Want to know what the UNL McNair Scholars and Alumni are up to? Read the Fall Newsletter: http://www.unl.edu/mcnair/news/McNair_News_201512.pdf
Want to know what the UNL McNair Scholars and Alumni are up to? Read the Fall Newsletter: http://www.unl.edu/mcnair/news/McNair_News_201512.pdf
Did you know the UNL McNair Scholars Program publishes an online Research Journal? Comprised of nine original articles written by Scholars under the guidance of their faculty mentors, our Journal is hosted at: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/mcnair
Since Fall 2010, when our program began publishing the MSRJ, there have been over 6,000 full-text downloads. Between January 1 and November 30, 2015, there were 1,333 full-text downloads. The most frequently downloaded papers of the past 11 months were:
Cossel, T. (2010). Child Sexual Abuse Victims and their Families Receiving Services at a Child Advocacy Center: Mental Health and Support Needs (431 downloads) http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/mcnairjournal/1/
Lundahl, A., West, T., Martin, E. K., Campbell, C., Vanderbeek, J., & Hansen, D. J. (2011). Relationship of Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviors of Primary Caregivers with a History of Sexual Abuse and Perfectionism in their Sexually Abused Children (308 downloads) http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/mcnairjournal/5/
Ali, M. B. (2011). Debt Relief or Debt Cycle: A Secondary Analysis of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative in African Nations (258 downloads) http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/mcnairjournal/6/
By: Jenn Andersen, 2015 MSRE graduate assistant
So, you’re ready to fly off to the McNair Symposium in Berkeley, California. For some, it will be your first time at a national conference. For others, it might be the first time you have ever been on an airplane! The Berkeley trip is the highlight of MSRE and something scholars look forward to from their acceptance into the McNair Scholars Program at UNL. So, what should you expect? Here are some of my experiences from Berkeley to give a little bit of an inside view.
First, before you leave, make sure to practice your presentation! Not only did I practice in front of the McNair staff, but I also practiced in front of my lab and with other scholars. Talk to your mentor about scheduling time in a classroom or conference room so you can get comfortable with your presentation. In Berkeley, there are things that will throw you off your game that you can’t predict. People will enter and leave the room (don’t do this) or change the order of presentations. The more comfortable and prepared you are, the better able you are to handle these situations.
Where did my luggage go?
Next, if you’re not carrying your luggage onto the plane, make sure to pack an outfit to present in! When we landed in San Francisco, I couldn’t find my bag anywhere in baggage claim. While I was panicked about my missing bag (we found it!), I knew I had everything I needed to present my research in a professional manner in my carry-on. This tip served me well for my second conference in Fairfax, VA when I was stranded overnight in Washington D.C. and my baggage was in danger of not staying with me.
Once in Berkeley, you may have fears that your research isn’t as impressive as it could be, or you may experience the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’. I think my entire cohort felt like this at some point during the symposium. This is perfectly normal and expected. There are a lot of really impressive people who attend the Berkeley McNair Symposium, and you are one of them! Talk with members of your cohort if you become discouraged or worried about your presentation. Additionally, make sure to celebrate your success! One of the highlights of the symposium for me was getting asked a lot of questions at the end of my group of presentations. It was the first time I saw that I had the ability to engage with an audience and really make them think about a research topic and how it affected their lives. Even with all of my doubts and fears, presenting at Berkeley made me feel like I could accomplish my goals as a scholar and be successful in academia.
Additionally, take the time to network! Networking is an important part of getting recognized in your field. I still correspond with some of the scholars I met in Berkeley. You might be able to meet with them when you go on a graduate school visit. Their professors might be doing the research you are interested in. You might even find your future collaborators. Always have your business cards ready to hand out. If you see someone who might be a great fit at UNL, talk to them and encourage them to check out a particular lab or professor. You may be able to open the door for a scholar that never thought about UNL as a possibility.
All of that being said, remember that not only are you representing the UNL McNair Scholars and UNL itself, but your own best asset, yourself! The people you meet at the symposium are your future colleagues in your field. This means it is important to put your best foot forward as a professional. Engage other scholars if you have questions or critiques about their work, but make sure it is constructive criticism. Remember, you will not know everyone from each cohort, so save remarks about presentations for private conversations away from the symposium. Never say anything out loud that you wouldn’t want to hear about yourself.
