Be Social When you Study!
It’s midterm time! I wrote a blog post a few years ago about how to take notes and the issues surrounding using laptops in the classroom, but in the spirit of the midterm season, I thought I would share some ideas about how to study.
In some way, I am sure that some of you are thinking, “I’ve gotten this far, so I must be doing something right.” In a way, that’s true. If you are a first-year student, however, the collegiate experience is a different magnitude than what you have experienced before. You will no longer just be consuming information like you may have done in high school. You will now be expected to rehearse and use what you know.
I would strongly encourage you to get a few classmates together and make some study dates. Keep each other on track by sitting at a big table together in the library and reading together. Do what my friends and I do at dinner so that we can focus on each other rather than our inboxes: stack your phones on top of each other to dissuade each other from checking them periodically.
Mark A. McDaniel’s article, “The limited beneﬁts of rereading educational texts” discusses how most students feel the best way to study is to read carefully, write down unfamiliar terms and look up their meanings, and then make an outline. Perhaps, if an option, take some time to reread each chapter. But, he notes, research shows that re-reading leads to a sense of familiarity, which gives students an inflated sense of mastery and confidence. Instead, McDaniel says that you should do this: Close the Book. Recall. Write it down.
But, one of the freakiest things about knowledge is that, if you don’t know much, you’re actually more likely to overestimate what you think you know. This form of cognitive bias is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. (Whenever I think I have a full grasp of something I’m reminded of the initial case that inspired the concept: a man misunderstood the chemical properties of lemon juice as being able to render something invisible, and spread it over his face believing that he would be invisible to security cameras. Guess what. He wasn’t.) The flip side to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is The Impostor Syndrome: the ability to see their own successes as flukes rather than the result of their own accomplishments.
In thinking through Dunning-Kruger Effect and The Impostor Syndrome, and how to study what you know, I think a critical strategy is to get out of your own head and study with other people. (No surprise: a sociologist thinks that you should be more social!)
So, here’s a more social way of learning a subject, pioneered by American physicist, Richard Feynman. He was a really quirky guy. He was enough of a genius to have a graphic novel written about him, and he offers four steps on how to learn. Why should you listen to Feynman? Because he was quite famous for being able to take even the most complex ideas in physics and make them understandable to the everyday person. He was called “The Great Explainer.”
Step 1: Pick a topic that you want to learn something about, and start studying it.
Ok, that seems simple enough.
Step 2: Mimic giving a lecture to a class. Here you can use that group of classmates again. Each of you could take a portion of the class materials and prepare a talk about it. Give that presentation to your group, and everyone should take notes. Step 2 is way to turn those reading groups into learning groups.
Step 3: Hit the books again. Now that you have a firm grasp of a section of the course materials, go back to the readings and broaden that sphere of knowledge. Perhaps use that slice of the course content to understand other facets of the materials.
Step 4: Simplify and use analogies. Now that you have that broader understanding, go back and break everything down further, but also think across substantive areas. For example, in an intro class you might look at how discrimination on race and gender are similar (and then how they intersect), or how we are socialized into different roles. But also: see if you can explain socialization and discrimination to your non-soc major roommate.