Hulme_Transitions Hub

Psychology and Learning

Julie Hulme, Reader in Psychology and Director of Education in the School of Psychology, Keele University 1

Introduction As a student, learning is an important component of your everyday life! Psychology offers a diverse range of theoretical perspectives on learning, including developmental, social, cognitive and behavioural views on how we learn, why we learn, and what factors can influence learning. As a psychology student, you may well have encountered learning theories as part of your course. However, how often have you thought about how you might apply what you learn from psychology to help you to be a more effective student? In this chapter, we will be exploring the ways in which psychology can be applied to learning, both in an academic context during your studies, but also later throughout your life. We will examine some of the key learning tasks that you undertake every day, thinking about getting motivated to study, dealing with topics that are difficult to learn, writing coursework, critical thinking, and learning for long-term benefits, and think about the lessons that we can take from psychology to help you with all of these tasks. We will also critically discuss some different perspectives on individual differences between students in terms of the way they learn, including questioning whether your learning style has any influence on how you learn. I hope that, as you read this chapter, you will be reflecting on your own learning strategies, and finding ways to facilitate your own learning. Throughout this chapter, we will be focusing on these particular elements of psychological literacy, as defined by McGovern et al. (2010):  Having a well-defined vocabulary and basic knowledge of the critical subject matter of psychology;  Valuing the intellectual challenges required to use scientific thinking and the disciplined analysis of information to evaluate alternative courses of action;  Applying psychological principles to personal, social, and organizational issues in work, relationships and the broader community;  Being insightful and reflective about one’s own and others’ behaviour and mental processes.

What Will You Learn? By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

 Explore motivations for learning, and why they matter;  Identify strengths and weaknesses in your own learning strategies;  Evaluate different learning strategies in the light of psychological theory and research;  Apply psychological theory to facilitate your own learning.

1 This is a pre-press sample taken from a forthcoming text by Julie Hulme.

© Oxford University Press, 2020

What Motivates Learning? Questions about why people do the things that they do relate to the psychology of motivation, the reasons, thinking, and drives that cause a person to behave in a particular way. We are going to look at motivational theories by thinking about what motivated you to choose to study psychology at university. Why do you study psychology? Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, two professors of psychology from opposite sides of the world (Deci is based in New York in the United States and Ryan in Sydney, Australia) are perhaps the most famous psychologists involved in motivation research. Their research suggests that people can be motivated in two different ways: through intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation means doing something for its own sake, because it is interesting or enjoyable. Ryan and Deci define it as “doing an activity for its inherent satisfactions” (p56), and they note that curiosity is an important factor in intrinsic motivation. For example, it may be that you choose to study psychology because you find the subject fascinating, and you are curious about human behaviour. Extrinsic motivation means doing something for an external reward, or to achieve a goal. In Ryan and Deci’s words, an activity is done “in order to attain some separable outcome” (p61). So you might study psychology in order to obtain work as a psychologist, perhaps because you aspire to attaining rewards such as social status, or good pay, or because of personal goals, such as a desire to improve mental health in society. So, which is it? Phil Banyard, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, who is interested in psychology education in schools and colleges, carried out a survey of 872 students taking A-level psychology courses, and found that 62% of them chose psychology because “it sounded interesting”. This suggests that the majority of the students in his study may have been intrinsically motivated to take psychology (Banyard, 2013). Another UK survey, this time of 75 undergraduate psychology students, by social psychologists Rachel Bromnick and Ava Horowitz (2013), found that 66% of students chose to study psychology because they wanted to “help others”, and they often aspired to work with children or in therapeutic settings. The students’ personal values and desire to make a difference to the world around them were important extrinsic motivators. These two studies suggest that psychology students may be motivated by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Does this ring true for you?


Why do you study psychology?

Make a list of all of the reasons that you chose to study psychology at university. Sort your answers into two columns: intrinsically motivated and extrinsically motivated.

Have your reasons stayed the same since you started your university course? Or have they changed to become more intrinsic or more extrinsic?

