Category Archives: Study Skills

These posts apply cognitive principles to studying and school.

Designing a Study Tool the Cognitive Way, part 1

I’m embarking on a project to design a study tool that draws on cognitive science principles in order to facilitate long-term storage and retrieval of knowledge. Let’s get right to the meat of things.

First off, what kind of study tool are we talking about? I intend to write a computer program that will store information that the user types into the computer and can spit it out later- something between a notes organizer and a flashcard system. I’ll be using Python to write it, as that’s the programming language with which I am most familiar.

Second off, what do I mean by “draws on cognitive science principles”? This study tool will use what we know about how the brain stores and retrieves memories in order to improve your recall of the facts you’re trying to learn with it. In particular, we know that memories that are connected to other things in the mind are easier to retrieve later- the other facts act like a breadcrumb trail to the thing you’re trying to recall.

So how do we promote the creation of connections between facts? Well, the way this tool will go about it is by prompting the user to explain and answer questions about the relationships between the various concepts the user is trying to acquire.

That’s a bit abstract- let’s look at how the system will actually function. Phase 1: The user creates a “notebook” on a particular subject, let’s say cognitive psychology. Then the user can add concepts to the notebook. A concept minimally has a name and a definition. Let’s say the concepts added are “top-down processing,” “bottom-up processing,” “serial processing,” “parallel processing,” and “visual cognition.” The user would input these, one at a time, and define each one; the computer will then store the concepts and their definitions.

Phase 2: Once you’ve got all the concepts you want to use figured out, the real fun begins. Concepts can be connected to one another, which means that they have listings under each other’s entries, and these listings have explanations attached. You can either enter connections you already know are there, or you can let the computer ask you questions about randomly selected pairs. Questions could include “Are these concepts similar?” “Are these concepts opposites?” “Is one of these concepts a kind of the other?” etc.. Each answer comes with an optional explanation, so you could indicate that serial processing and parallel processing are opposites of each other, and in the explanation you could say that computers may be parallel but are overwhelmingly serial and vice versa for the brain.

By answering questions and establishing connections between concepts, the user enriches the knowledge base being recorded by the computer. And by allowing the computer to select pairs at random, there is made an opportunity to form novel connections the user would not have considered on their own.

Phase 3: Then, when the user feels like they’ve elaborated enough on their conceptual network, they can rehearse the knowledge in one of a few ways. They could have the computer output all the facts it has stored into a text file, print it out, and use it as a note-taking tool. They could have the computer output just the facts about a single concept.

The final plan I have in mind is a bit more ambitious, though- the computer would have a rehearsal mode, in which it would ask the user, “What is top-down processing?” sort of like a flashcard; the user would then think about the answer, and check themselves by moving forward and displaying the definition. In the next step, it asks “How are top-down processing and bottom-up processing connected?,” give the user a moment to ponder that, and then show the explanation the user gave for the connection. Then it’d move on to “What is bottom-up processing,” etc., etc., “walking through” the conceptual network to strengthen the connections in the user’s mind.

Next time, report in for an explanation of how this program will be implemented! Let me know what you think.

Chewing Gum During Tests



You can always hear someone asking if anyone has gum or if they can have a piece, but gum can improve much more than just your breath. An article from NBC News written by Serge Onyper cites a study from St. Lawerence University states that people that chewed gum for five minutes before some cognitive tests did much better than those that did not. The study alludes to the fact that chewing gum can help improve someone’s working memory by elevating your blood pressure and essentially “waking you up”, this also goes hand in hand with the “Mozart Effect” that someone could be aroused by listening to and enjoying music. However, if someone chews gum throughout the test then the benefits of memory are almost non existent because chewing gum for extending periods of time takes away from some brain power that is necessary for maintaining performance on particularly demanding tasks.

I thought this study was interesting because I have heard about a lot of tricks that are said to help improve your memory for tests such as writing in blue ink or taking the exam in the same place that you studied. This one seemed to be more concrete because it says that chewing gum can help, but that it only last for about 15 to 20 minutes and that you should stop chewing the gum before the test, and they had data to back up their study. This study could lead to different ways that students take exams or even study.

The idea that chewing gum can help improve mental cognition is interesting in itself because in an article ( written by Carolyn Gregoire on the Huffington Post states that playing games like crossword puzzles or doing Sudoku could help improve someone’s memory by 97 percent by doing it for ten hours; however, you only have to chew gum for about five minutes for it to help your working memory. Crossword puzzles and Sudoku could be used to help improve a person’s overall cognition whereas chewing gum could be used to help remember things for a test last minute that they are cramming for.

This gum chewing study could lead to other possible studies that would further people’s cognitive abilities. Gum could potentially be used as a key to help students on tests or maybe even help someone remember daily things such as where they put their keys. There have been numerous cognitive studies to see what improves thinking. I have always suffered from forgetting where I put my things and not being able to memorize facts for tests well, so the concept that there are tests being performed to help with memory cognition provides a sense of hope that I, and people that also suffer from memory problems, will not have to wander through life forgetting where they parked their car or left their notebook for class.

Debunking learning styles


Is it true that each and every student falls into the two common learning categories of auditory and visual? Many students, including myself, have been raised to believe that they have a certain learning style that works best for them individually. Throughout my life I was always told that I was a visual learner because I learned primarily through flashcards and constantly poring over study guides. Being categorized as a visual learner was like wearing blinders. Through the course of my educational career, I only learned in the way people told me I could learn. I believed that this way of learning was best suited for me, so I decided to make it work. Instead of trying new ways to obtain information, I constantly resorted to using the “visual” method because I thought that this was in my best interest, when in fact I should have been trying to expand my ways of learning new material. However, this is not to say that it’s the student’s responsibility. It was a norm promoted by the educational system then that still continues to be prevalent.

According to the New York Times and the Association for Psychological Science , these certain “learning styles” do not exist. Their existence along with the right and left brain phenomena,  has been a common misconception for many teachers and parents over the past thirty years. This raises the question, how can educators debunk this common belief that has been a guide for so many students? Personally, I believe that educators should expose children to all different types of studying methods. Encouraging students not to limit themselves but instead explore many different types of studying methods. Employing many different styles of teaching, using an assortment of stimuli, students will in turn be more engaged. Instead of categorizing oneself, we should instead find what works for each individual and, “not worry about where we lie on the learning spectrum.”

Although there have been many studies conducted in the past that have shown that these learning styles exist, recent research provides evidence that these studies were not conducted properly. The previous studies did not satisfy key criteria for scientific validity. This means that for over thirty years the educational community has believed that students learn in different ways than those around them, when in fact there is no difference.

The proposal to debunk these different learning styles is relatively new, proposed around 2009, which explains why these common misconceptions have not gained momentum in the American education system. Even though these current findings have shown many promises for future students, it seems that they have not yet been widely acknowledged by educators. With time, this should provide students with learning environments in which they can explore different, more effective ways to attain knowledge.

In conclusion, I strongly believe that the generations who were categorized into visual and auditory learning groups will explore different learning paths on their own. These recently disproved categories do not serve as limitations for attaining knowledge. I am personally very curious as well as excited to put the visual learning category, that I have been placed in for so many years, aside and expand on new approaches to learning. My hope is that after reading this, students will gain a better sense of freedom for their learning approaches. Exploring new and different ways to order the constant flow of information we are surrounded by.