Finally, on your way home from Berkeley (which is a level of exhaustion I had never felt before) take stock of your experience. Write down the things that stood out most to you. Berkeley is a major stepping-stone in becoming who you were meant to be as a scholar. Going to the Berkeley McNair Symposium was an experience that I will never forget. I hope you have as wonderful of a time as my cohort and I did!
By: Abe Flanigan, 2015 MSRE graduate assistant
The summer before my final year of undergraduate, I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school to further my study of psychology. The problem was that I didn’t know which type of program I wanted to enter. During my undergrad, I spent several years volunteering at a center for victims of domestic violence. I enjoyed working there and felt a great sense of fulfillment helping these strong women get back on their feet. However, I was also a research assistant for one of my professors. I loved the work we were doing. Researching the factors that influenced students’ motivation and performance in the classroom fascinated me. So, I was torn between pursuing a counseling-oriented program or an educational psychology program. This was a question I needed to answer. I didn’t want to simply apply to both types of programs, see where I got accepted, and make a decision from there. Instead, I wanted to find a program that was the right fit for me. Fortunately, there were a lot of people around me who provided me with the guidance and experiences necessary to find my way.
Below, I am going to outline some suggestions I have for finding the right program for you. Reflecting on the topics I was learning in the classroom, talking to successful members of each field, seeking out internships, and conducting research all helped me decide which program was best for me.
Use your coursework as a guide. As a psychology major, I had to take a lot of field-related courses. Counseling psychology, social psychology, educational psychology, cognitive psychology, and many others introduced me to the different walks of life in psychology. However, these courses were more to me than obstacles I needed to overcome to earn my degree. They represented potential career fields. While learning about the different topics, I would often ask myself, “Is this something that I can see myself working on in the future?” In doing so, I was able to eliminate a lot of fields from consideration for graduate school. I wasn’t interested in industrial-organization psychology, the principles of social psychology were interesting but didn’t peak my research interest, and so on. By reflecting on what I was learning in the classroom, I was able to decide which programs peaked my interest and which programs did not. Counseling psychology and educational psychology were the two courses that peaked my interest the most. So, I decided that I needed to find out more information about what life was like in those fields.
Reach out to people in your prospective field(s). Googling information about different fields will give you an introductory understanding of what that particular field is about. However, to really understand what life is like in that field, you need to talk to the people in it. By sharing emails and talking to faculty members and students in counseling programs, I learned that the work could be extremely rewarding. However, some people have difficulty not letting their experiences as a counselor (e.g., helping people cope with the death of a sibling) interfere with other aspects of their life (e.g., “bringing work home with them”). Because I am a naturally empathetic person, I realized this is something that I may have struggled with. Without talking to people in the field, I would’ve only focused on the potential rewards of being a counselor while ignoring the potential pitfalls. Learn what life is really like in the field(s) you are interested in before you decide to commit yourself to it. Talk to your instructors, graduate students in your department, or ask them about other people you can get in touch with.
Embrace and search for opportunities. Getting involved is probably one of the most helpful ways to figure out what aspects of your field interest you. Psychology is a pretty broad field so trying to narrow my focus to one specific area was really hard. So, I got involved. I joined Psi Chi (our national honor society) and talked with other students about their interests. I joined our department’s Social Sciences Research Group to immerse myself in research. I volunteered several hours each week at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. And, I took on an internship with a clinical social worker. All of these experiences helped me get a taste of psychology’s many flavors.
Network, network, network. This is a skill that will always be important. When I was exploring prospective graduate schools, I sent a lot of emails to faculty members at different universities. My process was simple. I would find a couple of articles that I was interested in, find out who wrote them, and shoot them an email. In the email, I would mention the article I had read, “I really liked your article about…” Then, I indicated my interest in the field, “I’m really interested in how the presence of distractions impacts students’ success because…” Then, I would ask what kind of research they planned to do in the future. Sometimes I would get a really warm response and sometimes I didn’t hear back. However, the responses I did receive helped me weed out some schools from my consideration.
