Study Skills for Students
How to Study
Writing Multiple-choice Tests
Writing Essay Tests
While all the material on this website is meant to help in the exploration
and understanding of psychology, students often have particular concerns
related to studying and writing tests and assignments. For those who are
interested, the following information and tips may be helpful. (Note: study
tips on this page Copyright 2003 by Marilyn Hadad)
Many students complain about difficulty in concentrating. The irony is that
the more you worry about it, the less you are able to concentrate! Consequently,
any strategies that try to help you concentrate directly are most likely
to fail. The better, more efficient and effective strategy is to determine
why you are having trouble concentrating and fix that problem.
1. Are you having disruptions?
Are you living in a noisy area? For example, are your family or roommates
talking, arguing, playing loud music, etc. that you find very distracting?
Your immediate tendency is probably to yell at everyone to quiet down and
fume to yourself, "Who do they think they are?" The painful reality is that
they are the people who live there too, and they probably have a right to
make a noise (even if it is insensitive of them). The answer doesn't lie
with them it lies with you. Find another place to study. Libraries
tend to be good choices (your neighbourhood library and you university library
enforce relative quiet). Be creative. One student found that her large family
was much too noisy for her to study effectively, yet they felt uneasy about
her staying late at the university library. She made arrangements with her
neighbourhood priest to allow her and a few others to use a room in the basement
of the church for study purposes during certain hours. She was able to do
her studying and her family felt more at ease.
2. Are you having a physical problem?
Certainly you are busy, but you still need to take proper care of yourself,
or problems (such as lack of concentration!) will crop up. Are you getting
enough sleep? Are you eating properly? Are you getting exercise? Are you
trying to study something difficult at a time of the day when your own natural
body rhythm tends to be low (mid-afternoon and the hours between midnight
and dawn are often low energy times)? You many need to re-examine your time
management strategies to make sure that there is ample time for sleep, exercise,
and nutritious eating. Taking the time to do these things saves time in the
long run. Also be aware that you may be asking too much of yourself. If you
set a goal that is too high, you could be wearing yourself out and becoming
overloaded, thereby decreasing your concentration immensely. For example,
setting the goal of reading 5 chapters of your text on Saturday afternoon
is probably dooming you to concentration problems. A much better strategy
is to set more, smaller goals, with breaks in between to keep you from becoming
too fatigued. So set the goal of reading part of one chapter, take a 10 minute
break to refresh your mind, then move to the next goal of reading another
part of the chapter, and so on. Again, you will find that this will save
time in the long run.
3. Are you having a psychological problem?
The problem could be in what you're telling yourself. Listen to your own
thoughts. Are saying, "I'll never get all this done. I can't concentrate
on this. This bores me. The test is coming in two days and I can't remember
what I just read!" If you hear yourself saying this sort of thing, notice
that now you're distracting yourself just as much as a noisy roommate would!
Also, you're undermining yourself by convincing yourself that the work is
beyond you. It's not. If you were bright enough to get into university or
college, chances are you're bright enough to graduate! It may simply take
more work. These are the statements you need to say to yourself. First, they
are more accurate, and second they are more motivating. So when you hear
yourself telling yourself something less than supportive, silently yell,
"STOP!" and replace the negative self-statement with a more positive one:
"This is a challenge, but let's just take it one paragraph at a time. Good,
I understood that sentence- now for the next one..." By the way, you may
find the same problem gets in your way when you try to write an essay or
a test. Use the same strategy to help yourself. Treat yourself with the same
support that you would give to your best friend.
4. Is something sapping your motivation?
It's true that university is a place for bright people, but it's also true
that many bright people don't make it through university. Why is this so?
Very often it's because they are having motivational problems. Don't be quick
to judge people in this area. It may look like someone is failing because
he/she has become a party animal, but it's possible that the party animal
is behaving this way because he/she is uneasy or uncomfortable with being
in university in the first place. Or perhaps the programme doesn't "fit"
well. Or he/she is being overwhelmed with the new responsibilities and feels
unequal to the task of living up to powerful expectations (their own or others').
If this sounds like it might be part of your problem, get some counseling.
