Category Archives: Study Skills

These posts apply cognitive principles to studying and school.

Attention Blink and ADHD



People who have ADHD are more likely to experience difficulties with the attention blink test.  Due to their difficulty to stare at a fixed space and attention deficit they miss more letter sequences. 



To put this into perspective, this can be applied to the real world for any given person in circumstances such as if a driver in front of you is swerving off the road, you will briefly become focused on that catastrophe (attention blink) in the making and lose sight of the specific details of the traffic around you in that moment.  I can only imagine how difficult it may be for a student in a classroom that is not on ADHD medication and is trying to pay attention to a lecture but sees phones lighting up with notifications or hears students talking outside in the hallway.

As someone who has ADHD (not on medication) this makes sense to me.  When doing the attention blink test on the Zaps program used in my Cognitive Psychology class there was a continuous stream of 80 different tests.  I found myself fidgeting in my seat and having to take breaks.  It made me feel irritable and impatient and I had a hard time finding the first letter in the sequence for the first few trials.  Eventually I sort of picked it up but I struggled finding a second letter in the sequence.



Stop Slapping Those Keys and Use Your Pen

A rising freshmen is visiting a college they are interested in. They sit in on a class, look around and notice something about the students. Much like the way movies portray college students, the majority of the ones in class seem to be on their laptops taking notes. There is only a small portion of students who are jotting down notes in their notebooks, as the teacher is lecturing. Recent findings have shown that people who take the time to physically write notes on a paper tend to be able to recall information better than those who take notes electronically. Guess the old fashioned way of taking notes throughout history beats new ways of taking notes on technology! People who take notes on a computer typically has more notes, in comparison to those who write.

Can it be arguably supported that students who write notes down with a paper and pen actually get more out of class lectures? In cognitive psychology, acts such as writing notes down transfers to the hippocampus, which is where information will be encoded, stored and eventually retrieved during test time. There are two different types of memories, implicit and explicit, which both work differently. Implicit memory focuses more on perception of the world around. On the other hand, explicit memory focuses on the meaning, concepts and stays in long-term memory. In a study that Mueller and Oppenheimer conducted, the notes that people on laptops took showed higher amounts of verbatim, which shows that there is a lower level of retaining the information in their memory. Both students who took notes on paper and on their laptop took a test after sitting in a lecture, for the experiment. The results showed that people who took notes by hand had more conceptual understanding and therefore learned more. The increase in conceptual comprehension in people who write notes show that they store material in their explicit memory, which is where long term memory stores information as well. Hence, there is a better chance for theses students to recall information better on tests.

Why do so many students take notes on their laptops then? People deem the use of technology as a new efficient way of recording notes. They are also able to record notes faster than by hand.  Henceforth are able to record more notes in detail. The answer may seem convincing, but overall it is best not to fall for these reasons and it is better to just switch to writing notes down.

Students who take notes by hand write slower, thereby forcing them to efficiently and mentally summarize key points of information into concise sentences or bullets. There are less levels of verbatim in their notes as a result. They are then able to encode information better and in a more meaningful way, summarizing information in their own words or chunk information in a way that is more memorable. When information is encoded with meaning, there is a better chance of later recalling the information.

With ever advancing technology in our generation today, it is most likely to be expected that not as many people will revert back to taking notes by hand. However, there is hope that people may switch from typing up notes to writing them out on their tablets or computers with a stylus. Students will still have the opportunity to write down notes, not necessarily on paper, but the effect will be the same. By handwriting notes, students can better avoid excessive information and have a higher chance in recalling information on tests.

Improve Your Memory

Go up to any student on campus and ask them, “If there was a foolproof way to increase the amount of information you can retain from your working memory, would you try it?” and I can almost guarantee that if they are able to understand what you are asking them, they will say yes. I mean, who wouldn’t want to increase their memory capacity? Especially around mid-terms and final exams, every student on campus is looking for a way to make all the facts and concepts of multiple subjects stick in their minds at least long enough to make it through whichever exam they have coming up next. Unfortunately, I don’t know any foolproof ways to increase your memory capacity (and to be honest, if I did, I would probably write a book about it and then sign some multi-million-dollar contract to become one of those self-improvement lecturers that live on massive yachts in the middle of the Caribbean, not put up a post detailing it for our class).  However, in class we learned about an excellent strategy to help Improve our working memory; Chunking.

