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How to succeed in your degree, with psychology…

Selected advice from Paul Penn, taken from his new book ‘The Psychology of Effective Studying' (Routledge).

12 September 2019

"The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change." – Carl Rogers.

So, you've got into University. Congratulations! To help you get the most out of your degree, I'd like you to run a quick thought experiment. Mentally list your top five approaches to studying, in order of how frequently you use them.

Is the practice of repeatedly rereading content in that list? If so, does it occupy the most frequently used slot? If the answer to one, or both, of those questions is yes then you're in good company. Karpicke and colleagues (2009) found that 83 per cent of the students they surveyed reported using rereading and 54 per cent of them identified it as their number one study method.

In contrast, only 10 per cent of the students reported using self-testing (retrieval practice) as part of their studying repertoire. A mere 1 per cent identified it as their number one study strategy.

Here's the problem: the clear and well-established message from research is that retrieval practice is a far more effective means of studying than rereading (e.g. Karpicke, 2017). You may have got into university, which is a feat not to be taken lightly, but that doesn't mean your study habits are optimal. Using sub-optimal approaches to studying will compromise your success at degree level.

Unsurprisingly, psychological research has much wisdom to offer you about how to study more effectively. However, with a few notable exceptions (e.g. Dunlosky et al., 2013) useful knowledge is strewn across large bodies of literature from different areas within psychology. Rarely does research on topics relevant to studying (e.g. memory) formulate its findings as advice for students.

Of course, if you can't find relevant research or are unsure of how to implement its findings, you're unlikely to benefit from the fruits of that research. I wrote my new book, The Psychology of Effective Studying: How to Succeed in Your Degree to address this problem. Naturally, I can't condense the entire book into a short article, but I'll use this opportunity to give you an important piece of advice on studying from each chapter of the book. 


Key advice: use retrieval practice to help calibrate what you think you know with what you can demonstrate you know.

Your efforts to learn are tied to how accurately you can monitor and evaluate your levels of knowledge and understanding (i.e. your metacognitive ability). Unfortunately, there are a raft of metacognitive flaws that can impede your ability to improve your studying from the outset.

A particularly cruel example of such a flaw is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Kruger and Dunning (1999) ran a series of studies in which participants were asked to estimate their levels of competence relative to their peers at different tasks before performing those tasks. Their perceived standing in relation to their peers was then compared to their actual position. It was the individuals who performed least competently who exhibited the biggest discrepancy between their perceived and actual levels of ability. As the old saying goes: 'ignorance is bliss'. Those who know the least about a topic are usually the most unaware of the extent of their ignorance and, therefore, the least inclined to do something about it.

An excellent way to avoid succumbing to the Dunning-Kruger effect is to make extensive use of retrieval practice in your studying. Read a passage of text, put it to one side, ask yourself some questions about its content and then try and answer them from memory. Consider how well your answers address the questions and use this feedback to direct your subsequent efforts to learn. Your studying will be much more effective if it's based on evidence of progress rather than guess-work.


Key advice: use implementation intentions to help you bring your time-management plans to fruition.

Advice on time-management is a mainstay of study guides. Accordingly, you might previously have dutifully prepared timetables for your studies, only to watch them laid to waste by procrastination. Research (e.g. Gollwitzer et al., 2008) suggests that procrastination can be addressed using 'implementation intentions'. These are statements that explicitly relate goal relevant situational cues to actions needed to bring about the desired goal. In making an implementation intention, the situational cue is preceded by the word 'if' and the response to that cue is preceded by the word 'then'.

Oettingen, Honig and Gollwitzer (2000) asked students to state their intention to do tedious math problems at a time of their choosing in one of two ways. In the implementation intention condition, students used the format: "IF it is Wednesday at x time THEN I will perform as many arithmetic tasks as possible". In the goal-based intention condition, students used the format: "I will perform as many arithmetic tasks as possible each Wednesday at x time." Procrastination was measured as the delay between the students' intended and actual start times. Students who used implementation intentions procrastinated over five times less than those who used goal-based intentions. So, you can make it more likely you'll follow through with your time management plans by using implementation intentions. This might seem too good to be true, but meta-analysis of research indicates they really work (e.g. Gollwitzer & Sherman, 2006).

