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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Three Tips for Success by Dr. Donnellan

Welcome to the Fall Semester of 2014!  Unfortunately, I will not be on campus to enjoy the familiar traditions of the season – the excitement of the first days of classes, the spectacular colors of fall, and the new season of Spartan football. My family and I decided to move to a new university to be closer to family, so I will be learning new traditions this fall. I will definitely miss MSU.
I spent over 10 years in this department and I taught PSY 395 with some frequency. I also helped conduct research on the factors that are associated with success in college. Given this background, I was asked to share some tips for success that might help you this semester. Here are three:
1.  Go to class. Attendance is positively correlated with course performance in college according to a review of 69 studies (Credé et al., 2010).  This is probably unsurprising, right?  What was surprising was the conclusion that course attendance was a stronger correlate of performance than any other variable considered by the researchers including standardized test scores and high school GPA.  Showing up is a big deal!
2. Develop an Organized Plan for Studying at the Start of the Term. I did research with a former graduate student (and now professor at Kenyon College) on factors that predicted success in PSY 395.  Students who had a clear and organized plan for studying and those who expressed a willingness to work hard at the beginning of the semester did better at the end of the term than students who were less committed and had disorganized study strategies.  Figure out your plan for success early and stick with it!
I am convinced that last minute cramming for exams is a bad study strategy.  Instead, I think it is better to keep pace with the readings throughout the semester and to invest a consistent amount of time studying the material each week. There is large body of research suggesting that frequent testing promotes performance so an additional tactic might be to use self-testing strategies regularly to help boost your scores (see Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). Make sure that you consistently monitor your own learning and understanding.  A recent popular press book has a number of other useful tips (Brown et al., 2014).
3. Adopt a Growth Mindset.  There is increasing scientific interest in understanding how the ideas people have about their own abilities or their mindsets influences motivation, performance, and emotional health (Dweck, 2012). In fact, this is the subject of ongoing research by faculty and graduate students here at MSU. One approach that seems to work well is to adopt a mindset that emphasizes the importance of learning and potential growth. This “growth” mindset views abilities as inherently malleable and this belief has been associated with bouncing back from setbacks. This is in contrast to the “fixed” mindset that emphasizes the idea that one either has an attribute or not. Students with this fixed mindset tend to react to set-backs like a poor midterm grade in ways that often undermine their long-term success. They might conclude that a bad grade means they simply don’t have the ability to master their courses and start to withdraw effort because they are worried about looking stupid.
Here’s the deal - there are difficult courses and not everyone immediately “gets” the material.  Everybody struggles to varying degrees when working to learn new things and enhance their skills.  Mistakes are inevitable. Learning how to react constructively to setbacks is a critical part of success.  Mindsets are important for this process. 
Issues with mindsets would often come up in courses that featured statistics like PSY 295 and 395. I would see some students setting themselves up for problems almost from the first day of the course when they would say “I am not a math person”.  A better approach would be to commit to developing and enhancing statistical skills at the start of the class rather than to assume that some people are just math whizzes whereas others are not. After all, it is unlikely you have heard many students say, “I am not a reading person” on the first day of PSY 101. When you face a challenging course, I suggest you to adopt a growth mindset response rather than concluding you don’t have the ability to succeed.  You can improve with hard work. You might even try going to office hours to get course specific advice from your professors. 
That’s it!  I hope these tips are helpful and I wish you a great semester.   
-Brent Donnellan
Further Readings
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Credé, M., Roch, S. G., & Kieszczynka, U. M. (2010). Class attendance in college: A meta-analytic review of the relationship of class attendance with grades and student characteristics. Review of Educational Research, 80, 272-295.
Dweck, C.S. (2012). Mindsets and human nature: Promoting change in the Middle East, the schoolyard, the racial divide, and willpower. American Psychologist, 67, 614-622.
Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181-210.