Before I continue with the rest of my article I want to bring your attention to the difference between Improving and Increasing:

To Improve is to make or become better; To Increase is to become or make greater in size, amount, intensity or degree. In relation to Memory:

To Improve Memory is to become better at remembering information; To Increase Memory is to make greater the amount of information that can be remembered.

Back to the article, our book defines a “chunk” as the hypothetical storage unit in working memory; essentially a piece of information. In class we defined Chunking as the repackaging of information to create meaning from working memory. To simplify that, Chunking is combining multiple individual pieces of information into a larger group. This group of associated information then becomes its own chunk (the more I read it, the more it looks like “chunk” is not a real word). According to a study by George Miller (Miller, 1956) working memory holds 7 plus-or-minus 2 chunks. The theory behind chunking improving memory is that you can increase the amount of information in each chunk. You are still only remembering approximately 7 chunks, they are just larger chunks of information. It does not increase the size of working memory itself. In class, Dr. Rettinger listed the following series of letters for us to remember:

 H, O, P, T, R, A, S, L, U.

While it is certainly possible for someone to remember those 9 letters as they are, isn’t it a lot easier to remember when broken up into chunks?


The 9 individual pieces of information became 3 chunks of extremely easy to remember information. Another, much more relatable example of chunking involves numbers:

5, 4, 0, 6, 5, 6, 8, 7, 9, 2.

This string of 10 random digits is much harder to remember than the following three chunks:

540, 656, 8792.

Phone numbers (and yes, for those of you who were wondering, that is my number, you’re welcome) are generally remembered in chunks for the area code, prefix, and line number (learn something new every day) making them easier to remember. Then they came out with this handy thing called the Contacts App on cell phones so who needs to bother remembering phone numbers.

I found an article online titled “What is Chunking and How Can it Increase Your Memory?” The article initially just summarizes Chunking similarly to the way I did above and then goes into a few ideas for how to group together similar items to help remember them:

  1. Group Items by the First Letter
  2. Break Strings of numbers up into groups of three or four
  3. Categorize items, like on a grocery list

While I can’t help you Increase your memory capacity, Chunking (I swear I’m almost done with the word) is an effective way of Improving working memory.  Practice and you might find you can remember more with this technique than whatever method you use currently.

Acing finals through elaborative storage and creativity.


With finals week just around the corner, who doesn’t want a helpful way to retain information in a simple and fun way? Finals are dreadful for many, but they don’t have to be as dreadful any longer. There are a multitude of helpful study tips proven to work, but are they as fun as mnemonic’s? Mnemonic devices consolidate many benefits into one study aid. There are many different approaches to retain information through mnemonics. Students can make up allegorical stories that include exam information or use first letter schemes. In many instances, people can even include more than one mnemonic device for a certain concept. This strategy proves to be helpful as well as enjoyable because it engages the user and preserves knowledge in long term storage. When the user establishes a personal connection to the information rather than attempting to absorb the information raw, it becomes more accessible. Mnemonic devices make the perfect study device because they facilitate learning and can improve memory of material. There are many helpful examples on this website 

When using study aids the type of memory that is used plays into how long the information will be stored in the brain and whether or not it will be remembered well enough for later retrieval. The mnemonic study aid couples working and long term memory together which leads to elaborate processing. Mnemonic devices use this form of rehearsal through keeping the information active in the memory while at the same time understanding the material through relatable happenings. Keeping the information relevant and relatable facilitates the movement from working to long term memory. Seeing that remembering the information and understanding it does not come solely from exposure, there needs to be a deeper understating in order to store the material. This study technique guides the information into long term storage, truly understanding and comprehending the material to its fullest potential.
This website goes into detail explaining why this type of study aid can be so helpful for students. Mnemonic’s are both an entertaining and beneficial way to retain important material. Using your imagination instead of memorizing material will enhance both short term and long term memory, limiting the expended energy used for studying and establishing the information in context for later retrieval. According to the article, when a person attempts to recall information, the brain activates the nerve cells in order to store the new information, which enhances the memory. By visualizing a phrase or story, it becomes much easier to recall later on for the exam. I find it easier to visualize information when taking a test then trying to remember memorized facts.