© Oxford University Press, 2020

Motivating yourself to learn An American professor of educational psychology who has studied the effects of student motivations and beliefs on learning, Brett Jones (2009), has devised what he calls the ‘MUSIC’ model of academic motivation, building on a wealth of different motivational research. He argues that you are most likely to be engaged in your learning, and to be motivated to study, if:  You are eMpowered – this means that you have some control over your own learning. For example, you will feel more motivated if you are able to choose some modules on your course, or you can choose to study a specific topic in more depth for your assessment. You can also experience empowerment if you are able to have some input into what you learn, so it can be a good idea to set up a study group alongside class, and negotiate between you which topics from the course you will study and discuss in depth each time you meet.  You can see that the subject you are learning is Useful – this means that you can see the relevance of the topic either to your career goals, or to everyday life. Psychology is full of useful information, but its usefulness is not always made explicit by tutors, so you may need to identify its usefulness for yourself. Try to think about applications of the psychology you are learning, as we are doing in this book, and this may help to increase your motivation.  You believe that you can Succeed – in other words, you feel that you can develop the knowledge and the skills required to pass the course. This can be challenging if you are finding the content difficult, but if you are feeling demotivated and struggling, stop and think about how you can increase your chances of success. Remember that learning is a process .You need to acquire knowledge and skills throughout the module; no-one starts out with everything in place at the start. Try reading around the topic, ask your tutor for help, or perhaps work with a study buddy. Spend time reflecting on feedback you have received, and develop an action plan to get yourself back on track. It can help to look back at work from earlier in your course, noting how much you have improved during your studies. If you can see how much you have learned already, you will start to believe in your ability to improve further and overcome any difficulties you might encounter along the way.  You are Interested in the subject – and again, this can be difficult if you are studying a dry topic that you don’t instantly connect with. However, reading around the topic can help. Rather than just sticking to the curriculum, try to find ways in which the subject connects to areas that you do find interesting. For example, if you are learning about research methods, but you want to become a counselling psychologist, try to find out about how the methods you are studying have been used to evaluate different counselling techniques with different client groups. This will have the added advantage of helping you to see the usefulness of the topic.  You feel that your tutor Cares about whether you succeed or fail. You are unlikely to get to know every tutor on your course, especially if you are a member of a large class, but most universities offer a personal tutor or academic advisor to their students. It is worth investing some time and effort into getting to know your personal tutor. Attend tutorials or

© Oxford University Press, 2020

appointments whenever you have the opportunity. Try to be prepared for meetings; take along some work or some recent feedback that you have received, and ask how you can develop and improve. At the next meeting, talk about the actions you took and whether they helped, and have some more questions ready to move you on to the next step. As you progress through your course, your tutor will get to know you better, and will gain an understanding of what works for you, to support you and help you to succeed.


Think about two different topics that you are studying at the moment. Choose one that you are enjoying, and one that you find more difficult to engage with. Read back through the explanation of the MUSIC model, above, and reflect on:  How does the MUSIC model explain your motivation for the topic you find engaging?  How does it explain your lack of motivation for the topic you find less engaging?  Does your behaviour differ for the two topics? For example, do you spend more time reading or thinking about one topic, and are you more likely to skip class for the other topic?  Take control – what can you do to increase your own motivation, by thinking about the MUSIC model? According to Jones (2009), you are more likely to attend classes, participate in discussions, complete assessments and engage in independent study if you are motivated by all of the different components of the MUSIC model (although you don’t need every component to be present for every learning experience). All of these behaviours make you more likely to achieve good grades and succeed academically, so it is worthwhile finding ways to increase your own intrinsic motivation. Approaches to Learning As we have seen, our motivations influence our behaviours, and so the extent to which we are intrinsically motivated to learn can affect how we approach learning opportunities. An early study to investigate this was carried out by Marton and Säljö (1976) at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Marton and Säljö asked their students to read an article, and to answer questions about how interesting they found it, and what important ideas they had discovered. They transcribed the students’ conversations, and carried out a qualitative analysis of the transcripts. The analysis suggested that students took one of two different approaches. They could either be categorised as surface learners, which meant that they tried to memorise the content of the article without questioning it, or they could be categorised as deep learners, who thought critically and reflectively about the content of the article, and in so doing developed a fuller understanding of the issues and the reasoning behind the viewpoints within the article. Deep learners were described as interested in the article, and tried to apply the content to their own experiences and knowledge from other learning experiences. Reflecting on what we have learned already in this chapter, you could argue

© Oxford University Press, 2020

that the deep learners in Marton and Säljö’s study were more intrinsically motivated than the surface learners, and were thinking about the usefulness of the topic, as suggested by the MUSIC model. Surface learners, in contrast, were extrinsically motivated, and more concerned with passing tests.