Every university has a counseling centre that specializes in the problems
of students, with sympathy, consideration, confidentiality, and good sound
Maybe the motivational problem is a temporary one: maybe the problem is just
with one course. Again, a dose of reality: we all have courses, professors,
employers, and parts of a job that we don't like. But we can't let that stand
in the way of our success. One good technique for dealing with the work we
find unappetizing is to break the work into small segments and reward yourself
for completing each segment. For example, you might study one section of
the disliked book, and then treat yourself- maybe a quick cup of coffee or
tea, or a walk around the block, or 10 minutes of play with your dog, or
listening to your favourite music for 10 minutes, or whatever you find rewarding.
The trick is to make the reward contingent on doing a little bit of what
you find tedious.
5. Are you having personal problems?
Nothing impedes concentration like worrying about something. A quarrel with
a loved one, ongoing family problems, concern over personal issues such as
shyness or loneliness, can all get in the way of concentrating. In many cases,
we would like to curl up in ball and forget all about the work we have to
do. People who have tried this technique can attest to the fact that not
only does it not work, but it makes the situation much more difficult in
the long run. Very few students make it through university without having
at least one personal crisis occur. Most who have graduated can look back
on their years at university and identify at least one less-than- optimal
semester. This is normal. This is life. What can you do? First, if the problem
is long- lasting and severe, get help. Again, your university counseling
centre is a good first stop. If the staff there can't help you, they can
help you find someone who can. For less serious or more short-term problems,
you may find that a friend or an academic advisor can provide some perspective
for you and might even have ideas for handling the problem that you haven't
considered. One technique that has been found to be useful for the "chronic
worriers" among us is to set a time when we will worry. For example, when
worrying gets in the way of concentration, you might say to yourself, "I'll
worry for 20 minutes now, and from 2:30 to 3:00 this afternoon." When your
20 minutes are up (and you will probably find that you can't keep worrying
for that long), go back to work and stop at the next allotted "worry time".
Using this technique has been found to be helpful in breaking the worry habit.
Since you have made it to a university level, you probably already know something
about studying. You don't need to be reminded that you need a quiet spot,
proper lighting, etc. But perhaps you do need some tips about how to approach
In the first place, you must keep in mind that psychology is a science. In
a science, it isn't enough to get a "general idea" about what is happening:
you need specifics, details are important. In physics class, you wouldn't
say that energy is the product of mass and speed of light; you would say
specifically "e=mc2". You need to approach psychology the same way.
In the second place, we all come into situations with assumptions about how
things work. Of course you have assumptions about what people are like and
why they act in certain ways. But a large part of the fun (and frustration)
of psychology is that we are very often wrong in our assumptions- sometimes
people do things that we would never have predicted! You will see an example
of that in Chapter1 in the experiments of Latané and Darley on bystander
apathy: it is very hard to imagine that there are circumstances in which
good people know that someone needs help, and yet they fail to give it. Yet
it happens. In studying psychology, keep your eyes open for the unexpected.
Don't trip yourself up by making assumptions that are unsubstantiated.
One assumption that people make is that studying for hours will mean perfect
memory for the material. As you will see in Chapter 4, the Cognitive Approach,
this isn't so. Studies in human memory show quite clearly that in order to
remember information, it must be actively processed. This involves your input:
you need to organize the material, elaborate on it, paraphrase it, make up
questions and examples about it. This may seem like a lot of work, but in
the long run, it's another time-saver. The usual study methods of reading,
rereading, highlighting, copying definitions, etc. are really quite passive
and have been demonstrated to be far less efficient and far more time consuming.
There are many active techniques that have been found to be useful. In some
cases, students find that drawing diagrams or creating flow charts of information
helps them to remember. One notable active processing strategy for studying
is the PQ4R Method (Thomas & Robinson, 1972):
Preview. Flip through the pages of the chapter to be studied to get
an idea of what is coming. Look at the outline at the beginning of the chapter,
noting the main headings and subheadings. Look at the terms that are in boldface.
This will prepare you to begin the organization of material yourself.
Questions. Before you begin to read each section, make up questions
yourself about the heading of that section. For example, one of the first
headings in Chapter 1 is "The Challenge of Psychology". You might ask yourself
"Why is psychology considered to be challenging? What makes it so challenging?"