A great representation of both story-telling and first letter schemes comes from This specific example uses a mnemonic device, which goes as follows: Phillip(P) wanted to eat(E) his friend Mary(M) but he died(D) from arsenic(AS) poisoning. Although this story seems absurd, it creates a better visual than an ordinary example that may otherwise be misconstrued as realistic. This example includes the student, his friend, and an intriguing plot line. I find that sometimes the more far-fetched the example is, the better it works. Through telling a story the student also used the mnemonic technique of first letter schemes. Using this technique can be useful when trying to retain information for math, but using a story along with it creates an even better image than using the first letter technique on its own. The images in the story are then stored in long term memory to be obtained for future reference.

I find that using mnemonic devices is more of a rewarding challenge than a way of studying.
There is so much room for creativity in a way that doesn’t otherwise present itself in other study
aids. Although other study aids are shown to work, I find that they only serve as a crutch for
short-term retention. To me, these techniques tend to feel like they are meant to be stored only in short term, working memory when the real purpose is to retain material that can be able called upon for later use. By implementing elaborative rehearsal the information is being used to for rehearsal as well as long term storage. This way the study material is put to use and used
creatively. You may even be able to remember the information to use in everyday occurrences.
Employing these mnemonic devices to study material uses less study time in the short run and
more retention in the long run. Why study to forget when you could start studying to retain?

Study Tip: Spatial/Relational Studying

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always had a problem with flashcards. Teachers would tell me to make flashcards for vocabulary words, for example. I found that once I’d written the words on the card, and added their definitions, I could already remember which definitions matched which words. Since I could match the words and definitions accurately, studying the flashcards no longer felt necessary. The whole process felt redundant and unhelpful to me. But the problem was that just because I knew which word went with which definition, that didn’t mean I understood the term.

In class, we discussed maintenance rehearsal versus elaborative rehearsal. Maintenance rehearsal is rehearsing a piece of information enough to keep it active. In this rehearsal, it doesn’t ver really move into long-term memory. Elaborative rehearsal, however, is rehearsal that involves processing. It helps us move information into long-term memory. Learning isn’t just about repeated exposure (think of the penny or the Apple logo). Learning needs deeper levels of processing. This might involve imagery, meaning, or personal tie-ins. Learning that involves surface details or sound patterns just doesn’t stick as well. Research supports the textbook and the discussion we had in class. In a study by Craik and Tulving (1975), participants were asked to answer questions about words. Sometimes, the participants answered about the meaning of the word (deep). Other times, they answered about the sound/structure of the word (shallow). They were then asked to pick the original words out of a longer list. While the deep processing took longer, the subjects who semantically processed the words showed greater performance on the recall task.

My original study tip is developed from several sources: my personal study habits, our class discussion, the research, and a technique mentioned in class by a fellow student. In a discussion about the problems of flashcard usage and maintenance rehearsal, this student mentioned how one could create flashcards using class notes etc., but then instead of engaging in repetitive and rote memorization with those cards, attempt to categorize them instead. I felt that this would be a much more meaningful way to interact with the material. As I thought about this suggestion, and pondered my own study habits, I came up with my suggested study tip: Flowcharts

You’ll need a whiteboard (a gallon plastic bag around a white sheet of paper works, but the bigger the board the better. In the ITCC, there are tons of big white boards free for our use!), dry erase markers, and small cards/sticky notes. First, write out important pieces of information on the cards. These bits of info can be definitions, theories, categories, relationships, tasks, people, ideas, studies, aspects of studies, etc. For example, if you have notes on a scientist who did two studies, each of which had two main findings, write out a card for the scientist, each study’s basic details, and details on each of the findings. When you’re done with the information for the chapter, shuffle your cards. Next is the fun part.

diagram-empty-2Now, you want to take your cards and start sorting them into a flow chart! You can stick them up on the board, and use the markers to draw connecting lines and arrows. The most important part here is to emphasize relationships. Thinking about how your concepts interact is important for making them stick in your long-term memory. It’s much more effective than just memorizing!

flowchartPractice putting your cards in a linear/chronological flow and drawing arrows between steps. Show what came first conceptually, and influenced later steps. Then try a hierarchical structure. What are the overarching themes and categories, and the subcategories and details? How do they relate to each other? Don’t be afraid to draw tons of arrows! The more times you engage with the pieces of information in different ways, the more comfortable you’ll be with them.

