How to study for a Psyc 101 exam

Advice from Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia,  (2/7/02)


[Note: I let my students make up a “memory sheet”, a single sheet of paper that has anything they want on it. They are allowed to bring this sheet into the exam. Many of my students report that the act of making the sheet is so helpful that they make memory sheets even for classes that do not allow them. By the time the sheet is made and read a few times, they have almost all the material memorized]


In the weeks before the exam: You should read each chapter right after the corresponding lecture, either that night, or at latest one day later. Your first read-through should be active: underline or highlight the things that seem important, or difficult. If questions or links to earlier chapters occur to you, write them in the margins. If some syndrome describes your uncle Fred, write "Uncle Fred" in the margin. This sort of active processing is what the Depth of Processing model of memory is all about. A pen is generally better than a highlighter only because it encourages you to make comments in the margins. I personally make a vertical line in the margin next to the text I want to return to. I make 2 parallel vertical lines next to text that seems really important, and 3 lines next to text that I would consider having tattooed onto my arm. When you finish the chapter, read the chapter summary, to drive home the major points of the chapter. By then you'll have heard the major points 3 times: first in lecture, then in the text, then in the summary. That should put most of the material, at least the big picture, into LTM. I don't think you should make your memory sheet at this time. Wait until your second reading, shortly before the exam.


Beginning to study: I think 3 or 4 days of heavy studying is about right for most people for most college exams (although some people might need more). But don't EVER wait until 3 days before an exam to begin studying. Take the calendar or planner that you carry around with you (you DO have one, don't you?) and write in it on the 6th day before the exam: "begin studying for psych 101 exam." When that day comes, just spend 30 minutes organizing your materials, making sure you have all the notes and all the readings, and perhaps looking through the first few days' notes and readings. Then if you discover you're missing materials, you'll have time to get them. And if you discover that you're in worse shape than you thought, you will still have 5 more days to study. If you discover that you really know the material well, you can relax for 3 or 4 days, without thinking "shoot, I really ought to be studying that psych stuff." If you don't begin studying until the day before the exam, you are asking for a panic attack followed by a low grade.


Studying: 3 or 4 days before the exam you need to start putting in some serious time. But you never have enough time, so you'd better make your study time as efficient as possible. So pick a good environment: a quiet place, with no friends, phones, food or music to distract you. (Remember how small your working memory is. Thinking about a twinkie reduces the space left for studying). Know your attentional habits. High-quality attention comes in bursts, it never lasts for an hour. Take frequent short breaks. Stand up and do something. Splash your face with cold water. I learned to juggle while studying for final exams in college. Take care of your body: You can always abuse your body for a day, and pay for it the next day. But if you abuse it for 3 days, you'll pay for it on exam day. Be sure to eat properly, sleep properly, and get some exercise. It will pay off, and keep you generally happier too. Caffeine in moderate doses can improve attention and alertness, but big increases will make you anxious and unable to concentrate, and will rob you of sleep. Don't increase your regular intake by more than one cup of coffee per day.


     When you actually sit down to study, remember that the key to memory is organization. Start with the textbook, since most of the information comes from there. Notice that the textbook has 3 levels of headings: I)Large reddish letters, II)Medium blue letters, III)Small blue letters. It's probably a good idea to type all these headers into your memory sheet as the skeleton for you to hang everything else on. You might even want to use different typefaces, or outline format with letters and numbers. After that, your goal is to provide the most effective cues for recall that you can. Don't try to type every concept and every definition into your memory sheet. Within each section (i.e., after each level III header) just put in a few words to remind yourself of what's there. Words in boldface are a good bet, but don't put in every one. You will know most of them already, and don't need to clutter up your sheet. And don't be a slave to definitions. This isn't physics with exact formulas. I will never expect you to spout back an exact definition from the book. Just get the idea. So just write a few words, and only if you need them.


     After you've gone through the book chapter, look at the lecture notes for that chapter. You'll notice that most of the things I said will fit into the skeleton you've already made. Add them if they're not already there. Some of the things won't fit into existing headings. Add sections, e.g. "Lecture Intro" at the beginning, and "Other lecture stuff" at the end.


     NOTE: sections of the textbook that I don't talk about in lecture are definitely fair game. I can only tell you that in such sections questions will not be as detailed as they will be on material I covered in lecture. But that's a general principle, not an absolute promise.


     It's best for you to make your first study pass through each chapter on your own, with your own notes and annotated textbook, making up your own memory sheet. But once you've done that first pass you can talk with others, and look at their memory sheets. However at this point your goal should be to rise above just learning the key words and concepts, and to begin thinking at a higher level. The "Learning Objectives" and "Using what you have learned" sections of the Study Guide might be good things to discuss with a classmate. Or look on the Wiley web site and read the overviews, or try the self-tests.


During the exam: The main thing is: relax, and be careful and methodical. There will be questions you can't answer. I promise. Accept the fact that you won't get 100% and just set about maximizing the number you get correct. There are some very basic tricks that many people don't do:


--MARK UP THE EXAM SHEET! You must use the process of elimination. If you are pretty sure that 2 of the 4 options are false, put a line through those letters. If you are certain that one answer is correct, put a clear circle around it, and don't look at that question again. If you are pretty sure, but not totally sure, put a dot under the letter, meaning "take one more look at this one." If you are completely unsure, then put a dash, or a question mark next to it, and move on. Don't spend very long on any one question on the first pass. Come back to the hard ones on the second pass. Sometimes something in another question, or on another part of your memory sheet, will clue you in to the answer you couldn't get on the first pass.

--Answer all the questions on your exam sheet, and when you are satisfied, then start at the top and fill in your scantron sheet carefully with a #2 pencil. Some people lose points because of sloppy penciling, caused in part by writing and then erasing marks. Do all that stuff on your exam sheet. Plus you won't have to juggle 3 pieces of paper for each question.

--"All of the above" is not always the right answer. I always put a number of "bullsh__-catcher" responses on my exams, the sort of thing that a person who has not done the reading would think sounded like the right answer. I have found that people who don't study for exams are the most likely to pick "all of the above" whenever it is offered, even if two of the answers are mutually contradictory. (But sometimes it will be correct!)


And no matter what happens, don't lose your sense of perspective. When you apply to jobs and graduate schools, people will nod approvingly when they see that you went to UVA. A few of them will look further, and see your GPA. Almost nobody is going to look through your transcript and see what you got in Psyc 101. So do your best, then don't worry about it.