Surface learning and deep learning in higher education This research sparked the interest of higher education researchers, including an Australian educational psychologist called John Biggs. Building on the work of Marton and Säljö, Biggs (2001) developed a questionnaire which could be used to assess the extent to which a student adopts deep or surface approaches to learning. Biggs and others have conducted extensive research using this and similar questionnaires, and as a result, we now have a good understanding of how the approach you take to learning can influence how much and how well you learn. In general, it is agreed that deep approaches to learning are much better if you want to truly understand a subject, to remember information for a long time, and to be able to transfer what you have learned to new situations. According to educational researcher John Hattie (Hattie & Donoghue, 2016), deep learning therefore also contributes to educational success, with deep learners tending to achieve higher grades than those who adopt surface approaches to learning. Learning approaches in context However, it is important to note that your learning approach is not simply about your personal preferences; it is also affected by the situation in which you are learning, particularly the material which you are studying, and the way in which your learning is being assessed (Biggs, 1999). If you are learning basic information about a topic for the first time, and you will be tested by a multiple-choice examination, then it makes sense to memorise and to take a surface approach. If, however, you are trying to learn advanced subject knowledge, where critical thinking is required to produce a sophisticated argument in an essay, or you need to apply your knowledge to solve problems, for example, then deep learning is far more effective. If you have learned to drive, then you may have experienced this for yourself. Many countries require learner drivers to pass a theory test, showing that they can recognise road signs, understand the basic rules of the road, and recognise hazardous situations in a driving simulation. Passing the theory test usually requires simple memorisation of a set of facts. However, to gain a full driving license, the new driver must demonstrate skill in driving a real car on real roads; they must practice the skill of driving and show that they can respond to unpredictable situations (such as another driver’s behaviour, or a hazard on the road). This type of learning takes much longer, and the driver must experience driving in different road conditions and practice new strategies for each, until they are able to react quickly and automatically to unexpected events. In psychology, this might equate to knowing how to use a computer software package to calculate a particular statistical test (for a first- year laboratory class, perhaps), compared to being able to design a good experiment, collect data and choose the correct statistical test to analyse that data when we are conducting an original piece of research (such as for a final project for a degree or a postgraduate course). Effective learning in an academic context, then, can vary depending on what we are learning; we may learn the basic facts of our subject using surface learning, but true expertise is achieved when we have actively engaged with the subject and transferred what we have learned into a variety of different settings.

© Oxford University Press, 2020

Deep learning and success at university Tamsin Haggis (2003) is a Scottish educational researcher who has written critically about learning approaches. She suggests that the different ways in which students learn might actually be related to their ‘academic literacy’, by which she means their skills in studying, thinking about and writing academic material, rather than their beliefs about, attitudes to, or motivations for learning. Some of my own research (Hulme & De Wilde, 2015) investigating student transitions to university shows that students often find independent learning and critical thinking challenging at first, and lends some support to Haggis’ argument. It is not surprising that students might find deep learning difficult, given that school learning often focuses on passing exams by drawing on rote learned information, and so students rarely get the opportunity to practice these deep learning skills before they arrive at university. As you progress through university, you need to move increasingly from a surface approach to a deeper approach, relying more on your own independent study and thinking, and less on information provided by your teacher, in order to succeed. Given that deep learning is correlated with academic success, what can you do to develop a deeper approach and the independent learning skills that you need to do this? You also need to recognise when deep and surface approaches are needed.


When is it ok to use a surface approach to learning, and when should you adopt a deeper approach?

Spend some time looking at the learning outcomes and assessment criteria for the modules you are studying at the moment. Usually these can be found in your module handbooks, provided by your tutor at the start of the term or semester.

Some modules ask you to do very practical things, or to be able to recall specific information. For example:

 Calculate simple parametric tests using SPSS  Explain what is meant by ‘informed consent’  Identify and label major brain structures on a diagram

These sorts of learning outcomes and assessment tasks often require you to recall procedures or facts; they are not asking for critical thought or insight, and as such, whilst deep learning approaches are never a bad idea, surface learning approaches will usually suffice.

Other modules ask you to demonstrate critical thinking, construct arguments, or to show that you can apply psychology and transfer knowledge from one context to another. For example:

 Compare and contrast the cognitive developmental theories of Piaget and Vygotsky  Design a study to determine whether caffeine affects concentration span  Critically discuss learning theories, and identify key factors that can facilitate or hinder learning

These sorts of learning outcomes and assessment tasks require you to draw on an extensive

© Oxford University Press, 2020

knowledge base, and to pull together different ideas to create an answer. Rote-learned solutions will rarely cover all of the required content or demonstrate genuine understanding, and as such, a surface learning approach is unlikely to be successful. For these sorts of modules, you need to adopt a deep learning approach if you want to do well.

Which types of learning are you being asked to do for your current modules? Do you need to adopt a deep learning approach, or will a surface learning approach be sufficient?

Applying Psychology to Learning Psychologists and educational theorists have proposed countless theories that try to explain how people learn. We certainly cannot deal with them all in one chapter; indeed, whole books have been written about each one of them separately. Here, I will introduce several key psychological perspectives on learning, and identify some of the ways in which you can apply them to your own learning. Let’s start by thinking about what you already know about learning, from your own experiences.


Think back to a specific time when you found learning something difficult. Perhaps you scored low marks in an exam or a piece of coursework.

 What do you think caused the problem? Was it something about the task? About you? About your circumstances at the time?

Now think back to a time when you found learning something easy or enjoyable. Perhaps you gained unusually good marks in an exam or a piece of coursework.

 What do you think helped you to succeed? Was it something about the task? About you? About your circumstances at the time?

