Personal    Learning    Career    Peer Helping   
   

Controlling Your Own Study Behaviour

Self-Reinforcement

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

  1. _____________________________________________________
  2. _____________________________________________________
  3. _____________________________________________________
  4. _____________________________________________________
  5. _____________________________________________________

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 to it.

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 system:

  1. The reward need not be "big" as long as it is positive;
  2. The reward or token must be something that is an immediate consequence of studying;
  3. The amount of work needed to obtain the reward should be small in the beginning, but can be increased as progress is made.
  4. 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 your goal.
  5. 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 listed.

Activity Rewards (e.q., Playing Pinball, watching TV, running, etc.)

  1. _____________________________________________________
  2. _____________________________________________________
  3. _____________________________________________________
  4. _____________________________________________________

Primary Rewards (e.g., peanuts, coffee, soda, etc.)

  1. _____________________________________________________
  2. _____________________________________________________
  3. _____________________________________________________
  4. _____________________________________________________

Token Rewards (e.g., movie tickets, money dropped in a jar, etc.)

  1. _____________________________________________________
  2. _____________________________________________________
  3. _____________________________________________________

Now select one of your classes that has assignments that you tend to put off or dislike doing. Describe here the behaviour you want to increase:

  • _____________________________________________________

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.

_____________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________

   
 
 
Back to Navigation