Conduct and explore research. As a McNair scholar, you’re already involved in research. So, my advice here is similar to how you should reflect on the courses you are taking. Which research topics are you most interested in? If you’re currently conducting research on improving sustainable water systems but have a more genuine interest in researching how to expand the use of solar energy, then start scouring the solar energy research literature. As a young, aspiring researcher, don’t be afraid to explore the horizon for research pursuits that interest you. In graduate school, a major portion of your time will be dedicated to research. So, now is the time to figure out what research topics you’re interested in, who does that research, and where it’s being done. If you do, then you will have a better idea of the research environment you want to find yourself in. For me, conducting research represented the turning point in trying to find the right program. While presenting at a national conference in Washington, D.C., I walked into a poster session. As I looked around, I saw all sorts of posters related to motivation, self-regulation, setting goals, and other topics that fascinated me. I spoke with some of the presenters about which programs they were in and their common response of “Educational Psychology” was a huge hint that this was the field for me.
Tying it all together
Your journey towards selecting a graduate school should involve more than surfing through their program’s website. Think critically about which course topics you could see yourself dedicating a significant amount of time researching and studying. Talk to faculty members, researchers, and graduate students in your prospective field(s) to get a feel for what life is like. Look for opportunities like internships and organizations to gain professional experience. Make sure to take steps towards building your professional network in the field. And, try your hand at assisting with or leading a research project. By doing all of these things, you will give yourself a better idea of the kind of program that suits you best.
By: Abe Flanigan, 2015 MSRE graduate assistant
Originally, Facebook was created as a means for allowing university students to interact with each other. You could only sign up if you had a university email address, so the audience who viewed your Facebook page was mostly limited to your peers. This is no longer the case. Now, everybody from your parents to your professors to your future employers have social media accounts and they are looking at yours. Did you know some studies have found that nearly 92% of job recruiters look at applicants’ social media pages and nearly 80% have been given a bad impression about an applicant based on content they found on his or her social media accounts? For more statistics about how your use of social media can impact future employment, check out this link to the Undercover Recruiter.
Up until now, it’s possible that you’ve only considered social media as a medium for keeping in touch with friends, posting fun pictures from your nights out on the town, or sharing hilarious Vines, memes, or gifs. Most of this online activity is probably innocent enough – wishing a friend from high school ‘happy birthday,’ posting pictures of you and your friends cheering on the Huskers inside Memorial Stadium, or sharing the newest Grumpy Cat meme on your newsfeed. Sometimes, online activity can be less innocent. Posting an angry rant as your Facebook status, uploading unflattering pictures of you and your friends at a party, or sharing insensitive pictures/quotes on your newsfeed. Although all of these things may have only been intended for your friends to see, it’s important to remember that privacy in today’s digital world is not always guaranteed. Instead, careless or inappropriate use of social media can come back to bite you as relatives, mentors, and even potential employers cruise through your social media accounts.
Make sure your #Priorities are in order
The following is a true story, I kid you not. A little over a year ago, I returned to my office after teaching class. When I got there, I found my officemate (let’s call her Taylor) sitting at her desk with a look of disbelief on her face. When I asked her what had happened, here is the story Taylor shared with me (as best as I can recall from memory):
“During the evening class that I teach today we are going to have an in-class activity worth about 50 points. One of my students emailed me to say she can’t be there because there was a medical emergency in her family that she needed to attend to. She said, ‘I know that we have the activity today and I really want to make up the points. However, I really have to go to Omaha today because of a medical emergency for one of my relatives’…”
At this point, it was very clear that Taylor was worried about her student. They were having a pretty sizeable in-class activity but her student would have to miss it because a relative was having an emergency and needed to be taken to Omaha. Taylor is a caring person and let her student know that she could make up the assignment at a later time. However, the story was far from finished. Taylor finished the story by saying:
“About an hour before the start of class, I decided to kill a few minutes by looking at the “UNL Problems” Twitter account. When I looked at their feed, I saw that they had re-tweeted a message from a girl that said, ‘Just lied to my teacher to get out of class so I can attend the movie screening at the Lied Center. Probably just sacrificed an A in the class #Priorities.’ I looked at the username and, sure enough, it was my student.”