Read. Now read the section closely, looking in particular for the
answers to the questions you have posed. For example, "Psychology is so
challenging because of the complexity of human behaviour, etc."
Reflect. Think about what you are reading. Try to understand it, create
examples of your own, relate the material to your own life, if you can. In
the example above, you might think about how you have demonstrated complexity
in what seems like a simple choice: taking a course in psychology. There
was probably no single reason why you took the course; rather, there were
probably several. It sounded interesting; someone you knew took the course
and enjoyed it; you heard good things about the professor who teaches the
course; it fit your timetable. Now realize that if this one choice was complex,
other aspects of human behaviour must be even more so. No wonder psychology
is considered such a challenge!
Recite. After you finish reading a section of a text, put the book
down and try to remember what you have read. One good technique is to pretend
that you are the professor and you have 2 minutes to teach a tired, overworked
class about the contents of that section. What would you say? What examples
would you give? How would you show the class that this is information worth
knowing? If you can't do this, go back and read the section again.
Review. After you have finished the chapter, go back over the sections
and mentally recall the main points and the answers to the questions you
When you think you know all the material, go back over it one more time.
This is overlearning and it is very helpful in consolidating information
in your memory.
Finally, enjoy psychology. You are learning about people, the most fascinating
creatures in the universe!
Writing a Multiple-choice
"I hate multiple choice exams! Why do we have to have these kinds of exams
Multiple choice exams are common in university, especially in large introductory
courses. They are efficient in large classes because they can be marked quickly
enough (often by computer) to provide students with feedback before memory
of the test has completely faded. Multiple choice exams are efficient in
classes in which there are large numbers of facts to be learned. The oft-
heard complaint, "Prof. X is only interested in regurgitation of information",
is true in some cases: in some subjects, you need to learn the facts and
be able to "regurgitate" them before you are able to go on to more stimulating
"Well, at least multiple choice exams are easier than other types of exams
because all one has to do is recognize the right answer."
This is generally a myth. Good multiple choice questions often require not
only knowledge of fact, but also synthesis, analysis and application of fact.
That's why very often you may be allowed to see your test after it's been
marked, but you may not be allowed to keep it: well- crafted multiple choice
questions are hard to come by, and many instructors will recycle those that
have been found to be particularly good. You should also be aware that sometimes
you will recognize incorrect answers. For example, all the alternatives to
a multiple choice question may come straight from the textbook, but only
one applies to the stem of the question. Recognition alone won't do you much
good in this case.
"Then how does one study for a multiple choice test?"
Actually, studying for a multiple choice test may not be so different from
studying for an essay test. You need to recognize the information, understand
its relevance to other information you have, and be able to show how it applies
in a variety of settings. This means that memorizing definitions of new
terms/concepts would probably be a waste of time for a multiple choice test
since you will not have to produce a definition on your own. A better idea
would be to learn what the concept is and think up your own examples of its
application and relevance to other concepts.
Here's a technique that has been found to be very useful in studying. Pretend
that you're the professor of the course and you have 2 minutes to teach a
concept to a group of students who have never heard of it before. What would
you say? If you have a friend or relative who is a particularly good sport,
you might want to try this out on him/her. Did he/she understand the concept?
If you can teach someone else the concept, complete with examples, without
looking at your notes or text, you are likely to be well-prepared to answer
questions on that concept. (Note that this is probably not a good technique
to try with a study group since these people presumably already have some
idea of what the concept means. Their own knowledge makes them unable to
judge whether you have explained the concept adequately.)
Another good method to use to study for a multiple choice exam is to try
making up multiple choice questions yourself. You will soon see how difficult
it is to make up this kind of question, and you will give you a concrete
feel for the kinds of multiple choice questions that are possible. If you
are in a study group, you can test each other, as well as experience the
different types of multiple choice questions that different people create.
"It's exam day, and I think I'm prepared. Are there any tips for writing
The most important influence on test performance is the preparation done
in advance, but the following points are worth keeping in mind when you're
Read the instructions. Are you told to mark the one correct answer? Or all
the correct answers? Is there a penalty for guessing? If the instructions
don't specify this, ask the instructor.
