Degree In Sight

Student multitasking

As an undergraduate student, you probably got A's despite less-than-ideal study habits: reading in front of the television, staying up all night cramming, checking e-mail every 10 minutes while working on a paper. These behaviors may have cut it in college, but graduate school calls for a better set of strategies, says University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham, PhD.

"If your whole goal is to do well on the test tomorrow and you don't care if you remember it at all, cramming actually kind of works," he says. "But once you're in graduate school, this is your career, and cramming isn't really a very adaptive strategy anymore."

According to psychology faculty and other experts, here are the top 10 habits that hold grad students back:

1. Highlighting. Dog-earing pages and highlighting journal article passages are popular but worthless exercises when it comes to helping you remember information later on, Willingham says. That's because they don't require students to engage with the material. Instead, he suggests students find a more active strategy that forces them to think about the meaning of what they're reading. This might be something as simple as taking notes on important points, outlining how journal articles fit together or spending a moment after reading a paragraph to reflect on how it fits into a piece's bigger picture. In a Journal of Educational Psychology (Vol. 82, No. 3) study, students who asked themselves "why?" at the end of each sentence while reading a factual passage about a university were significantly more likely to remember important points than students who were simply told to read the passage and remember it.

2. Cramming for exams. When you pull an all-nighter, your memories of the concepts you're studying become associated with a particular time and environment, making them harder to retrieve, says Willingham. That's bad news for crammers, as most tests aren't handed out at 2 a.m., wrapped around Red Bull cans. There are several reasons why distributing your studying throughout the semester is more long-lasting. One is that your brain doesn't make that association because the knowledge is cued and retrieved at many different points over time. Willingham's claims are backed up by a 2006 Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 132, No. 3) meta-analysis of 317 experiments examining the spacing of student study periods. The authors found that when participants studied at two different points in time, they recalled a greater percentage of the material than when the same amount of study time was nearly uninterrupted.

3. Unhealthy eating. With both time and money in short supply, graduate students often skip lunch when rushing to class or hit the vending machine for a late-night snack. Yet the high-fat, empty-calorie foods they often choose don't provide the energy needed to work effectively, and can also take a toll on the brain. A study in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease (Vol. 14, No. 2) linked memory loss to a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol. And a 2008 meta-analysis of 160 studies examining food's effect on the brain, published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (Vol. 9, No. 7), showed that omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in salmon, walnuts and kiwi fruit, improve learning and memory.

Chicago clinical psychologist Alison Miller, PhD, author of "Finish Your Dissertation Once and For All: How to Overcome Psychological Barriers, Get Results, and Move On with Your Life" (APA, 2008), recommends incorporating fresh fruit and vegetables into your diet at least once a day and keeping dried fruit and nuts on hand as an alternative to candy and other junk food when hunger strikes.

4. Multitasking. Many students pride themselves on their ability to attend to several tasks at once, but multitasking undermines efficiency, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance (Vol. 27, No. 4). It takes extra time to shift mental gears every time you switch tasks—that means when you sit down to work, close your e-mail program so it doesn't distract you. "If you ask any graduate student what they do first when they sit down to study, 99 percent say they check their e-mail, and then the next thing you know, an hour has gone by," Miller says. When you're studying, you may even need to disable your Internet connection and turn off your cell phone, she says.

5. Assuming you remember what you've read. According to a Journal of Memory and Language (Vol. 46, No. 3) meta-analysis of 30 years of research, we aren't very good at assessing how well we understand something. You may feel well-versed in the social psychology theories you learned in class after reading over your notes several times, but familiarity doesn't mean you'll be able to recall the material for a test, Willingham says. To gauge whether you've studied enough, explain the material to someone else or create a test for yourself, he says.

"Quizzing one another is the No. 1 thing I recommend to students," Willingham says. "It's a much more realistic assessment of what you know because it forces you to get inside the professor's head and think about what they are likely to ask about the material."

6. Not exercising. Skipping your workout to study more may sound like a good idea, but research shows it's counterproductive. Exercise boosts blood flow to the hippocampus, according to a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 194, No. 13). Other studies have also shown that people who exercise regularly do better on memory tests and have lower stress levels. "I know how challenging it can be to believe you have the time for exercise, but every bit of physical activity makes a difference," Miller says. She suggests that students under deadline take 10-minute breaks to run or walk around the block or up and down stairs.

7. Perfectionism. Too often, Miller says, graduate students set expectations for themselves that are too high. "They forget that they're students and expect that they should know everything already," she says. This attitude may lead them to miss out on the important learning experiences. In the book "Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development" (Psychology Press, 2000), Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, reports that people who focus on learning—who have what she calls a growth mindset—actually outperform those more focused on performance and who feel worthy only when they are successful.

That's why Ripon College psychology professor Joe Hatcher, PhD, says students may need to triage their assignments. "The problem I have seen among graduate students is attempting to do the reading too well or too thoroughly," he says. "The amount of reading assigned can be monumental, and one needs to learn to prioritize what needs to be read carefully and what needs to be skimmed."

8. Not getting enough sleep. Many students stay up late studying or working on a paper one night to find they can barely function the next day. In fact, research suggests that sleep improves the brain's ability to remember information. In a 2006 study in Current Biology (Vol. 16, No. 13), Harvard Medical School sleep researchers found that memories of recently learned word pairs improved when participants slept between learning and testing. They also found that the most pronounced benefits of sleep when participants were challenged by completing word-pair information presented just prior to testing. Experts recommend that adults strive to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night and that they go to bed and wake up around the same time every day, even on weekends.

9. Ineffective goal-setting. Graduate students' goals often tend to be "too vague and mushy, like 'work on my thesis' or 'design that study for my dissertation,'" says Paul Silva, PhD, author of "How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing" (APA, 2007). Yet 30 years of research by psychologist Albert Bandura, PhD, shows that self-motivation is best sustained by having a clear, long-range goal that can be broken down into a series of specific, attainable smaller goals to guide one's efforts along the way. Miller suggests students aim to break down milestone goals like writing a literature review into actions that can be completed in two hours or less, such as reading a journal article or writing a first draft of a subsection. She also recommends connecting goals to specific days of the week. "Knowing when you wake up in the morning what you're supposed to do that day helps you avoid wasting energy trying to figure out what you need to do," she says.

10. Not taking breaks. Many graduate students don't feel they can take time off because they are under pressure to study for exams or work on their theses. But research in the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 91, No. 4) suggests that a vacation can help refuel you for work. Based on surveys completed with 221 employees at a university in Germany before and after a two-week vacation, researchers found that time off boosts energy reserves so that you need to exert less effort to get work done when you return. "It's challenging to be a graduate student and you need to recharge your batteries sometimes," Miller says. "When people don't take meaningful, guilt-free time off, it often backfires," leading to lower productivity and burnout. She suggests students find time to get away, even if it's just over a long weekend, and that they leave their books and Blackberry at home.

By Amy Novotney


Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.