Taylor was furious. She had given this student leniency because she believed her story about a family medical crisis. Then, she sees that her student posted a triumphant tweet about how she lied to get out of class. Needless to say, Taylor contacted the student, let her know that she saw the tweet, and handled the matter accordingly. This is just one of probably thousands of stories that middle school, high school, and college instructors have about catching their students making a fool of themselves on social media.
Common Social Media Mistakes
Although it is easy to read about Taylor’s student and think that you would never be guilty of something like that, college students routinely do things on social media that could be deemed as unprofessional or inappropriate. Courtesy of Rasmussen College, here is a list of things you should never do on social media:
Post inappropriate images. Sure, you probably had a great time at your friend’s 21st birthday party and the memories and stories from that night will live on for a long time. However, that doesn’t mean pictures from that night need to live on your Facebook or Twitter page. By posting images of yourself engaging in risky or inappropriate behavior, you can give off a negative impression about your maturity and responsibility. Everybody enjoys having fun, but be tactful about what you put on social media for everybody else to see. Do you think your graduate school advisor would think pictures from your friend’s 21st birthday were professional? Nope.
Complain about previous bosses or supervisors. Complaining about former employers or supervisors makes you look immature, spiteful, and rude. If a potential employer or faculty mentor sees you complaining about bosses from your past, what is to stop them from thinking you might do the same to them someday? The internet is written in ink and just about everything you post or write can be tracked down unless you delete it or have really strict privacy settings. Even then, it’s still best never to post these kinds of things.
Post overly opinionated statuses, messages, or tweets. It is great to have an opinion and to take part in intellectual, respectful discussions, both online and in person. However, you want to avoid posting things that could stir up controversy, start an argument, or make you look insensitive. If it looks like you post just to create discord, then people who browse through your accounts will probably take away a less-than-favorable impression of you.
What Can You Do To Improve Your Social Media Presence?
It’s always a good idea to take time to review your social media accounts and assess whether or not you are using them appropriately. First, do you have any pictures that could be viewed as inappropriate, offensive, or immature? If so, take them down. If you want to hang onto the pictures, you can always just download and save them to your computer. Second, do you have any posts, status updates, or tweets that could be viewed as insensitive, controversial, or vulgar? If so, delete them now. More and more, our online presence is a representation of who we are as a person. If people see you writing those kinds of things on the internet, then they will believe that those posts represent your true belief system and the kinds of things you would truly think or say in the real world.
By taking time to put your best foot forward on social media, you can take control of how people perceive you online. Potential employers and colleagues will most likely take stock of your social presence at some point in the future. Do everything you can to make sure they take away a favorable impression.
By: Abe Flanigan, 2015 MSRE graduate assistant
Noah has had a crush on Wendy for almost a year. After spending weeks working up the courage, he finally overcame his shyness and asked her out on a date. For their date, Noah picked Wendy up around 7 p.m. and took her to a nice Thai restaurant before taking a walk through the town’s well-known art museum. Fast-forward a few hours, and Noah is driving home after dropping Wendy back off at her place. Noah is anxious. Did the date go well? Did she have fun? Did he talk enough? Were his jokes funny? Should he have worn a tie? These questions and many more like them are racing through his head. By reflecting on how this first date went, Noah is hoping to figure out what went well, what went wrong, and how he could make a second date (if she will go out with him again) more successful.
This self-reflective process is something we’re all are familiar with. Whether it is reflecting on a first date, an encounter with a boss, or our performance in a recent basketball game, everybody has experience thinking about past events. By reflecting on our past successes and failures, we place ourselves in a better position to be successful in the future. The same process of reflection—metacognition—is important when we are trying to learn. Metacognition is the, “Awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.” (Flavell, 1976) In other words, metacognition is the awareness and understanding of how you learn best. By becoming more metacognitive and thinking about our learning experiences, we allow ourselves to identify what types of learning experiences or strategies work best for us, and which ones we struggle with. By doing so, we allow ourselves to become better learners.