If your exam is made up of multiple choice questions and other types of
questions, such as short answer or essay questions, answer the multiple choice
questions first. They tend to be faster to do, and doing them may trigger
your memory for information you may need in subsequent questions.
Work quickly. University students are expected to be able to answer one multiple
choice question in less than one minute. If you spend too long on any one
question, you may not have time to finish the exam. Be aware of the time
element when you practice answering multiple choice questions in your studying.
If you find yourself spending more than one minute on a single question,
put a question mark beside it and go on to the next question. An added benefit
is that a subsequent question may give you a hint or memory clue regarding
the question you skipped. Come back to skipped questions when you have finished
the other questions. You may find you now have an idea about the answers,
and at least you will have more time to think about it.
It follows from the preceding tip that it's a good idea to answer only those
questions you are sure of and come back to the others. Again, you will reap
the benefits of memory cues, additional time, plus the great feeling of knowing
that there were many questions that you were completely ready for. The increase
in self-confidence that this brings is very helpful in removing anxiety that
impairs your memory.
People who prefer essay or short answer exams often find it helpful to read
only the stem of a multiple choice question, covering up the alternatives.
They then anticipate the right answer, check the alternatives given, and
pick the one that comes closest to what they anticipated.
Watch out for negatives in the stem. If the stem uses "not" or "none", etc.,
then all but one of the alternatives will be correct. Your task is to look
for the alternative that is wrong in this case. Underlining or highlighting
significant words, such as "not", in the stem will keep you from being too
confused. When the stem reads something like "All of the following statements
are true except", underline "except", and put a check mark beside each
alternative that is correct. The alternative left over is the right answer.
When you come back to the questions that stumped you, try to eliminate one
or more of the alternatives. Alternatives that have absolute terms such as
"always", "never", "only", "every", etc. are often the ones that are incorrect,
especially in psychology. Check the grammar as well: if the alternative doesn't
grammatically fit the stem of the question, it may be a good alternative
If you are still stumped by a question and there is no penalty for guessing,
by all means guess. If there are five alternatives and you have eliminated
three, you have a 50% chance of being correct in your guess. If you can't
eliminate any of five alternatives, you still have a 20% chance of being
correct if you guess. But if you leave the question out, you have a 0% chance
of being correct.
If you run out of time and there is no penalty for guessing, guess at the
remaining questions. For example, answer "c" to all of them. This gives you
a chance at getting some marks at least.
"Is it true that you should never go back over a multiple choice test
to change answers?"
That depends. Sometimes, when you look back at a question, you will see that
you misinterpreted it the first time around. Or you may have had your memory
jogged by later questions so that you realize that your first answer was
wrong. Obviously, changing your answer under these circumstances would be
the right thing to do. But resist the tendency to go back over questions
that you felt pretty confident about and start saying to yourself, "Oho!
I bet the professor was trying to trick us on this one." This leads students
to read more into questions than is warranted or to misinterpret what the
question is asking. Students then sometimes change their formerly right answer
into a wrong answer. Be aware that professors very rarely try to trick anyone
on an exam. As one professor put it, "Why should we try to trick them? If
we really want them to fail, we can do it with non-trick questions." Depressing,
but a good point.
"After the exam is returned, I really want to throw it out."
Don't do that. That's self-sabotage. Another depressing but good point is
that we learn more form our mistakes than we do from the things we did right.
(After all, we may have answered correctly because of chance- we just guessed!)
Look at your mistakes and try to determine where you went wrong. You may
be able to see a pattern. For example, you may find that your errors cluster
around one particular topic. Know, then, for subsequent exams, that your
understanding of that topic wasn't as good as you thought it was. This may
mean that you need to change your study strategy or that you need to study
more in that area. You may find that you answered factual questions correctly,
but you missed some questions in which application of the information was
required. This alerts you to pay more attention to application in the future.
