information: Research has shown that people are active
learners. One way to improve our understanding and retention of material
is to organize it in a hierarchical fashion. One common approach
to such organization is outlining.
Use Mnemonics: It's always a good idea to try to make information
personally meaningful as a means to improve memory. Since this may
not always be possible, an effective alternative which memory researchers
have demonstrated is the use of mnemonics. Mnemonics are formal strategies
and tricks for helping to store and retain information. They take
a variety of forms. An acrostic may be an effective mnemonic. Many
music students remember the order of musical notes by using such devices
("E very Good Boy Does Fine").
An acronym is a similar device. Acronyms are words formed out of the first
letters of a series of words. HOMES is an acronym for the names of the
five Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior). Another
form of mnemonic is the narrative method. You might consider memorizing
a group of words by creating a story that includes the words in the right
order. This seems to work by making the words more meaningful and
linking them in a specific order. This can be especially helpful
when the terms you need to remember are not meaningfully related to one
another already. Finally, rhymes can serve as a mnemonic. Organizing
words or terms into rhymes (even into songs using familiar tunes) may help
in retention. How many of us remember the number of days in each
month by reciting "Thirty days hath September..."?
Visual Images: One memory researcher cited by Weiten & Lloyd
(2000) suggests that using visual images helps improve memory because by
doing so we are encoding information in two ways so that we have a "back-up
system" available to us. We can use the link method in which we
form a mental image of items to be remembered in a way that links them
together. The more unusual or bizarre the image the better it may
work. The method of loci operates by imagining yourself
taking a walk along a familiar path. Along the path you have associated
images of certain items you wish to remember with particular locations.
Begin by memorizing locations in a familiar area such as your home or neighborhood.
Then visualize each term or item you wish to remember as being in
one of these locations. When you need to remember the items imagine yourself
strolling along the familiar path. The locations you have chosen
should serve as cues to help you retrieve your memory of the items. This
is especially helpful when items or terms need to be remembered in sequence.
The following links will take you to sites where you can learn more
about developing effective study skills:
Study Skills Self-Help Information http://www.ucc.vt.edu/stdysk/stdyhlp.html
Study Skills http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/study/
Positas College-Learning Skills http://www.clpccd.cc.ca.us/lpc/services/learningskills.htm
University of California-Berkeley
Student Learning Center http://slc.berkeley.edu/calrenhp.html
Myers, D.G. (1999). Exploring psychology (4th ed.). New York:
Weiten, W. & Lloyd, M.A. (2000) Psychology applied to modern
(6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.