The benefits of being metacognitive
Studies show that students who make an effort to be more metacognitive learn more and perform better in the classroom than students who do not engage in this type of self-reflection and assessment. The reasons for this are twofold.
First, metacognitive students are more likely to know which learning strategies work best for them than students who do not make an effort to be metacognitive. As you know, learning and mastering information is more difficult than simply reading through it once and hoping it sticks in your memory. Information doesn’t automatically get stored into our long-term memories like that. Instead, repeated and meaningful interaction with information is necessary, especially if it’s really difficult material. So, rather than reading through a chapter once and falsely believing they learned everything in it, metacognitive students identify specific learning strategies (e.g., comparing/contrasting the different concepts, creating flashcards, and taking detailed notes) and applying them to that material.
Second, metacognitive students are more likely to embrace the growth mindset championed by Carol Dweck (1999). If you take time to think about your learning process, then you’re going to feel more confident in your ability to control your learning outcomes. The blog post Perspective is Everything: How Mindset Influences Your Success explained how students with a growth mindset understand that intelligence can be grown incrementally over time and are more motivated, work harder in the face of difficulty, and achieve higher than students with a fixed mindset. When you think about it, metacognition is really just the growth mindset in action. There is a difference between believing that you’re in control of your learning outcomes (growth mindset) and actually figuring out how to take control (metacognition). When students make an effort to be more metacognitive, they experience the benefits of taking control of their learning outcomes, which reinforces the growth mindset.
How can you be more metacognitive?
So, now that you know what metacognition is and its benefits, you’re probably wondering how to become more metacognitive. Fortunately, metacognition is something that can be developed. Outlined below are a couple of learning strategies you can use right now to become a more metacognitive learner.
Retrieval-based learning. Most of our study strategies are geared towards committing information to memory – memorizing definitions, reading a chapter over and over, and taking notes, for example. However, success in school is largely based on our ability to pull information from memory. Yet most students rarely practice, waiting until they take a dreaded test or quiz to attempt to retrieve information for the first time. This routine harms performance! Studies show that the more times you pull information out of long-term memory, the easier recall becomes. This is known as retrieval-based learning (RBL).
RBL is beneficial for two reasons. First, the more times you pull information out of memory, the easier it becomes. Just like doing a push-up or running a mile, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Second, trying to pull information out of long-term memory provides you with an honest assessment of whether or not you actually know something. You’ll know if you have the quadratic formula memorized if you can recite it from memory and you will know if you have a firm grip on the four stages of mitosis if you can describe each of them from memory. So, things like trying to recall as much information about a topic as possible, practicing writing an essay about something, or having a friend create a practice test for you (or making one yourself) would help you practice retrieving information from memory.
Regulating your environment. As you may remember from the Obstacles to Effective Learning blog post, many factors besides your specific study strategies impact your learning outcomes, such as your study environment. Metacognitive students are aware of this. Not all environments are created equally, which means you should carefully consider how to arrange or select an environment conducive to learning. Think about the things that commonly distract you and make a plan to combat them. Leave your cell phone at home when you go the library (or at least silence it and leave it in your bag). Only bring your laptop if absolutely necessary so you don’t feel tempted to check Facebook once every ten minutes. Or use something like FocalFilter.com to temporarily block specific websites while you study or do homework. Also, think about whether or not you work best alone or with a group. Studying with a group of friends might seem like more fun than doing it alone. But do you usually end up wasting time talking about off-topic things? Lastly, think about how your lifestyle (sleep and exercise habits, for example) might be impacting your learning outcomes and make adjustments accordingly. Being particular about these sorts of things can help you create an environment conducive to success.
Setting and monitoring goals. You may also find it helpful to get into the habit of establishing specific goals for your study sessions. How long do you plan to study? How many chapters or terms do you want to get through? How many math problems do you want to finish? By setting these kinds of goals, you provide yourself with criteria to assess your studying and homework sessions.