Perhaps you should spend more time in making up your own examples. maybe
you will find that the materia you thought was important was not the material
your professor thought was important. In this case, look at the questions
you answered correctly. How did you know that these were important areas
to cover? Is it possible that your professor expects a more detailed
understanding of the material than you had realized? If you are allowed to
keep your test when it is returned, give yourself a day or two to become
calmer and more objective ( this is especially important if you haven't done
as well as you thought you would), and look up the answers to the questions
you missed. Did you think that topic was unimportant? Or did you not study
it as thoroughly as you should have? Or was your study strategy at fault?
If you can't come to any conclusion about why you made the errors you made,
see your professor. (Note: the approach with a professor is not, "I'm an
A student and I only got a C on your test and I want to know why." This sounds
belligerent and almost forces professors to become defensive. Besides, the
obvious answer to why you got a C is because you answered questions incorrectly-
your marks in other courses are irrelevant. Professors are typically pretty
committed to helping you learn, and will respond much better if you say,
"I didn't do as well as I hoped on this test and I very much want to improve
in the future. Can you help me?")
Writing an Essay
What can you do before the exam?
Follow the suggestions on "How to Study Psychology"
Try to predict the questions the professor might ask. This is a task that
classmates can help with. If you have a study group, all members can predict
questions and test each other on the answers.
Look at the learning objectives at the beginning of the chapter in your textbook.
These will suggest what areas might be fertile ground for essay questions.
If there is something that you don't understand from the textbook or the
lectures, ASK RIGHT AWAY! It's likely that a lack of understanding at one
point will make understanding of subsequent information difficult, if not
impossible. If you wait until the day before the exam to ask your questions,
you may find 30 students lined up outside the professor's door.
Find out your professor's area of expertise or of special interest. Professors
often tap their pet areas for essay questions.
Make sure that you have all the supplies you need for the exam: at least
two working pens, pencils, erasers, etc.
What about during the exam?
First, take two or three deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose to the
count of five and breathe out through your mouth to the count of seven. This
is a quick relaxation technique. Many students start their exam with a high
level of anxiety, and may even find themselves thinking, "I don't know the
answers to any of these questions. I don't even know what the questions mean!"
This is a panic reaction- you probably do know the answers to the questions,
but your mind needs to be calmer to let the answers come out.
Read the exam instructions first. There is an old academic story (probably
apocryphal) about a professor who was so tired of students not reading the
instructions that he wrote the following instructions at the beginning of
his three-hour exam: "Do not write answers to any of these questions. Leave
everything black. Blankness will earn a mark of A." The story goes that only
5% of the class received an A on that exam! This probably won't happen to
you, but it can be a terrible waste of time and energy if you try to answer
all the questions when the instructions indicate that you should answer only
3 out of 5. And bear in mind that if you do answer all 5 questions under
these circumstances, only the first 3 will be marked (even if your last 2
answers were better). When the instructions indicate that you are to choose
which questions you answer, the responsibility of choice is with you; it
is not the responsibility of the marker to pick which answers will give you
the highest mark. So save yourself time, aggravation, and embarrassment by
reading the instructions carefully before you start to write.
Read the whole exam. Jot noted at the sides of the questions for points to
remember as you read the exam for the first time. Mark key words in order
to understand what each question is asking: are you being asked to analyze,
compare, contrast, discuss, describe? Each requires a different approach.
if you are unsure what the question is asking, ask the instructor.
If there is a choice among questions, this is the time to choose which questions
you will answer. (Note: if two questions seem to be calling for the same
answer, you're on the wrong track- don't choose either of them.) Calculate
the amount of time that you can spend on each question. Clearly, questions
worth more marks must be given more time. (True story: Student N spent an
hour of a two-hour exam answering one question that was worth 10% of the
total exam mark. At the end of the exam, she complained that there wasn't
enough time to finish!) Try to stick to your time plan. If you do run out
of time at the end, try to jot down a few ideas in point form- the marker
may give a little credit for this. Budget in a little time to reread your
paper at the end.
Make a brief outline for each question you plan to answer. This is very important
because it will keep you on track. Too often students fail to answer the
question or run out of time because they write everything they know about
the topic, feeling secure that the answer must be in there somewhere and
the professor will be impressed with the amount of knowledge the student
has. Wrong. This technique suggests to the professor that the student doesn't
understand enough about the area to know which part of the answer (if any)
is relevant to the question. Or it suggests that the student somehow thinks
that the marker has unlimited time to peruse the mass of writing and the
responsibility to do the student's work (i.e., pick out the relevant portions).
