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 help.

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.

How to Study

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 psychology specifically.

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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?"
  3. 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."
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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 posed.

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 Test

"I hate multiple choice exams! Why do we have to have these kinds of exams at all?"

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 academic activities.

"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 exam?"

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 writing:

"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 Test

What can you do before the exam?

What about during the exam?

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:

How can I stop procrastinating?

There are several tips that you can try. The key is to find what works for you.