Good luck studying!

Mindfulness Meditation May Boost Your Test Scores!

I recently became interested in using mindfulness to combat stress and reduce anxiety in order to increase my academic performance. But could mindfulness techniques straight up improve testing ability? An article from the Huffington post makes this claim, citing a “new study that shows mindfulness could help students perform better on tests by boosting their memory and comprehension skills”. I found this quite interesting and wanted to take a deeper look at the research.

In this study done by Michael D. Mrazek, participants were randomly placed in a two week mindfulness class or a nutrition class for two weeks.  The mindfulness class taught physical and mental strategies that helped people focus on the present moment. Participants were told to use this strategy throughout each day, and when they had of interrupting or intrusive thoughts.  To test progress and difference between the experimental and control  groups, the participants were assessed on a working memory capacity task as well as the verbal reasoning section of the GRE before and after the two week classes. The results were significant, showing that people who received mindfulness training had improved accuracy on the GRE and higher working memory capacity compared to the control group in the nutrition class. Analyses were run to conclude that the difference could be explained in part by the reduced mind-wandering during the tasks, a result of mindfulness training.

In a journal article for the Association for Psychological Science, Mrazek discussed the significance of his study, saying “Even with a rigorous design and effective training program, it wouldn’t be unusual to find mixed results, but we found reduced mind-wandering in every way we measured it and improved performance on both reading comprehension and working memory capacity.” Additionally the article reported that the same researches estimated that mindfulness training could result in an average 16 percentile point boost on the GRE!

In conclusion, this study supports the research hypothesis that ”Mindfulness training improved both GRE reading-comprehension score and working memory capacity while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts during completion of the GRE”.

I found another peer reviewed article that is a systematic review of neuropsychological findings on the topic of mindfulness training and cognitive ability. It reviewed 23 studies on the topic and found that overall these studies showed “preliminary support for the notion that MMPs could provide significant benefits on several measures of cognition.”

Given this information, perhaps a new study tip would be to engage in mindfulness exercises each day before starting to study. Mindfulness allows you to focus on the present moment and encourages the dismissal of distracting thoughts. This could help you on tests, but also daily as you study for them. It goes without saying, if you are better able to concentrate while you are studying, you will remember more content. So, try out this guided mindfulness exercise before your next study session and let me know how it goes!


Note taking by using computer makes you better recall

When you get into the college, have you ever agonized about your note-taking skills? For me, studying in high school and studying in college was drastically different. Professors talk about a variety of fields and I have to remember all of the main points and examples at the same time. Thus, my freshman grade was pretty bad and I had to take advice from my parents and professors to improve my study skills. There are many ways to review what you’ve learned, but this journal gave me a new perspective of recalling memory. You might’ve had to take notes by using a computer instead of hand writing them. If you have a lecture where your professor talks really fast or talks a lot, you might have used or thought to use a computer to take notes.

The study I want to share is about improving memory recollection by using the alternative note-taking skill I’ve previously mentioned; transcribing by using a computer. This experiment was conducted by Dung C. Bui, Joel Myerson, and Sandra Hale of Washington University. They hypothesized three things, but here, I want to focus on the first experiment. The researchers wanted to compare taking notes by hand with taking notes using a computer in terms of their effects on test performance. The researchers gathered eighty undergraduate students and tested free recall and short answer after showing them a lecture. There were four conditions: Hand_organized, Hand_transcribed, Computer_organized, Computer_transcribed. As a result, there was more recall when using a computer than when using your hand to take notes when transcribing a lecture. This study explained the limitations of writing by hand due to the speed of writing and the length of time. Also, considering the aspect of the quantity of the notes, working memory had a relationship with recall ability. In another blog, I found a study where students who took notes using a computer wrote an average of 310 words per lecture while students who took notes by hand wrote an average of 173 words. This number supports the finding that using the computer is much faster in inputting words.

Summarizing shortly about the second and third experiment, organized notes were better in recalling delayed test performance than transcribed notes, but not for immediate test performance. Also, in terms of note-quantity, if the note was transcribed, the quantity could be greater. Next, the researcher hypothesized that working memory is related to recalling. In addition, working memory is essential for effective note-taking. If there is an individual difference, it is due to the variance of working memory abilities that have an effect on organized notes, not on transcribed notes. So the second and third experiments were vital to support the first experiment and explain the exempted situations.