Marks drop with this technique, so make sure your answer stays on point.
Start with the question you feel most confident in answering. This will boost
your self- confidence and may trigger your memory for answers to other questions.
But be sure that you don't spend more than the time you have allotted on
Make the exam easy for the marker to read. That means, write legibly,
double-space, use paragraphs with only one idea per paragraph, and use logic
and facts to supprt your opinions.
And after the exam?
· If the test or exam is returned to students and discussed in class,
make sure you are there to find out how you fared. Your goal is not to find
out "where you lost marks" (typically university doesn't work that way,
especially in essay exams), but to see how to gain more marks in the future.
It's a sad truth for all of us, but we learn more from our mistakes than
from what we did right. Did you have an area of weakness that you didn't
recognize before the exam? This would prompt you to re-evaluate your study
methods before the next exam. Did you misinterpret questions? This might
suggest that anxiety is a problem for you and you need some relaxation training.
Or it may mean that you didn't spend enough time reading the question. If
you can't see for yourself what the problem was, put the exam away for a
couple of days; maybe you're just too upset right now to see the problem.
If, in a couple of days, you still can't see what you could do to fare better
at the next test or exam, talk to your professor.
Why do people procrastinate?
People procrastinate for a variety of reasons, sometimes for more than one
reason. The following are the most common reasons:
An excuse for poor performance. Sometimes we procrastinate because we are
experiencing low self-esteem and self-confidence. Or we may be perfectionists.
In either case, when we fear that we will not be successful in the task,
or the finished product will not live up to our (unrealistic) standards,
it may be easier to put off the task. Then, when the finished product is
mediocre, we can reassure ourselves that the substandard result was not a
product of our inadequacy, but a result of having too little time to do the
task properly. It hurts less to say, "I got a D because I only started the
assignment the night before it was due" than to say, "I got a D because my
best wasn't good enough for anything more." Of course, if the finished product
is satisfactory, we are reinforced for procrastinating and can be expected
to repeat the behaviour.
The task is very large or unpleasant. The sad reality of life is that no
matter how much we enjoy our work, there are some elements of it that we
enjoy less than others. Sometimes the task we are given is so large or complex
that we feel overwhelmed. In these situations, we may procrastinate simply
to avoid the aversiveness of the task.
Overoptimism. When we face a task, we judge how much time will be needed
to complete it. Sometimes, and especially with tasks that are new to us,
we underestimate how much time will be required. This often leads us to leave
a task for too long, under the assumption that we will have plenty of time
to finish it. Some of us are also overly optimistic about the time that we
have: we assume that we will not catch a cold, our friends will not experience
a crisis and need us, our families will be amiable and supportive. In short,
we assume that nothing will happen that may take up our time and energy.
This is a gamble, and in the long run, gamblers usually lose.
Overscheduling. In some cases, we take on too much work or too many activities.
This may be because we have a problem being assertive and we feel uncomfortable
saying no to anyone who places demands on our time. Or we may have problems
delegating work to others, under the belief that "If you want something done
right, you have to do it yourself." Or we may believe that by being very
busy, we look important to others, and maybe to ourselves.
False beliefs. The most common false belief that procrastinators may have
is that "I work best under pressure." Ths belief often comes from the spurt
of energy that we have at the last minute to finish the task. It's important
to be aware, however, that this energy is only gained because our backs are
against the wall and we have no choice. If we manage to finish the task and
it is given a satisfactory response, such as a good grade, we tend to believe
that this is because we work so well under the stress of an imminent deadline.
The truth is that we received a satisfactory response in spite of the pressure
we were under: the gamble paid off, and we assume that it always will. If
we had not procrastinated, the chances are our results would have been much
better, and we would have spared ourselves considerable stress.
How can I stop procrastinating?
There are several tips that you can try. The key is to find what works for
Break the task into small steps, the smaller the better. This is a particularly
good idea for large complex tasks that look overwhelming. Climbing a mountain
is daunting, but crossing a series of molehills is far less anxiety-inducing.
