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Professor Pam Propsom

To Learn It, Teach It to a Friend

Here’s what I tell students on the second day of Intro Psych:

Consider the different study routines you may habitually use. For example, as you read an assigned chapter of a textbook, do you highlight every sentence that strikes you as important?  Do you memorize, word for word, the definition of every new term you encounter? Perhaps you make flashcards to help you memorize.

I am happy to tell you that while highlighting, memorizing, and flashcarding can be helpful, there’s a much more effective way to study psychology.  It’s conceptually simple, but the method takes some practice to do well. Studies confirm that this method, called retrieval practice, works far better than any other method both for learning new material (in Psychology as well as in other disciplines) and for retaining information in your mind over the long term.

Retrieval practice helps you learn facts that you’ll need to know for tests.  Even more important, it helps you answer questions that call for analysis, comparison and contrast, and application of ideas. Retrieval practice helps you recognize what you don’t know, and it helps you organize what you do know so that you can put the ideas and information to use.

Here are the key steps: 1) After you read a section of your textbook, close the book; then try as hard as you can to recall the main concepts and key terms, and jot these down in your own words.  2) Re-open the textbook to check what you remembered -- or didn’t quite remember. 3) Working with classmates, take turns teaching one another the material you’ve been assigned to read. Quiz one another. Revisit ideas from the textbook and class discussion actively, both aloud and in writing. 

4) If you are puzzled by an idea in the textbook, talk to someone about it. This simple act will help clear things up in your mind.  As you try to express to a friend what you don’t quite get, you’ll find yourself coming closer to an understanding. And your listener is likely to respond in a way that makes the concept clearer and more complete.

If you fall behind in class because of illness, remember that there are many ways to recover and do well. In my Intro class, you can erase a poor grade on a test if you do better on a later test. You can earn points in class every day.  You can ask me or a STEM Guide for practice problems to work through as a way of catching up. When the time comes for the comprehensive exam, you will be able to show me that you understand material from throughout the semester.  

Intro. to Psychology Tests

I make a Study Guide before each test.  It’s wise to work through this Guide thoroughly.

My tests include both multiple choice questions and essays.  You can learn to do well in both of these challenges, no matter what you may think of your talents and shortcomings. It’s simply a matter of learning the skills.  

To do well in multiple choice questions, here are a few tips:  

1)  Be sure you know key concepts -- not just definitions of terms -- inside and out.

2)  Scribble all over your exam sheet, circling terms that you know are critical, such as “not” or  “always” or “different.”

3)  As you read a question, cover the answer.  Come up with your own answer first.  

4)  Remember to find the best answer to each question; don’t overthink and tie yourself into knots.

The essay questions I ask are of two sorts: comparison and contrast, and application. You’ll be expected to know, for example, the difference between correlation and causation, and between the behaviorist and psychodynamic perspectives. You’ll be asked to apply ideas to new situations, such as how to use the concepts of classical and operant conditioning to understand your dog’s behavior, and to explain the evidence that scientists use to support the validity of a particular theory. 

If you let yourself be drawn into your work, you may come to love it. I became a Psychology major somewhat by accident.  Many different disciplines attracted me -- humanities as much as sciences. I found that I particularly liked my Abnormal Psychology class in my sophomore year.  When the professor said, “You’re pretty good at this,” that was it. I’d found my major, and as it turns out, my future career.