Myself, I like taking transcribed notes by hand or paraphrasing what the professor is saying in my notes. This type of skill is good for weekly quizzes but not for the mid-term or final exam. According to this research, I should have taken notes based on transcribed notes for the final. Especially if I am going to write transcribed notes during the lecture, I think I’d better use my laptop than my hand so that I don’t have to always ask the professor about points I missed. If you were worrying about your own note-taking style, this research might help you develop the proper studying-skills for each situation. Again, this is based on the result of test performance. The strong point of this research is it defines the situations well so that you don’t doubt any exceptions or questions in your mind. The conclusion is shortly after using your computer, you can write a lot during class especially if it is typed. Yet, there are a lot of situations that need another style of note-taking skill. I hope that you, the reader, will use this post to switch between note taking skills. If you haven’t tried to do so, I think that this is a good method to study.

Studying as Self-Regulating Learning

When searching for my next blog topic, I decided to look in to cognitive studying tips. I chose this topic in particular because, just recently we learned in class how much cognition goes into studying, and this really interested me. So I discovered a book called Metacognition in Educational Theory and Practice, edited by Douglas J. Hacker, John Dunlosky, Arthur C. Graesse. I came across a chapter in this called Studying as Self-Regulation Learning, by Philip H. Winne and Allyson F Hadwin out of Simon Fraser University (

ddddd            In the beginning of the chapter it talks about the six features that distinguish studying from the subsuming category of learning activities. In particular, studying:

  1. Rarely includes direct or frequent intervention by a teacher.
  2. Is often a solo activity, although peer meditation is also common
  3. Often originates with a general goal set by a teacher that the student subsequently interprets at the studying session’s onset and refines in a recursive way as studying unfolds.
  4. Quite often involves searching in and synthesizing information from multiple sources.
  5. Quite often occurs in settings where the student can engineer the studying environment to satisfy personal preferences.
  6. Almost always produces observable traces (Winne, 1982) of cognitive processing in forms such as notes in a textbook or in the margins of a textbook’s pages, outlines, summaries, self-generated questions, diagrams, records of attempts to solve problems, and especially highlighted text.

The Six features just numbered that distinguish studying from learning in general describe circumstances that essentially force student’s to engage in complex bundles of goal-directed cognitive and motivational processes that “get studying done”.

As a first step toward examining studying through metacognitive lenses, they suggested we present a general typology that defines features of academic tasks in general, including studying tasks. Then, we would use this typology to characterize the four distinguishable but recursively linked stages of studying: task definition, goal setting and planning, enacting study tactics and strategies, and metacognitive adapting studying. Next, we would then develop connections between our typology for studying and models of metacognition monitoring, metacognitive control, and self-regulated learning.

I think this article did a great job of breaking down the differences between learning and studying information. Learning as far as the teacher and classroom, and then studying as an individual in your own environment. Then they also break down the cognitive part of studying, like goal setting, planning, and adapting. When studying you can always just read your notes but in order to retain the information you really have to think about what you are learning and apply the information. For example, reading from flash cards is not going to help unless you thinking about the “why’s” and the “how’s”.



Got Confused?


Lost and Confused Signpost

How many of you have taken a class where you had no idea what was going on? How many of you wanted to learn the material but just drowned in the confusion of it all? Now, what if I told you that being confused was a good thing and that this article says you could use it to your benefit. At the University of Notre Dame they had conducted a study to see how strategic confusion can help with learning new material.

Here is the breakdown of the study, within a learn environment, subjects were introduced to a difficult conceptual topic.  They wanted to see if the subjects were able to apply critical thinking skills to the difficult conceptual topic in hopes that the subjects could solve new problems more effectively down the road. What the results showed is stated in the following: “subjects that were confused scored higher on a difficult post-test and did better at identifying flaws in a new case study.” Besides being in the right learning environment, the researchers also believed that emotions play a big role. “We have been investigating links between emotions and learning for almost a decade, and find that confusion can be beneficial to learning if appropriately regulated because it can cause learners to process the material more deeply in order to resolve their confusion,” says D’Mello (researcher).