Reflecting on the barriers that sometimes hinder our learning, and the factors that help us to learn, can help us to recognise when things are going wrong in advance, and to find ways to put them right.

Compare your notes answering the two questions above. Are there any similarities? Are there any differences?

Having thought about how your two experiences differed, what could you have done differently in your first example to correct the problem? What would have helped you?

© Oxford University Press, 2020

Behaviourist theories of learning Much of what we’ve learned so far in this chapter has related to learning behaviour. For example, I’ve mentioned attending classes, doing independent study, and working as part of a study group, all behaviours that can help you to learn. Some of the earliest psychologists were known as the behaviourists; behaviourism has its roots in the late nineteenth century, when psychologists such as Edward Thorndike and John B. Watson proposed that psychology should be studied through the observation of behaviour, rather than through the introspective methods of examining thoughts and feelings that had previously been popular. This shifted psychology into a new era, and formed the foundations for the scientific study of psychology as we recognise it today. Pavlov’s dogs and classical conditioning Learning was at the heart of the behaviourist movement, as first animal behaviourists and then psychologists carried out experiments to see how behaviour could be shaped; changes in behaviour were viewed as evidence that learning had taken place. For example, you may be familiar with Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov’s work on a type of learning known as classical conditioning. Pavlov (1927) was interested in digestive processes in dogs, and during his research, he noticed that the dogs in his laboratory started to salivate before they were given their food. To investigate why, he set up a now famous experiment, in which he rang a bell just before feeding the animals. Prior to the experiment, ringing the bell had no effect on the dogs, whereas they would naturally salivate in response to food. However, after a few trials in which the bell was rung just before Pavlov brought the food, the dogs started to salivate in response to the bell alone. Salivation here is a learned behaviour; the dogs have learned to associate the bell with the food. Rats, cats, pigeons, and operant conditioning This discovery of classical conditioning as a basic form of learning led to attempts to understand more complex behaviour. Behaviourists such as Skinner (1943) have demonstrated that animals such as rats, pigeons, cats and even octopuses can be trained to behave in ways that they would not normally, such as pressing a lever or a button to obtain food, finding their way around a maze, or solving problems, through a process known as operant conditioning. The principle of operant conditioning is that animals learn to repeat behaviours that are rewarded (for example, being given food), and to reduce behaviours that are punished (for example, being given an electric shock, or having food removed). Rewards and punishments are considered to reinforce the behaviour; Skinner’s later work showed that reward was far more effective for learning than punishment. The early work on conditioning was carried out with animals, but later studies also showed that humans learn through reinforcement too. If you have a loyalty card for your favourite shop, where you can collect points to spend on future purchases, then you have experience of this for yourself. Points on your loyalty card are rewards, and they motivate you to visit the shop more often and to spend more money; the retailer uses the principles of operant conditioning to change your behaviour. Behavioural theory suggests that we learn by associating stimuli (such as the logo of the shop, or the products you want to buy) with a response (our behaviour, such as making the purchase) and with the consequences (reinforcement of our behaviour, such as the loyalty card rewards), as shown in Figure 3.1. So how can this be related to learning at university? Can your learning be improved simply by rewarding it? And how can you use what you know to improve your own learning? Studying at university: different behaviours, same rewards Throughout your school years, you probably got used to working for grades, particularly if you were successful, and in this context, grades can be thought of as a reward for learning. Achieving high

© Oxford University Press, 2020

marks and being placed high in your class is usually very rewarding! Moving to university, the assessments are still graded, but the work is harder, the grading system is different, and often you are competing with other very capable students, so your marks and your place in the class can be lower than you are used to. You might find this can be demotivating, and feel less rewarded and less confident about your learning than you have done previously. A first step is to make sure you understand the grading system; at universities in the UK, for example, a mark over 70% is often considered an excellent (first class) mark, but some of my students can be disappointed with their grades because at school or college they were used to achieving grades in the 90s. If you are not sure what your marks mean, you should ask your tutor to explain the system; you might be doing better than you think!

Antecedent: The stimulus that provokes us to do something (e.g. receive feedback on an essay)

Behaviour: Our response to the stimulus (e.g. seek help with essay writing skills from tutor)

Consequences: The reinforcement of our actions (e.g. getting a better grade or more positive feedback on the next essay)

Figure 3.1: The ABC of operant conditioning: Antecedents (stimuli) lead to behaviour (response), which in turn has consequences (reinforcement). The nature of the reinforcement alters our response to the same stimulus next time. Rewards make the same behaviour more likely, whereas punishments make it less likely.

