Q and A with someone who studies learning

Dr. Warren Code, the acting director for the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) at UBC, works with faculty and students to research and implement curricula, teaching methodology and if students are actually meeting course objectives. 

As an undergraduate in UBC’s math department, he was inspired to teach early-university math and had the opportunity to do so during and after his PhD at UBC. Knowing the unique circumstances of studying at UBC, Code encouraged students to look at CWSEI’s research-supported learning resources. These include a one-page summary on how to learn, two pages of advice from seniors to first-years and seven study techniques from one of the leading experts on effective learning and retention. He chatted with The Ubyssey to answer specific studying questions.

What should a student be doing in class to prepare for exams?

A lot of the answer to how you should study effectively for exams is to prepare effectively throughout the term in class. What you should do in class will really depend on how the class time is structured. But regardless of what the structure is, be there. Be alert and take care of yourself physically so that you can be alert. Everyone gets sick at some point, but participate as much as you can. Be prepared for each class. 

As an exam approaches, what is your biggest recommendation for studying?

Exam performance can be increased by practicing under exam conditions, specifically by doing a timed practice test. After taking the practice test, you can ask yourself, “Was I not reading through the questions? Did I get stuck on something?” Ask yourself the same questions after you get back real tests from class. It reveals the effectiveness of your test-taking strategies. In most courses, there isn’t an explicit matching between the practice exams and the tests being given, so it can be a really productive exercise to try to find out what the course is really testing you on and if the practice exam matches these objectives. 

There’s room for both working by yourself and working with a partner or in groups. But practice exams should be done alone because you will be writing the real exam alone. 

How do you prepare for free-response questions versus multiple choice exams?

For quick decision questions like multiple choice, there are a lot of opportunities and resources for self-study. You can take practice exams, and check with a computer or in a textbook. When it comes to longer, more multi-step questions, it can be much more powerful to work with a partner or tutor so that you have to explain your reasoning to someone. This is a good way to reveal whether you know what’s going on or not. 

Handwritten notes or laptops — which is better for taking notes in class?

There’s an ongoing debate about using laptops versus taking handwritten notes. The most recent literature says that it’s not necessarily the medium with which you take notes, but the fact that when people handwrite notes, they are slower and therefore people summarize the lesson instead of writing down exactly what has been taught. Summarizing requires you to engage mentally. 

How should students avoid distractions?

Your attention is an important resource. You really want to prevent dividing your attention because multitasking is an illusion for most people. It may feel like you’re not suffering from divided attention, but you basically are paying with the effort required to switch between tasks. In the end, you’re not going to be as good at either thing. 

Avoid texting or going online as much as possible for things extraneous to the course. Find a way to manage notifications — you can turn them off — so that they won’t disturb you. It’s better to have devoted time to email or social media outside of class and outside of studying than trying to do both things at once.

Is studying in your bedroom a good idea?

You should study wherever you are least distracted — somewhere that won’t wreck your focus. Some people have issues with sleep, so working in a bedroom might not be effective for them. There has been a lot of memory research about mimicking testing environments, but I think the bigger factors are focus and concentration while studying. 

What is a good long-term study plan?

Deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is the way that people master most skills. The evidence for it comes from the research on expertise. It was popularized through Malcolm Galdwell’s 10,000 hours concept. Now a lot of people think you can master anything if you devote 10,000 hours to it, but it’s not as simple as 10,000 hours to mastery. Let’s consider mastering chess — you can get better if you just play a bunch of games of chess. But it’s not as effective as playing some games, thinking about how the games went, isolating and studying specific moves, working on game endings, finding certain skills and then getting feedback from a coach. Deliberate practice is building isolated skills, getting better at those component skills, evaluating them and integrating them. And doing those things deliberately. 

Spaced practice is another good idea. Say you’re going to spend three hours studying a particular topic. It’s more effective to study it for an hour a week for three weeks, or a couple times a week for half an hour for three weeks, than it is to spend three hours studying the night before the test. 

When should a student ask for help?

You want to be trying things that are relatively challenging, things that are close to the edge of your abilities — that’s a part of deliberate practice. If you’re in that necessary hard zone, ask for help from a group, tutor or a partner because you are bumping into the edge of what you can do. 

Can you describe a healthy mental attitude for students? 

One can either have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. The idea of a growth mindset is the idea that a person can improve — they can get better at something, whatever the thing happens to be. A fixed mindset is the belief that you’re born with a certain amount of ability and that’s it. When I teach math, I hear it all the time. The fixed mindset is not supported by evidence — people can actually improve at basically any skill if they devote time to it. In fact, the fixed mindset interferes with your ability to get better at things. 

So try to have a positive attitude — reflect and notice that you’ve accomplished things. A lot of the time, it can be a very slow accumulation of knowledge, which can all be easy to forget when it’s dark and cold all the time, and when there’s a lot of pressure and stress around exams. Take a step back and say, “Look at all the stuff I can do now!” That can be powerful. 

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.