Given from what we learned in class, part of the process to learn something involves processing information on a deeper level. To have truly learned something it would go into our long-term memory system. Part of long-term memory includes deeper processing; making the information more personal, more imagery, and more meaningful. With being confused, despite the more imagery part, it definitely becomes more personal and gains more meaning. I will give you an example to put things into perspective. My mom of over forty still remembers the day when she finally understood Calculus her sophomore year of college. She told me it just clicked one day after an entire semester of never getting it. She had worked her butt off, she had gone to the professor’s office hours every day, tired doing all the homework but just could not get it. Clearly, it became something personal since after all this time she can still recall her frustration she had with it. In the end, the class and the material matter more to her because of all the effort she had put into it.

From what the article suggest, maybe she could have learned calculus fast if she was in a better environment to do so. However, she did do the right thing in not giving up, “It is also important that the students are productively instead of hopelessly confused,” D’Mello. The other factor that is important is that we have to be in right mindset to deal with difficult topics. Subjects in the study were engaged in interactive conversations and were per-exposed to flawed ideas that could potential become confusing. Since they were already interacting with the material at a higher cognitive level, they became more successful in achieving their goal. The fact that emotions play a big part in our learning ability was interesting to me. The emotional aspect definitely makes it more reasonable for someone to recall something or allows for someone to have a better retrieval path for material they do not understand.

Overall, some of the key points that you should take away from this; being confused is a good thing. It helps with deeper processing and gives you a better opportunity to not only understand the material better but gives you the tools to deal with it the next time it comes around. You have to stay positive and be willing to risk being wrong. Be proactive; go seek help from a professor or even your peers. More than likely trying to figuring out a problem with classmates makes learning easier because your both trying to achieve the same goal. Sometimes what it comes down to is just needing another way to think about things.

A Guide to Studying and an Original Study Tip

This article by Regan A.R. Gurung and Lee I. McCann from the Association for Psychological Science outlines several effective study strategies in addition to several ineffective study strategies. The effective strategies include techniques such as creating examples that apply to the material, generating mnemonics and mental images, using a study partner, and self testing with the review questions at the end of a chapter in the book. All of these methods require elaborative rehearsal. They require the student to think about what the material means and make connections to material the student already knows as opposed to simply relying on rote memorization. Making connections and thinking critically about new material makes it much more likely that the student will remember the new material. In contrast, the ineffective strategies the article lists, such as spending too much time on key terms and summaries to the extent that pedagogical aids are ignored, highlighting too much, studying with a friend without testing each other, and using review questions as content rather than an opportunity to test knowledge are all tasks that require maintenance rehearsal. This is a more mechanical, rote memorization process. This makes it much less likely that the information will be remembered and understood. However, all of these tasks could easily be tweaked to create tasks that would require elaborative rehearsal. All in all, deeper level processing is integral to memory because the ability to retrieve a memory later depends on the memory connections that were developed during the process of encoding. In order to retrieve a memory, you must be able to rely on a number of connections, each of which triggers another connection, which leads to memory retrieval. This is why mnemonic strategies are effective; they depend on these connections.

With this in mind, I would suggest writing journal entries relating material from class to material from other classes as a way to learn and study material. It requires elaborative rehearsal due to the need to think about the material in a different way in order to connect it to other classes, possibly in different disciplines. It would also be effective to relate the material to previous material from the same class. Both tasks would serve as an active learning process that would create connections and facilitate later retrieval. This strategy would also serve to solidify understanding of concepts in the other classes to which the student was relating the material. It also forces you to put the concepts into your own words while learning and studying material; this is an important skill to have because it also aids in memory retrieval, as it requires elaborative rehearsal.

Lastly, it is also important to note that another important element of learning and studying is attention. As the article mentions, it is not beneficial to study while engaging in distracting activities such as watching tv, texting, or using social media. This is due to the fact that we have limited cognitive resources. If we are dividing our attention between multiple tasks that require similar resources, such as texting and reading a textbook, we will not be able to encode the information as well because some of our cognitive resources will be devoted to texting.

To sum up, the best study strategies are those that require elaborative processing, or making connections and thinking critically about new information. It is also best to engage in these study strategies when you are devoting all your attention to them.