My work on student transitions to university (Kitching & Hulme, 2013; Hulme & De Wilde, 2014) suggests that focusing on grades when you first arrive at university can encourage surface approaches to learning, which, as we saw previously, do not help you to demonstrate higher-level skills such as critical thinking, and so don’t enable you to achieve the best grades. At school or college, rote learning may have been sufficient to do well in your exams; at university, independent

© Oxford University Press, 2020

study and wide reading are needed to develop a deeper understanding and help you to apply your knowledge in new contexts, and this in turn will help you to achieve better grades and feel more rewarded. In other words, you need to use different types of behaviours at university than you used at school, in order to gain the same rewards. You have been taught, or conditioned, to study in particular ways, but at university, different types of study behaviour are needed to gain high grades. Practical tips for improving learning So what are the new behaviours you need to learn? Your time at university is probably much less structured than it was at school, so learning to manage it for yourself, and organise your studies is critical. If you are studying a full-time course, you can expect to put in around 35 or 40 hours per week, even if you are only in class for perhaps 10 or 15 hours. The remainder of the time outside scheduled classes is study time; you can organise it flexibly, to fit around other commitments, but you do need to make sure it happens! Reward yourself for your hard work with study breaks; consider going for a walk, and avoiding screen-based activities, to maximise your concentration levels when you come back to your study again. The material you have to study is often not set for you, and this comes as a surprise to many new university students, who are used to their teacher telling them what to read. At university, it is your responsibility to find your own reading. Start with the reading lists you have been given, and identify relevant chapters and papers from those. Follow up on this by looking for other work by the authors who have been cited in those articles, to see if you can find out more about what they have done. Adopt active reading strategies, asking questions of yourself, and trying to find out the answers – be curious! Think about reading to prepare for your lectures, so you know what to expect and what to look out for, rather than only reading up on the topic afterwards. You should study like this every week, not just as assessments are due; this will build your knowledge base so that you have more information at your finger-tips, and you will meet lots of different perspectives on the same topic, which will help you to develop your critical thinking skills. If at first you find studying like this difficult, you can ask for advice from your tutor or your university study skills centre, but if you keep up this approach consistently, your learning will get better, your grades will improve, and you will probably find the learning process itself far more rewarding. There can be an immense sense of satisfaction from learning something new and gaining understanding of something you previously found difficult! Remember, too, that learning is a process, and it takes time to get it right! If you are struggling, think back to what we learned in Chapter 2 about the growth mindset. Don’t give up, but instead keep working on your study skills, use feedback (both the formal feedback on your assessments and informal feedback from talking to your tutor), and remember that practice and hard work will help you to improve over time. Seek out help from your tutor or your university study skills centre if you need it, and read the ‘Spotlight’ section below to find out more about how cognitive psychologists Robert Nash and Naomi Winstone’s research can help you to make better use of your feedback. As you read, reflect on the extent to which you work actively with your feedback, or accept your feedback passively. We’ll then move on to examine some of the ways in which cognitive psychology can help us to learn better.

© Oxford University Press, 2020

Spotlight: How can you use feedback to help you to learn? Dr Robert Nash, Aston University and Dr Naomi Winstone, University of Surrey Why is the way people use feedback relevant to university students? We receive feedback from other people all the time in everyday life, and especially during university education. University students receive feedback when they receive their final grades, but also at many other stages as they progress through their studies. They might discuss their subject understanding with a lecturer, debate with a friend about the strengths of their writing style, or test themselves on topics that they really want to master, and receive feedback on their performance from all of these activities. Many experts say that feedback is the key to effective learning, and there is a lot of research evidence to support this claim. But unfortunately, many people see feedback as a one-way communication – as a judgment or piece of information that is passed on by an expert to a novice. In reality, this conception of feedback doesn’t work well, because even the very best advice is completely useless unless the person who receives the advice actually uses it. If someone tells you, for example, how to improve the critical evaluation in your writing, then this advice could lead you to perform much better next time. But if you don’t listen to the advice or you don’t reflect on it, the likelihood is that you won’t improve. Good feedback is a two-way process, and students have some responsibility for working with feedback to ensure it benefits them. What does your research involve? Our research looks at the psychological barriers that can sometimes prevent students from using the feedback they receive to improve their learning. We think of the giving and receiving of feedback as a type of communication, which psychology clearly has a lot to say about. For example, students might not understand the complex terminology that their lecturers use in feedback. They might not know what they are supposed to do with it, or might not feel equipped to take those steps. Or, they might lack the motivation to deal with advice that seems unfair or negative. Using mixed qualitative and quantitative methods, we try to understand the barriers and what students and tutors can do about them. We are also trying to understand some of the cognitive factors that determine how well students remember feedback. In our experiments, we discovered that minor differences in wording of feedback can have sizeable effects on the likelihood of a student subsequently remembering it. These kinds of findings, if they can be shown to exist outside of the psychology lab, could have important implications for improving feedback in education and other contexts. Are there any particular challenges involved in this research? One challenge is that it’s often difficult to gather evidence that is based on more than just people’s opinions – what students think about feedback, for example, or what lecturers think about students. We are both experimental psychologists by background, and so we look for solid, measurable evidence of what works and what does not work. It is useful to study people’s views and beliefs, of course, but we’re always excited when we find research that examines how people’s behaviour changes following an intervention of some kind. Another challenge is that all of these issues operate within a complex political and economic context, which can make it all the more difficult to find satisfactory solutions. Students often pay high fees for their university education, and many believe that this means their lecturers should take responsibility for ensuring that feedback is effective. However, many lecturers say that their increasing class sizes and spiralling workload—often also a result of economic pressures—prevent them from giving more personalised feedback. The barriers caused by these kinds of political and economic factors are difficult for us, as psychologists, to tackle, even though doing so is clearly

