The purpose of this paper is to assist you in gaining control of
your own studying.
How is knowledge gained?
Most would agree that gaining knowledge (or learning) involves
two things: experience and practice. Reading textbooks, listening
to lectures, and reviewing class notes are all forms of
experience that seem to be essential to learning in university.
It is also true that we must practice the knowledge behaviour in
order to make the experiences meaningful. This is most clear in
the case of knowing how to do things - we practice athletics,
music, art, etc., to develop these skills. It is also true, but
perhaps less obvious, in the case of knowing about things -
recitation of information we learn from a textbook is one of the
best methods of learning and remembering it. In short, to gain
knowledge we must study. We must bring ourselves into contact
with the relevant information, and we must practice relevant
forms of behaviour.
Why gain knowledge?
Okay, so studying involves exposure to information and practice
of knowledge behaviour. This is easy to say, but hard to do.
Something is missing, and it is this missing something that is at
the heart of the problem for many students. What is missing is
the reason for studying.
Take a few minutes and write in the spaces below the best reasons
you can think of for studying. Be sincere, complete, and brief.
Reasons Why One Should Study
Now, let's analyze the reasons that you have given. First, ask
yourself for each reason whether it is a positive reason or a
negative reason. Is the reason for studying something good that
you will gain because you have studied (positive), or is it
something bad that you will avoid or escape from because you have
studied (negative)? Put a "+" next to positive reasons. Put a "-"
next to negative reasons.
Next, ask if the reason for studying is an immediate consequence
of studying or is a delayed consequence of studying. That is, do
you get something or avoid something immediately after studying,
or is the consequence delayed by hours, days, or years? If the
consequence is immediate (say, less than one hour) put an "I"
next to it. If the reason is a delayed consequence put a "D" next
Finally, ask if the amount of work needed to obtain the
consequence is large and occurs infrequently (e.g., getting a
degree) or small and frequent (e.g., reading a section of a
chapter to answer questions). If the reason is one where you get
large but infrequent consequences label it with an "L". If the
reason is one where you get small but frequent consequences label
it with an "S".
"Good" and "Bad" reasons. Now, go back and look at your
list of reasons for studying. You will probably see that some of
your reasons are positive (which is good), but that they are
delayed or require a large amount of work (which is bad). You may
also see that some of your reasons are negativeyou study to avoid
things that you dislike (which is bad). Here, "Good" and "Bad"
refer to the effectiveness of the consequences for studying. The
best reasons for studying (the most effective reasons) are those
that are positive, immediate, and require small amounts of work.
If you want to increase your studying a good place to begin is to
arrange for these positive, immediate and frequent consequences
to follow studying. How can we do this?
Some personal examples. To complete my Ph.D. degree I
needed to write my dissertation. My global reason for completing
the degree was clear - the degree and increased prospects of
finding employment. These were good positive reasons, but they
were delayed and required a great deal of work. I was having
difficulty getting started. I found myself wasting time, putting
off writing (and feeling anxious about it). Finally, I approached
the problem by setting up some immediate positive consequences
for writing that I could earn without large amounts of work.
First, I selected a positive consequence. I selected
playing pinball machines (one of my favorite activities). In the
next building was an ice cream parlor that had a few pinball
machines. I was able to play pinball as an immediate consequence.
Second, I arranged the amount of work required to earn "pinball
time" to be small and easily obtainable. I began with a small
goal - writing one handwritten page. As I began writing I knew
that soon I would be playing pinball. It was easy to start. As
soon as I completed one page, I took 25 cents out of my pocket
(an immediate consequence) and walked to the ice cream parlor,
deposited the 25 cents in my favorite machine, and played until
my games were finished. Then, I returned to my desk, wrote a
second page, took out another 25 cents, and again made a visit to
the ice cream parlor. After several days of this system I began
to "thin out" my rewards (I was writing and running out of money
quickly!). Each time I finished writing a page I would take out
the 25 cents and flip it. If the coin came up "heads", I would go
play pinball. If the coin came up "tails", I would write another
page. Sometimes I would have a "lucky streak" of several "heads"
in a row, and sometimes the opposite. Now I was writing two pages
(on the average) for each trip to the pinball machine. Next, I
further faded the reward to a ratio of one reward for six pages
written by using only the number "1" on a toss of a die. Before I
could alter the system further I was finished with my
dissertation! (Over 100 pages in less than a month!)
Since then I have used similar systems to get started and finish
particular tasks that I found hard to start. At this moment I am
using "going for lunch" as a reward for editing this paper.
The hardest problem to solve when constructing a self-reward
system is finding a way to make the rewards immediate. For
example, let's say you are planning to use "going to a movie" as
a reinforcer for completing a computer science assignment. Unless
your study place is located next to the theatre, it would be
impossible to have the reinforcer as an immediate consequence of
studying. one way to solve this problem is to use a "token"
reinforcer as the immediate reward, and the movie as the "backup"
reward. In this example, you could divide the assignment up into
meaningful chunks of work (e.g., reading over the assignment to
get it clear, looking in your text or notes for similar problems,
drawing a basic flow chart of the program requirement, etc.).
Then as soon as you complete each chunk of work, you
drop 25 cents (or so) into a jar. When done, you take the money
from the jar and go to the movie.
Let me summarize the major features of a self-reinforcement
- The reward need not be "big" as long as it is
- The reward or token must be something that is an
immediate consequence of studying;
- The amount of work needed to obtain the reward
should be small in the beginning, but can be increased
as progress is made.
- It is important that the reward only be earned IF you do the
required work. If you cheat on the system you will not obtain
- You should let your behaviour be your guide. If your system
begins to break down, adjust it accordingly.
In the spaces below write in some positive rewards that you could
use to increase your studying. Try to pick a few in each category
Activity Rewards (e.q., Playing Pinball, watching TV, running,
Primary Rewards (e.g., peanuts, coffee, soda, etc.)
Token Rewards (e.g., movie tickets, money dropped in a jar, etc.)
Now select one of your classes that has assignments that you tend
to put off or dislike doing. Describe here the behaviour you want
With the above behaviour in mind, determine what a reasonable
"chunk" of it is. For writing, it may be a page, for reading it
may be a section of a chapter, for doing physics problems, it may
be completing one problem. This unit of behaviour should be
specified with you in mind. Don't make it too large -you
can always increase it after you are successful.
My unit behaviour will be
Now describe briefly the reward system that you will use in the
beginning. Be sure to say how you will ensure that the reward is
immediate. Be sure to say how you will adjust the system of
rewards to "fade out" the rewards.