Are you getting the most out of the session? Are you wasting most of your time? Are you moving through the material as quickly as you would like? In addition to assessing the quality of your session, you can also reflect on the obstacles standing in the way of your goals. If you were unable to get through two chapters in American History, then maybe a specific topic is confusing and slowing you down. If so, it’s important to identify the problem and dedicate more time and effort to it. Setting goals helps you stay on track, provides you with criteria for assessing the quality of your homework and study sessions, and also provides you with a starting point for identifying areas of difficulty.
By making metacognition a priority, you can make yourself a stronger, more efficient learner. For most of us, effective learning strategies do not come naturally. Instead, we need to take time to reflect on our learning experiences. Which study strategies are the most helpful for you? Which topics do you tend to struggle with? Figure out who you are as a learner and tailor your studying and homework sessions accordingly. Just like professional athletes and musicians constantly practice to get better and better, making an attempt to become more metacognitive can advance your abilities as a student, researcher, and life-long learner.
By: Abe Flanigan, 2015 MSRE graduate assistant
Study every day.
Pay attention during all of your classes.
Chances are good you’ve heard these three keys to success during your years of schooling. There’s a reason why your parents and teachers recommended those learning strategies: students do better when they try harder. But how effective is a study session if your friends or the temptation to check Facebook constantly distract you? How well can you pay attention in your American history lecture if you only got four hours of sleep last night? While the specific learning strategies students use receive a lot of attention, we often lose sight of other factors that influence our ability to learn new information or perform well on tests and quizzes.
The purpose of this blog is to share information with you about how your sleeping pattern, exercise habits, and exposure to distractions impact your brain’s ability to learn and process information.
I need my six hours of sleep
College students are notorious for staying up late to hang out with friends, binge watch Netflix, or study for an upcoming test. Sure, we all like to spend time with our friends, get caught up on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or feel prepared for our Intermediate Stats test. However, most of us fail to consider how maintaining such an unhealthy sleeping cycle impacts our brains and bodies. Dr. James Maas, author of Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program that Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance (1999) and widely regarded sleep expert, has dedicated his career to studying the effects that sleep has on our capacity to learn and perform at our highest levels.
How much sleep do you get every night? Four hours? Six hours? Eight hours? One of my roommates during undergrad always used to tell me, “As long as I get my six hours of sleep, I’m good to go.” If you’re like most college students, six hours of sleep sounds pretty good. But, what if I were to tell you that Maas’ research has found that people who sleep 4-6 hours every night for an entire week and then perform a series of challenging cognitive and physical tasks perform just as well as participants who are well rested, but legally intoxicated? It’s true. A lack of sleep can severely impact how well our brains and bodies perform. Maas suggests the average adult needs between 8-9 hours of sleep every night. Sound impossible? Make sleep a priority. If you sleep every night from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. (or from midnight until 8 a.m.), you’ll get your eight hours. To give yourself a chance to wind down and get more sleep at night, make the most of the daylight hours.
Another reason why sleep is helpful relates to a process known as Memory Consolidation. Throughout the course of the day, we learn hundreds of new pieces of information as we talk to other people, listen to the radio, read newspapers, or scroll through Facebook and Twitter. Our brains process thousands (maybe even millions) of sights, sounds, and other stimuli through our senses. That’s a TON of information. We can’t possibly remember it all! While we sleep, the brain sorts through all of the information from the previous day. This is when the brain decides what was important and what wasn’t, keeping important information and “deleting” the unimportant. This is the process of memory consolidation. If you spent four hours that day studying for your French history class, then your brain is going to identify that information as important and begin the process of storing (or, consolidating) it into long-term memory. The information the brain deems less important (e.g., the information you spent less time paying attention to) is going to be “deleted. This is why it’s difficult to remember what you had for breakfast four days ago – it’s really not that important so the brain removes that information from your memory.
Here’s why sleep is important to memory consolidation: the longer you sleep, the more information your brain can sort through and begin to consolidate into long-term memory. If you only give yourself six hours of sleep instead of eight, then your brain has less time to consolidate information into your long-term memory.