© Oxford University Press, 2020

very important. Finding ways to promote dialogue is vital, so that students and tutors can understand each other’s perspectives.

Tell me how you have applied your research to make a difference to students’ learning Based on our research, we have conducted workshops with undergraduate students, and with academics and learning support staff, at numerous universities and colleges. The student workshops have been designed to help students to understand the power they have to seek and use feedback more proactively and, in turn, to help them learn more effectively. Students have engaged in thinking about the kinds of activities that they can do without having to rely on receiving formal feedback on their work long after they’ve submitted it. The staff workshops help staff to understand the reasons why students don’t always make use of the advice that they give, and to think about how to tackle some of those reasons directly. We have evaluated our workshops, and found that thinking about how feedback is used, and why it is sometimes not used, can be extremely valuable for everyone, and can help students to develop important skills that are transferrable to the workplace and beyond. What advice would you give to students, based on your research? We suggest that you reflect on what you can do to take control of the feedback process, rather than being dependent on your tutors’ judgments. Reflect on the things that you can actively do to gather more feedback and to use it effectively. You could ask friends for peer feedback, develop action plans based on your past feedback, or you could keep a portfolio of all the feedback you receive so that you can spot patterns and trends over time. But before it’s possible to do most of these things, it’s also important to first recognise a much bigger problem: that is, nobody likes the prospect of receiving criticism from other people. Because of this problem, when we receive feedback we often put up lots of defences to stop us from having to hear it, or accept it. If we can be aware of the defences we are putting up, we can be more conscious of how they might be preventing us from improving. That’s difficult, but well worth trying! Find out more… Winstone, N. E., Nash, R. A., Parker, M., & Rowntree, J. (2017). Supporting learners’ agentic engagement with feedback: A systematic review and a taxonomy of recipience processes. Educational Psychologist, 52 , 17-37. Cognitive theories of learning Behaviourist studies of learning allow us to measure observable changes in behaviour as a result of learning, but were criticised because they did not allow psychologists to draw any inferences about how learning happened in the mind. Cognitive psychologists are interested in thinking; what happens in the mind between the stimulus and the response? You might find it interesting to read educational psychologist Thomas Shuell’s (1986) paper, which presents an historical account of early cognitive psychological perspectives on learning, and explains more about why it is important to investigate how we process information through cognition when we learn. Learning and memory As we have seen from our brief exploration of behaviourist theories, learning can be defined as a process that brings about a change of behaviour. In contrast, memory relates to changes to the brain, and the storage of information within it. Memory is an important component of learning, since we cannot learn without remembering, whereas learning incorporates an additional component relating to an observable change in behaviour as a result of what is remembered.

© Oxford University Press, 2020

Broadly speaking, as represented in figure 3.2, memory relates to the processes occurring within the ‘black box’, whereas learning relates to changes occurring within the ‘black box’ which can bring about a changed response. This distinction is useful, because it allows psychologists to explore the ways in which learning can be influenced by different cognitive variables and individual differences. For our purposes, it allows us to think about how you can improve your own learning by processing information in different ways.

Attention, perception, memory, problem-- solving


Black Box






Figure 3.2: What happens in the “black box” of the human mind? Cognitive psychologists try to find out more about the thinking processes involved in learning, which mediate our response (behaviour) to a stimulus. These include processes such as attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving. Levels of processing Memory has been extensively studied by psychologists since the 1970s. For example, Fergus Craik, Endel Tulving and Robert Lockhart became famous for their pioneering research investigating what helps us to remember. They conducted a series of experiments (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik & Tulving, 1975) looking at what they called the ‘levels of processing’ model of memory. They proposed that people remember things best when they have deeply processed information, compared to superficial processing. In their research, they asked participants to study a list of words, and to answer yes/no questions about each word they saw. Some participants were asked to look at the textual features of the words (e.g. “Is the word in capital letters?”), some were asked to think about the sound of the word (e.g. “Does the word rhyme with TRAIN?”), and some were asked to think about the meaning of the word (e.g. “Is the word an animal name?”). They called these types of task graphemic (textual features), phonemic (sounds) and semantic (meaning), and proposed that the tasks would require different types of cognitive processing, which would different affect how many words were accurately recalled. They suggested that graphemic tasks were relatively shallow, semantic tasks involved deep processing, and phonemic tasks were intermediate, and that deeper