Reading and note-taking

Key advice: read and take notes with a view to generating your own understanding of a topic, not simply re-producing someone else's.

Have you thought about how you approach reading academic material? If you're reading a source identified by your tutor with the intention of just trying to 'absorb' some of the knowledge within, you're unlikely to get much out of your efforts. You need to make the purpose of your reading and its associated note-taking a means to generate (not reproduce) knowledge for yourself.

A great way of achieving this is to ask questions of your reading that require you to respond with an explanation. This process is called elaborative interrogation (Pressley et al., 1987). Ozgungor and Guthrie (2004) provide a nice example of it in action. They asked students to read a long passage of writing on Phantom limb pain. Some students read a version of the text interspersed with elaborative interrogation questions such as: 'How does the evidence support this assertion?' Other students simply read the plain text. Students who read the text featuring the elaborative interrogation prompts outperformed their peers on tests of recall, inference formation and their ability to generate links between concepts. The beneficial effect of elaborative interrogation was even more pronounced for students who had less prior knowledge of the topic and those who reported being less interested in it. 

So ask questions of the material you read that require you to respond with an explanation. Questions are catalysts for thinking about a topic (i.e. actively engaging with it) and explanations help you avoid the trap of mistaking factual recall for understanding (the illusion of knowing). Elaborative interrogation will help you get much more out of your reading and note-taking.

Academic integrity

Key advice: in developing your ability to paraphrase, focus on how you are making use of your sources.

As a student, you might feel frustrated that the authors of your sources all seem to be much more eloquent than you and wonder where the line between acceptable paraphrasing practice and plagiarism is drawn (e.g. Roig, 2001). The good news in this respect is that effective approaches to reading and note-taking also promote good paraphrasing practice.

Take, for example, the advice on elaborative interrogation previously provided. If you start generating questions about your source material that require an explanation from you, you're already off to a good start with paraphrasing because you're setting the agenda for what you write. This reduces the likelihood that you'll approach paraphrasing by editing the composition of other authors, which is a highly unsafe practice. You can also use the Read, Recite, Review (3R) method (McDaniel et al., 2009) to promote the use of your own words when taking notes. This method involves reading part of the source material, putting it to one side (out of sight) and reciting what you can remember before reviewing the material. Get in the habit of having sources out of sight when writing about them. This will force you to use your own words as the basis of your composition, which you can then check for factual accuracy against the source. It will prevent you from inadvertently plagiarising the work of another author through inadequate paraphrasing. At the same time, it will also promote effective learning and the development of your own voice as an author.

Preparing written work at degree level

Key advice: you sound a lot smarter when you keep your writing simple!

We sometimes view things that are difficult to understand as being worthy of merit prematurely. This is known as the guru effect (Sperber, 2010). When you spot wordy and long-winded writing in academia, it's all too easy to be impressed because of the effort that it takes for you to unpick it. You might see this as an invitation to make your own writing more convoluted, hoping it will make you sound more intelligent and get you higher grades.

Such efforts are likely to backfire. Oppenheimer (2006) doctored extracts from application essay submissions to an English Literature course such that each one had a highly complex and moderately complex version. In the highly complex version, every noun, verb and adjective were replaced with its longest equivalent in Microsoft Word's thesaurus. In the moderately complex version, every third example of each word was replaced. Complex extracts were judged as being more difficult to read and given lower acceptance ratings than their simpler counterparts. You're unlikely to benefit from the guru effect in your written work because tutors don't assume you have authority on the topic in question. They are actively looking for evidence that this is the case in what you have written. If you write like you'd just swallowed a thesaurus, you're only making it harder for tutors to see the merit in the contents of your work. When writing, aim for clarity as your top priority; simplify rather than complicate. Strip your work of unnecessary terminology and long, convoluted sentences. Write with the aim of being readily understood by an intelligent, but non-expert audience.      

You can read more about this aspect of your writing in this exclusive extract


Key advice: use peer evaluation to make each group member accountable for their contributions.

