The Better Grades

Flipped open the most recent issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science today. The first study grabbed my attention: it's about factors related to students getting higher grades. Does it have your attention now, too?

This study was a meta-analysis, which is an analysis of previously published studies. This means it's probably going to give a pretty accurate big picture on academic performance. It's obvious that a good predictor of how you're going to do in a given course is how well you've done in previous courses. Unfortunately, but it's a bit of a circular argument. (Why did you perform at the level you did in the previous course? Because of how you did in the previous course, etc.) So this study helps break out of that circle.

This study found three factors that are really important contributing factors. First, study motivation was found to be a reliable predictor of GPA. Translation: the more enthused you are about a course, the better you're likely to do. OK, so how do you do that? Choose your courses carefully, and take courses that you want to take, as much as possible. If you're in law school and hating every second of it, how much fun is it going to be when you're a lawyer? (Granted, there are also external or "extrinsic" motivators. Getting filthy rich is an extrinsic motivator for some people. Hmph.)

Study skills include your time management skills, your ability to handle demands, and your capability to organize, summarize, and integrate material. If all you do is memorize stuff, your study skills could use an upgrade. Can you see the big-picture, or patterns in the things you're trying to learn? Study skills also had strong relationships with GPA and individual class grades. (Didja know you can get help with this?)

Next, study habits were also found to be predictive of performance. This includes having discipline in how you study: how often, whether your review, and even your choice of an environment that's conducive to studying (i.e., iPod turned off, no TV or computer, no other distractions).

Lastly, I wanted to mention that having study anxiety was a negative predictor of performance; that is, if studying or writing an exam freaks you out, you're less likely to do well. (Didja know you can get help with this, too?)

Here's the reference for this study:
Crede, M., & Kuncel, N. R. (2008). Study habits, skills, and attitudes: The third pillar supporting collegiate academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 425-453.

Why aren't you studying?

The Lecture Notes

I post my (incomplete) lecture notes online. (Yes, incomplete. Why? More on that in a future post.) I post the notes in HTML format, the "language of the web." I could post them in other formats, but I choose not to.

PDF files are really inflexible. You can look at them, and print them out...and that's about all. What if you want to make the typeface bigger or smaller? It's almost impossible. So you can't edit them or (easily) load them into other software. Why would anyone want to edit them? Quite a few students type in the fill-in words, which are so inconveniently missing in the lecture notes.

OK, so how about Word files? They are totally flexible, and you can even edit them with Google Docs or the free Open Office. I've considered this, but it would be a lot of work to convert what I've got to DOC files.

The ultimate has to be: PowerPoint. If I were to post my PPT slides, all students could have the exact duplicate of what I show on the big screen in class. That's one reason why I don't post them. If I did, attendance in class would drop. Why bother coming to class, right? Maybe just the most motivated students would come. Look, we're all adults here: you don't have to come to class...ever. But you don't have to pass, either. And isn't it my job to help you learn (and pass the course)?

I like to have neat little demos and things in class. If everyone had those beforehand, it would spoil the surprise. I could edit out interactive components before I post the slides, but that would mean a lot of extra work. (I'm all about not doing extra work. I like doing other things, like eating, sleeping, and holding the baby until she screams in my ear for her mama.) Printing out PowerPoint slides is cumbersome, too.

I've used HTML format because it's super easy to adjust the size of the typeface. (Don't know how? Just ask me.) You can also load a page of lecture notes into Word (simply paste the URL of the lecture you want into the open files dialog box and you're good to go). When you print them out, there's a lot of room in the margins for you to take extra notes, make annotations, and other things that help you to learn.

Putting aside the fact that the notes are incomplete, what format do you prefer? Do you want to download a bunch of 50 MB PowerPoint slides? Is Word your favourite? Or are they okay as is?

Why aren't you studying?

The Open Comments: 1

This is an open comments post. So I'm not going to say anything, but let you say whatever you want in the comments below. It can be about this blog, about your in-class experience, questions for me, whatever.

I know I should do this more often--I just forgot! (No comments/suggestions/feedback? You can tell me if you want an open comments posting once a month, once a week...or never.)

The Importance of Sleep

OK, so this is on my mind all the time: sleep. I want it. I need it. The more the better. Cuz babies are sleep-stealers, you know. Waa, waa, waa, all night. Then they close their li'l eyes and drift off to sleep the moment your alarm goes off and you have to go to work and they end up sleeping all day. *sigh*

If you've gone through intro psych, you know a bit about sleep: circadian rhythms, stages of sleep, that kind of stuff. I hope your prof also talked about the psychological effects of sleep as well. Research since the mid-1990s has shown the critical importance of sleep to learning and remembering.

One study looked at neural activity as rats learned to go through a maze. Based on the pattern of neural activity alone, the researchers could tell where the rats were in the actual maze, tracing their route from start to finish. The electrodes were still in the rats as they slept, and the researchers continued to examine neural activity. The pattern of brain activity in sleeping rats was the same as when they were actually running through the maze. The brain seems to be replaying experiences at night when you sleep.

Studies on people show improvements in all kinds of tasks with sleep, including visual and language tasks, logic puzzles, and generally improving memories. When cut back on sleep (e.g., by staying up late or pulling an all-nighter), you're not helping your brain do it's best to form, consolidate, and strengthen the things you're trying to learn. If you're a sleepless, tired student trying to pack as much as you can into your cranium, you're missing out on a great, free, useful tool to getting better grades: blissful sleep.

Want to read more? Scientific American Mind has a great article (I love the title): Sleep on It: How Snoozing Makes You Smarter.

Why aren't you studying? (Or sleeping?)

The New Beginning

Sometimes things come together in strange ways. Of course, it's a new year (happy new year, by the way). So you put up your new Star Wars calendar. Ah, that looks good.

Of course, it's a new semester (happy, er, new semester, by the way). Ah, crap. Life changes completely every 4 months. Just when I adjusted to last semester, too.

Of course, I've got a new baby. Yeah, yeah--my wife did. But I helped. That's an awesome new beginning.

And, of course, I've got a birthday coming up. So that's another new beginning--another trip around the sun. I don't have a problem being with that. But having a baby makes me think about what the world was like when I was born: no one had walked on the moon, the Beatles were still together, and "dude" meant an ill-bred, ignorant, and ostentatious man from the city.

I found an interesting collection of celebrities who share my birth year:

  • Cuba Gooding Jr
  • LL Cool J
  • Edward Burns
  • Molly Ringwald
  • Daniel Craig
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Celine Dion
  • Patricia Arquette
  • Tony Hawk
  • Kylie Minogue
  • Gillian Anderson
  • Rachel Ray
  • Will Smith
  • Hugh Jackman
  • Owen Wilson
  • Jill Hennessy
  • Lucy Liu
That, my friends, is a cool list of folks. I mean, c'mon: it includes James Bond and Wolverine.

These were born on same day, but in a different year:
  • Matt Frewer
  • Michael Stipe.
No one interesting was born on my exact birth day and year--well, except me!

UPDATE: I changed the title of this post to reflect the fact that it's a beginning, not the beginning, if that makes sense.

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