© Oxford University Press, 2020

processing would both take longer for participants to do, and would ensure better recall. Both of these hypotheses were supported, and Craik and Tulving (1975) concluded that memory is improved when we engage in more elaborative processing . By elaborative processing, they meant that participants were thinking about the meaning of the word, and making links to other knowledge about that word. Elaborative processing The finding that people remember better when they engage in elaborative processing is consistent, and has since been found in a multitude of other studies. The theory is that elaborative processing makes it more likely that information will be transferred from short-term to long-term memory, where it can be retained for an indefinite period of time. ‘Shallow’ processing, on the other hand, keeps the information in the short-term memory only for as long as we are actively thinking about it. Elaborative processing helps us to remember, and to build connections between the new material we are trying to learn and our existing knowledge. This makes it easier to recall information, and to transfer learning to new situations or to solve different types of problems. So what practical steps can you take to use elaborative processing in your own learning? And more generally, how can cognitive psychology help us to be more effective learners? Let’s start by thinking about the study techniques that you use, and then look at their effectiveness for learning.


What techniques do you use when you study?

Imagine you are revising for an exam. The exam will last for two hours, and you will be asked to write two essay-style answers from a choice of five questions, about a topic in psychology that you are studying at the moment.

Which of the following techniques will you use to revise?

 Writing summaries of text from set reading materials and/or lecture notes  Asking questions and trying to explain to yourself (or someone else) why a theory or idea is true  Highlighting or underlining sections of text within set reading materials and/or lecture notes  Re-reading texts and lecture notes  Using imagery to try to help you to remember  Trying to remember pieces of information using mnemonics (memory tricks)  Testing yourself, or asking a friend to test you (perhaps using past exam papers or flashcards)  Explaining the ideas you are studying to a friend, or writing explanations  Trying to mix up different types of study techniques or materials within each study session.

© Oxford University Press, 2020

Will you study in an intensive block just before the exam? Or will you start soon and spread your study time out over a longer period?

All of these different techniques are commonly used by students to revise. Which ones work best for you? Make a note of the ones you use the most, and, as you read on, think about whether you need to try different techniques to help you to learn more effectively.

Study techniques: a few home truths John Dunlosky is an American psychology professor who researches student learning and achievement. He and his colleagues, all of whom are psychology or educational researchers, have reviewed the effectiveness of all of the different types of study activity listed in the activity box above, and have made some interesting findings (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham, 2013), which we will explore here. Highlighting One of the most common study techniques is to highlight or underline text; most of us use this technique sometimes, to help us to identify the important messages that we need to remember, as we read. Looking at my own students’ work, I notice that some people highlight in just one colour, while others use different colours for different types of information, and that some students highlight lots of the text they are reading, while some only highlight small sections. It’s certainly a popular study technique! – and you might expect it to be quite effective. Highlighted text should focus your attention on the important information, and in choosing what to highlight (and possibly the appropriate colour), you must be engaging in elaborative processing, to identify what is important and what is not. This is a fairly easy technique to test experimentally, and a number of researchers have allocated students to different experimental groups to find out if they learn more when they highlight text (compared to reading text that has already been highlighted, or non- highlighted text). The results are fairly consistent; the majority of studies reviewed by Dunlosky et al. found that highlighting was no better for learning than simply reading the text. In one study, it was even found to focus students’ minds on concepts as independent of each other, and to reduce their ability to think about connections between them. It may be that some students highlight too much information, some of which is not important, which reduces the effectiveness of highlighting, but, generally, highlighting information does not seem to be a good way to learn. The best advice is probably not to waste too much of your time highlighting, and to try some of the other strategies we discuss here; if you do want to highlight text that you’re reading anyway, try to be very selective and only highlight very key points. Re-reading Highlighting is often used alongside another popular technique: re-reading of text books, articles or notes. If highlighting doesn’t enhance learning, what about reading something several times? Re- reading means that you are processing the same information several times, which might act as a form of rehearsal (repeating the same information, as you might if trying to remember someone’s telephone number), or it might be that you pick up on different concepts or notice more about the structure of the argument each time you read through the same material. So, does it work? The studies reviewed by Dunlosky et al. suggest that reading something twice is advantageous, especially if the readings are separated in time by a couple of days. However, the effects have only been measured for straightforward recall tasks, and it is not clear whether re-reading is an effective way

© Oxford University Press, 2020

of improving conceptual learning, or for how long the effects last. Overall, it is probably worth re- reading something a few days after you first read it, but as we shall see shortly, other techniques may be more beneficial. Mnemonics and imagery Mnemonics and imagery are similar techniques, in that both involve trying to associate the information you are trying to remember with other types of memory. For example, you might be familiar with Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, which says that children develop sequentially through four stages, characterised by different cognitive abilities: s ensori-motor, p re-operational, c oncrete operational and f ormal operational stages. Some people use the mnemonic ‘Some People Can Fly” (using the first letter of each word to represent each stage) to help them to remember the four stages in the correct order. Alternatively, the Big Five Model of Personality measures five different personality types, which can be remembered using the acronym OCEAN (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism). Imagery works similarly: for example, figure 3.3 demonstrates a simple visual way of remembering how positively and negatively skewed frequency distributions compare to a normal distribution, which you may find helpful in your research methods classes.