Once the first step is taken, no matter how small, it is more likely that
you will go on.
Take advantage of small blocks of time. Often we tell ourselves that we will
do a task when we have a block of time large enough to complete the task.
Yet such an uninterrupted block of time rarely comes, and if it does, we
are rarely able to take advantage of the whole block because we become fatigued.
If we learn how to take advantage of smaller blocks of time, we are more
likely to accomplish what we need. If we have broken the task into small
steps, it is easier to take advantage of the smaller time periods. Thus,
instead of searching for a whole weekend to plan, research, write, and edit
an essay, look for half an hour to plan the essay, a few hours spread out
over a few days to do the required research, an hour to write the introduction,
and so on.
Prioritize tasks. It's a common and natural tendency to want to do pleasant
jobs instead of unpleasant jobs. This isn't a problem if the pleasant jobs
are necessary and have close deadlines as well, but it is a problem if we
find ourselves doing an enjoyable assignment that's worth 5% of our final
grade while delaying work on an unenjoyable assignment that is worth 30%
of our final grade.
Talk to yourself realistically. We all talk to ourselves, and often we are
more unkind to ourselves than we would ever be to anyone else. We may tell
ourselves we are inadequate, that we are too stupid to be able to the task
properly, that we can't do anything right, that being less than perfect is
shameful. On the other hand, we may tell ourselves that we work best under
pressure and that four hours is plenty of time to write a 3000 word research
essay! All of these self-statements are unrealistic and untrue. The truth
is that we are very adequate human beings, that we are not perfect and will
never be so, but we can attain excellence and we need to strive for our personal
best. The truth is that time pressure is stressful, and stress diminishes
the ability to think and concentrate. The truth is that a 3000 word research
essay requires far more than four hours of time! Mentally shout "Stop!" to
yourself when you find yourself making an untrue and unrealistic self statement,
and immediately replace that statement with something more realistic and
more supportive. "I've written essays before, so I bet I can do this one.
I'll just take it a little bit at a time. I must be pretty smart to have
made it this far, so I'll demonstrate how smart I can be, and I'll learn
from this to get even better. The mark I got was less than I had hoped for,
but I learned a lot from my mistakes and I won't make those mistakes again"
Many people are skeptical of this approach, saying that even if they say
the positive statements to themselves, they still won't believe them. True,
this will take time you didn't learn to be negative and unrealistic
about yourself overnight, so becoming positive and realistic about yourself
won't happen overnight either. But by consistently stopping the negativity
and replacing it with a more positive outlook, you will find that over time,
you will come to believe the positive statements. And so you should
they are true.
Use social pressure. People can seduce us into procrastinating, but they
can also help us stop procrastinating. Tell people about your plans for
accomplishing a task. If we do this, we may feel obligated to follow through.
Also, knowing our plans for working may make those who would seduce us away
from work refrain form doing so! Another useful trick is to study with someone
who doesn't procrastinate or to study in a place such as a library where
the people around us are concentrating on work. The location will give little
opportunity for procrastination and the people working will serve as helpful
Time manage. Plan your tasks for each day. Overestimate rather than underestimate
how much time will be required for each task. In this way, you won't feel
rushed, and if you do have time left over, you will be free (guilt-free!)
to use the time in any way you want.
Reinforce yourself. All too often we get away with procrastinating
we may not have finished the task well, but maybe we finished it well enough
to get by. This has reinforced our procrastination, so we tend to repeat
the behaviour. We need to counteract this by reinforcing ourselves for not
procrastinating. We will see long term reinforcements in our improved work,
but we need short term reinforcements as well to establish our new behaviour.
So plan for a mocha cappuccino or a walk with the dog or 20 minutes of listening
to music or whatever you want after you work on one step of your task for
a pre-determined period of time without procrastinating. Your goal is to
create a new habit to replace your old habit of procrastinating.
Expect to fall off the wagon. You will find yourself slipping back into your
old habits sometimes. Don't worry about it in fact, don't give it a
moment's thought and definitely don't start scolding yourself for this! Just
start again right away. Everything is not lost because you made a mistake.
That just shows that you're not perfect. Accept this and move on.