If the word 'teamwork' makes you shudder, you've probably been in a group where the contributions of its members ended up being very unequal. This happens because people tend to put less effort into a task when working as part of a group than when working individually. This is known as social loafing (Latané et al., 1979).

An effective way of overcoming social loafing is to make team members feel individually accountable for their contributions to a group effort (e.g. Williams et al., 1981). Research suggests that a good way to achieve this is to use peer evaluation. This involves team members rating each other's contributions throughout a project in relation to criteria pre-specified by the group. Brooks and Ammons (2003) provide a useful example of a peer evaluation instrument where group members rate their colleagues in response to statements such as: "prompt in attendance for team meetings".

For peer evaluations to work without causing hostility, they need to be done in a timely fashion so that team members can respond to feedback, if necessary. The criteria against which group members are assessed also needs to be transparent, specific and observable (Gibbs, 2009) so that ratings are evidenced and fair. You can discuss and negotiate these details at an initial team meeting.

Giving presentations

Key advice: ensure that each of your slides has a purpose that is clearly stated in its title.

The importance of your presentations not involving 'death by PowerPoint' is likely self-evident, but how you can achieve this when designing your slides is probably less obvious to you. Kosslyn et al. (2012) conducted research that identified what audiences perceive as the most common and annoying faults with PowerPoint presentations. Public enemy number one in both respects was when a presenter obscures part or all of their presentation with unnecessary detail.

So, how do you avoid this when you're new to presenting and everything seems relevant to the topic of your presentation? A good way of making sure that your visual aids stick to the most relevant material and don't go off on tangents is to use the 'Assertion/Evidence' approach to slide design (Alley et al., 2006). This entails giving a slide a title that makes a clear assertion, which the remaining contents of the slide must then back up. Consider the title: 'Assertion/Evidence-based slide design helps your audience remember your content.' The purpose the rest of this slide must fulfil is clear: it needs to provide examples of the effectiveness of the Assertion/Evidence approach. Beginning your slide design with a title that gives it a clear purpose provides you with a relevancy filter for potential slide contents. This helps you keep the slide focused on the most important details. Do this for each one of your slides and you're less likely to burden them with unnecessary information and make it easier for the audience to see the narrative of your presentation.


Key advice: make your exams easier by making your revision harder.

When exams are on the horizon, it's understandable that you might want quick and easy results from your efforts to revise. That's why cramming is such a popular approach. It's simple to use and generates short-term performance gains that make the revision process seem easy and productive.

However, the problem is that good short-term performance is not necessarily a reliable indicator of longer-term learning (Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015). For example, let's say you're rereading a passage of text in the hope you'll remember the information it contains for an examination. Each read through will 'feel' more familiar, but judgements of learning formed when a source is in front of you are often inaccurate (Koriat and Bjork, 2005). In contrast, if you space your study sessions out and test your ability to recall information (without the source present) your short-term performance will appear poorer than if you were to cram.

These approaches to studying are also more difficult to implement than cramming, which may lead you to believe that they are not working. In actuality, the opposite is true. Short term failures to recall information are helpful in orientating your subsequent studying, which will pay dividends when you take the exam. Methods like spacing and retrieval practice create what Bjork and Bjork (2011) refer to as 'desirable difficulty'; they trade a bit of short-term pain for a good amount of long-term gain. When it comes to durable learning, they are more effective than cramming, even if it doesn't feel like it at the time of revising.


Studying should not be the part of your university experience that you have to endure rather than enjoy. By using study practices that are informed by psychological research, you can get better results with less trial and error and enjoy the process of learning much more. You can find lots more information and advice on the topics covered in this article in my book, The Psychology of Effective Studying: How to Succeed in Your Degree. I wish you every success and happiness in your studies.

- Dr Paul Penn is in the School of Psychology, University of East London. Find him on Twitter, and e-mail [email protected]

The Psychology of Effective Studying: How to Succeed in Your Degree by Paul Penn, published by Routledge, is out now. See also this video-based advice.

See also episode 13 of our Research Digest podcast PsychCrunch, on how to study and learn more effectively.


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