Train your brain

Teaching the fundamentals of academic success

Procrastination. Anxiety. Distractions. Bad habits.

They are the four horsemen of academic apocalypse, and Jeremy Butt learned about them all too well in his freshman year.

Grades-wise, the UBC Arts student survived his first year at university with mostly B’s and C’s. But he knew something had to change fast if he had any hope of getting into law school.

“I knew I could do better, but I didn’t know how to manage it all,” Butt says, recalling a vicious cycle of last-minute study sessions, all-nighters and rushed assignments.

Butt is one of thousands of young learners who struggle every year to make the transition from high school to university life with its larger workload, reduced supervision and frequent temptations.

“Looking back, high school didn’t really prepare me for university,” says the psychology major from Toronto. “For example, living in residence is great, but it can be hard to stay focused and get work done.”

Thankfully, Butt’s dream of law school is back on track after participating in a pilot version of a new UBC class that teaches students how to excel at university and as lifelong learners.

The three-month course, Psychology In Your Life: How Social Psychology Can Help You Succeed, employs collected wisdom from educational and psychology research and theory. It was such a success that it is being offered again to all UBC students this academic year. Butt credits it with boosting his GPA by nine points in just one year.

“Surprisingly, very few people are actually taught the basics of learning,” says Catherine Rawn, Dept. of Psychology, who designed the course. “Teachers often assume someone else has taught their students how to study, but the truth is many people never get taught the tools to succeed.”

Rawn is an Instructor 1, one of the fastest growing faculty positions at large research-intensive universities worldwide. Unlike professors who both teach and research, she teaches exclusively. Full-time and tenure-eligible, the position is part of a university-wide effort to continually improve teaching and learning at UBC. Related projects include the Carl Weiman Science Education Initiative, the new Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Technology (CTLT) and the Lasting Education Achieved and Demonstrated (LEAD) initiative.

The road to success begins with some hardcore goal-setting, says Rawn, who joined UBC’s faculty after completing her PhD at the university in 2009. “Students need to be honest about what they want in a semester. What grades do they want? What sort of social life? Only then can you work backward on a plan to reach these goals.”

Next up is removing all distractions. Set a regular study schedule. Find a place where you can concentrate. Turn off anything that shakes your concentration: mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter and MSN.

The best defence against the myriad temptations of university life? A good study schedule, says Rawn, who also trains new UBC student teaching assistants. “Having a regular schedule is crucial, because it becomes habit. When friends invite you out, you need to be able to say, ‘Well, I study from four to six today, but I can meet you after that.’ You can’t do that if you don’t have a schedule.”

Finally, is the business of actual learning. Not surprisingly, Rawn discourages trying to cram in a month’s worth of reading all night before exams. “Memory research on levels of processing teaches us that to really retain something, we need to work with concepts and ideas repeatedly, in as many ways as possible.”

To this end, in every lesson students respond to quizzes with infrared clickers and break into small discussion groups. At home, she encourages students to make up their own study questions, and pay special attention to understanding key terms and textbook headers.

As happy as he is with his improved grades, Butt says the course has produced other pleasant side-effects: reduced exam anxiety and more free time. The avid snowboarder says he spent more days at Whistler last winter than ever before thanks to his newfound time-management chops.

“Catherine’s class helped me to be much better with my time, so I get more work done in less time,” Butt says. “There was always this anxiety hanging over me when I used to put things off, but that’s gone now. I know I’m on top of things and can excel at university. It’s a good feeling.”

Learn more about Rawn and her class at www.psych.ubc.ca/~cdrawn.

UBC Reports | Vol. 56 | No. 8 | Aug. 5, 2010

Train your brain Young learners struggle to make the transition from high school to university life with its larger workload and reduced supervision. Catherine Rawn is teaching them the fundamentals of academic success. Photo: Martin Dee

Train your brain Young learners struggle to make the transition from high school to university life with its larger workload and reduced supervision. Catherine Rawn is teaching them the fundamentals of academic success. Photo: Martin Dee

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Four steps to academic success

  1. Eyes on the prize

    Set goals, academic and extra-curricular, every semester

  2. Find a groove

    Create a regular study schedule

  3. Keep your focus

    Turn off Facebook, Twitter and Google chat

  4. Work it

    Play with course materials in as many ways as you can

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