Besides setting an earlier bedtime for yourself, what else can you do to get more sleep? Maas has three suggestions. First, remove as many stimuli from your surroundings as possible. Remember, one of the purposes of sleeping is to give your brain a rest from processing information. So, if you sleep with a radio or television on, your brain picks up on the noise and your sleep rhythm is disrupted. At a speech he gave during the 2010 Great Plains Psychology Conference, Maas described how even the light emitted from an electronic alarm clock is enough to interfere with sleep. Second, if you like to workout late in the evening before bed, there’s a chance you’re messing with your sleeping habits. As you exercise, your body temperature rises. But, in order to go to sleep, your body temperature needs to lower. Working out shortly before bed makes it difficult for your body to cool down, so it’s more difficult to fall asleep. Or, you may be able to fall asleep, only to wake up a couple of times during the night or you feel groggy the next morning. Third, Maas advocates setting up a pre-bedtime routine. Calming activities such as reading a book, writing in a journal, or listening to soft music are all things we can do to help our bodies calm down and prepare for sleep.
Exercise is for more than getting that “beach body”
A healthy exercise routine also has positive effects on our ability to learn new information. No, you don’t have to run eight miles a day, do 500 sit-ups, or 100 pushups. Researchers have found that simply doing aerobic exercise (such as going for a jog or riding a bike) for just 30 minutes a day, 4-5 times a week is enough to boost your brain’s learning capabilities for up to 6-8 hours after you finish exercising. How? As we exercise, our brains release a chemical known as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). Simply put, BDNF is a natural steroid. The presence of BDNF positively impacts our cognitive efficiency and makes it easier to process information and store it in long-term memory. The more regularly you exercise, the more regularly you have elevated levels of BDNF in the brain. So, even if you aren’t motivated to get a perfectly sculpted beach body before Spring Break next year, you can use your academic goals as motivation to get into the gym or head out for a bike ride.
Facebook, texting, and other distractions that hinder your learning
Getting enough sleep and exercise can improve your brain’s ability to learn and process information. However, simply being well rested and settled into an exercise routine is not enough to guarantee success. You also need to pay attention to how the environment around you may benefit or harm your brain’s capabilities.
Take a minute to visualize the environment you typically study in. Is your cell phone within reach? Do you have distracting Internet sites open (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) on your laptop? Is the television on in the background? Having these distractions present in your study environment increases what educational psychologists call motivational interference (e.g., Fries & Dietz, 2006). Motivational interference refers to the decrease in our motivation and on-task behaviors as a result of the presence of tempting distractions. Unfortunately, students who experience high levels of motivational interference experience diminished motivation to continue studying, produce lower quality homework, and perform more poorly on tests and quizzes than students who minimize motivational interference.
So, you could be well rested and settled into an exercise routine, but that doesn’t guarantee success. Instead, it could all be wasted if you surround yourself with distractions during your study and homework sessions. In addition to motivational interference, research has found that the human brain cannot multitask (Medina, 2008). Most of us think we can switch between one task and another (like switching between studying for a quiz and sending text messages) and still function at an optimal level. Wrong! Instead, asking our brain to switch back and forth between one task and another challenges and makes our brain tired. Trying to multitask reduces the how much information we retain from study sessions. By minimizing the presence of distractions in our study and homework sessions, we can increase the quality of those sessions. So, put your phone on silent, close the Facebook tab on your laptop, and focus on studying. You’ll be surprised by how much easier it is to learn when you don’t have so many different things competing for your attention.
Remember, specific study strategies are important for your success. Study, work diligently on your homework, and ask questions. Being a proactive student will pay off in the form of good grades, positive relationships with your instructors, and enhanced opportunities for graduate school. But don’t forget that other factors also impact your learning outcomes. By getting enough sleep, your brain has time to rest and consolidate information into your long-term memory. Getting plenty of sleep also helps your brain function at its peak during the day. Exercise releases BDNF in the brain, further enhancing its ability to function at a high level. Finally, minimizing distractions when you’re studying allows your fully rested and BDNF-filled brain to process information more easily. By taking sleep, exercise, and the presence of distractions into account, you can make it easier on yourself to learn new information and perform at a high level.