Figure 3.3: A negatively skewed distribution starts with a near flat line, which resembles a negative, or minus, sign, whereas a positively skewed distribution starts with a near vertical line, as is found in a positive, or plus, sign. This can be a useful imagery technique to help you to remember the shape of the different curves. So, can these sorts of memory tricks work as a study skills technique? According to Dunlosky and his colleagues, most of the evidence suggests that mnemonics and imagery can help people to learn simple concepts, such as memorising vocabulary when you learn a new language. However, the memories are not very durable, and seem to be quite easily forgotten. It also seems to take people longer to remember things this way, perhaps because they need to process both the relevant information that they are trying to recall and the mnemonic or image. You might find these sorts of techniques useful for memorising new psychology terminology, or basic facts like the ones I’ve described here, perhaps for a multiple-choice test or similar assessment, but they probably won’t help you to gain a deep understanding of the psychological theories or debates that will help you to write a good essay. Elaborative processing: why, why, why? So far, we have looked at some of the most popular revision techniques, but the findings from Dunlosky et al.’s review have been somewhat negative! However, some techniques show a little more promise. Summarising your notes or reading, and explaining key concepts to other people,

© Oxford University Press, 2020

both involve re-organising material and identifying key messages from a wide range of information. You would imagine that they involve lots of elaborative processing! Likewise, actively questioning the material you are reading, asking yourself ‘why?’ as you encounter new information, is highly elaborative (Dunlosky names this approach ‘elaborative interrogation’), because it requires you to think about how the new information can be explained in the light of the other knowledge you possess. However, Dunlosky et al.’s findings on using these three techniques are somewhat mixed. It seems that if you write short summaries, or explain your ideas to a friend, or ask yourself questions as you read, you can learn better, but only if you do it well! If you decide to try these techniques for yourself, it might be worth working with a friend who is studying the same materials, and giving each other some feedback on how well you have completed the tasks. Practice testing Dunlosky et al. also identified some techniques that seem to help learning very reliably, so it is worth trying to incorporate them into your study habits. One such technique is practice testing; in other words, testing yourself on the topic you are learning, perhaps using online quizzes (which might be provided by your tutor), questions or activities in textbooks, flashcards, mock exams, or even working with your friends to test each other. The benefits of practice tests have been found reliably for over a century, aiding both factual recall and deeper understanding, and seem to occur because they help us to organise information. It seems that retrieving information from memory, through testing, rather than simply trying to store it there by studying the same material repeatedly, helps us to remember more information, to remember it for longer, and to remember it more accurately. The benefits of practice testing are even better if the tests are spaced out in time, with the more space between tests the better. So, testing yourself, asking your friends to test you, or finding questions to answer from other sources, is a great idea to improve your learning, especially if you test the same knowledge more than once, a few days or, preferably, weeks apart. Have you worked through the questions at the end of this chapter? I included them (and the regular activities within the chapter) because you can use them to test your own understanding, as you study. If your tutor provides practice quizzes or past exam papers for you, do make use of them, even if they are not marked! Distributed practice Spacing out your study is something I’ve mentioned twice now: first when I wrote about re-reading, above, and now here, thinking about practice testing. Dunlosky calls this the distributed practice effect; he suggests that the larger the gap between study sessions, the harder you have to work to process the information again, which consolidates your learning. He also suggests that each time you study the same material again acts as a reminder, causing you to retrieve the learning you did previously, and as we saw above, when talking about testing, retrieving a memory seems to aid its recall later. Dunlosky proposes that the optimal spacing between study episodes is 10-20% of the time for which you need to remember the material. So, if you have an exam in ten days’ time, space your study sessions so that they are one to two days apart, but if your exam is in three weeks’ time, space them two to four days apart. However, in psychology, many of the concepts we study in the first year of a university degree are important again the following year. For example, if you learned about measures of central tendency (means, variance, standard deviation and similar) early in your course, you are likely to need to understand them again later when you encounter more advanced statistics. If you hope to remember what you learned in a year’s time, you need to re-study the materials with a month or two between your study episodes! Interleaving Just as separating out your study episodes in time can help your learning, separating out the types of material you are learning about can also help you to remember more information, more accurately

© Oxford University Press, 2020

Made with FlippingBook Ebook Creator