Improving your Study Habits

Contents of this page:

Learning from an Evolutionary Perspective

Children evolved to learn quickly and easily

      In the same length of time you earn a college degree a baby becomes a functioning member of society. A child born the day you enter college will be ready for kindergarten when you graduate. During those four years that child has developed from a helpless infant to a human being. She/he has learned a natural language, developed social skills, communicates verbally and nonverbally, is developing moral standards, and can generally take care of basic daily needs.
      By the time you earn a graduate degree, that child will be 7 or 8 years old and capable independent living--remember the novels of Charles Dickens and the usefulness of children in pastoral societies.
      That phenomenal amount of learning and the relative ease and speed of learning does not continue during the entire lifespan.

Adults didn't have to continue to learn much!

      Human adults evolved to function in a particular environment. In that environment, what each person learned as a child would serve them well over the thirty of so years of life. A person wouldn't experience change in the society or culture over one lifetime. Learning would always be important--the discovery of new foraging areas, better use of weapons, changing social status, etc.--but the habits of childhood would serve very well.

"As a child, I thought as a child."

      Learning is a child's work. Your teachers were right in telling you that learning is fun. However, as you get older, learning becomes rewarding and satisfying and harder work and many times, no fun. What happened automatically when you were young, requires active involvement from you now. You did not evolve to learn chemistry and psychology and math. Evolutionary processes did create the sophisticated learning mechanisms of your brainmind.

Science has discovered how you learn

      Psychological science has discovered some of the basic ways in which humans learn--what you have to do to make learning occur and to make it occur faster and more permanently. The material woven through these pages are suggestions and explanations of how you can take advantage of scientific discoveries as fundamental as the discovery of perspective by renaissance artists, Pasteur's development of the germ theory of disease, or Mendeleev's formulation of the periodic table of elements.

Knowing How to Learn: Metamemory Skills

      When a five year old child is shown a set of pictures (firetruck, robin, tree, etc.) and asked to remember what they are, they don't do very well on the memory task. A nine year old given the same task will do much better at remembering.

Knowledge about how memory works is "metamemory" skills.
      When you study you want to create memories of what you've read. The more you know about how to create those memories the more efficient a student you will be. You might ask yourself to what extent are your belief's about memory are naive. What do you believe about memory that is misleading or even counterfactual.

Beware the "Illusion of Knowing"

      When you read something, you'll probably have the feeling you understood what you read. That conscious feeling of understanding is the "Illusion of Knowing". Simply because you "feel" like you understood what you read does not mean you actually did understand what you read. Students will report understanding when parts of the material they have read are contradictory--no one could understand it; its simply not understandable. The students were not lying. The students were reporting the feeling, "I understand this." Any time you read material but cannot put it into your own words, you are a victim of the insidious "Illusion of Knowing."

Studying means comprehending

      When you "Study" you should be interacting with the meaning of the material. It is very difficult to read with comprehension for more than a few minutes! When you are reading, the moment you begin to daydream or wonder about the laundry or whatever, you've stopped studying; you've stopped learning; you've stopped interacting with the meaning of the material. You are wasting your time.
      Underlining and hiliting can prevent you from comprehending what you are reading. When you finish a paragraph and decide what parts to hilite, you are asking yourself, "What should I hilite?" You are not asking yourself, "What did I just read? In my own words what I read was ..."

How Long Can Read with Comprehension?

      Determine how long you can concentrate on reading the text. Write down the time and start reading. As soon as you begin to daydream, check the time. At a freshman you'll probably discover you can maintain concentration for less than 10 minutes. By the end of your first year at college you should be able to increase how long you can concentrate to perhaps 15 minutes.

What's an Appropriate Amount of Studying

      For college work, for each hour in class you should be spending no less than 2 hours outside of class in effective study. If you want better grades you'll have to spend more time studying. If you know that "book learning" is difficult for you, you also know you will have to spend more time at your studies.

Scheduling Study Time

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Where Effective Study Takes Place

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How to study

Siebert, A. (1995). "Student Success: How to Succeed in College and Still Have Time for Your Friends" (7th Ed). New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

© 2002 by BurrtonWoodruff. All rights reserved. Modified Thursday, March 22, 2007