What better way to distract yourself from revising for your exams than to read this article by Ranveer Bassey on how you could improve your academic performance
Everyone wants a first class degree, but not everyone gets one. What makes those who achieve one different from those who do not? It is easy to get pulled into the “nature versus nurture” debate, but I do not want to discuss that. What I find more interesting is considering how people can change their behaviour to improve their performance now. As John Jonides, professor of psychology and neuroscience, is quoted in the New York Times (18 April 2012): “The fact that intelligence is partly heritable doesn’t mean you can’t modify it.”
The most famous study on how characteristics influence performance is known as the “marshmallow test”. It was an incredibly simple experiment. Children were offered a marshmallow and told if they waited 15 minutes they would receive two. Only 33 per cent waited the 15 minutes. Most interestingly, those who did were found to have significantly higher secondary school grades later in life.
The study tested the ability to delay gratification (ie, the ability to focus past the decision-wrecking blur of an instant hit and, instead, see the long-term target in the distance). Those children who could resist recognised their temptation and chose to mask it using distraction strategies like covering their eyes.
The “marshmallows” of today are digital: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, all fed through a smartphone that demands attention with flashing lights and blaring tones. A study found that students were only able to focus for three minutes at a time when studying and that their main distractions came from technology. Students who checked Facebook even only once during their study time performed worse.
What is the strategy most use against these digital marshmallows? They tell themselves that they have work to do and cannot get distracted — as if through the power of witchcraft uttering those words like a spell will suddenly make Facebook incredibly boring. The marshmallow test tells us that the most effective strategy is removing the marshmallow from sight (eg, hide the smartphone or use software like “Cold turkey”). Those students who do well use their metacognitive skills to delay distractions until an appropriate time.
Delaying gratification requires willpower and you have as much of that as you think you do. If you think your willpower is limited it will become so and you will be more easily depleted. Students who think they have limited willpower look out for signs of fatigue and use them as justifications for giving up. The more productive students see their willpower as limitless and, instead, view signs of fatigue as battle cries; as a call to gather their perseverance arms rather than an excuse to give up. Students who were taught that their willpower is not limited procrastinated less and kept to their weekly budgets.
Procrastination is the bane of a student’s life, destroying time with nothing left to show for it. Procrastination stems from a battle between your current-self and your future-self. The person who says “I’ll do it later” now will be a different person influenced by different factors when “later” arrives. If this is recognised, strategies can be implemented against it, for example, by setting artificial deadlines to ensure work is spread evenly.
An interesting study questions the common belief that high achievers work longer than normal achievers. Two groups of violin players were identified, average players and elite players. The way they practised was observed.
The research found that, surprisingly, both sets of players practised for the same amount of time. The elite players even got more sleep and were more relaxed than the average players. The elite players were not working longer, they were working smarter. The average players spread their practice throughout the day whereas the elite players practised intensely in two periods. The elite players also purposefully stretched their ability by focusing on difficult pieces whereas average players did not.
This blog (“If you’re busy, you’re doing something wrong”) summarises the advice from the research excellently: “Do less. But do what you do with complete and hard focus. Then when you’re done be done, and go enjoy the rest of the day.”
The people you choose to live with might also affect your academic performance. A study found that when students with lower grades began room-sharing with higher grade students, their grades increased. They conclude that peer effects are important in determining levels of academic effort.
Intelligence, like any personal quality, is not fixed. Nature and nurture might set your intelligence ceiling, but most people would be fooling themselves if they think they have already hit it. It is possible to implement strategies that improve performance but there are no quick fixes. It takes a shift in mind-set and purposeful application, but the rewards are sweet and – in the case of a degree classification – with you forever.
Ranveer Bassey is a fourth-year student at the University of Reading and blogger for PJ Online/Tomorrow’s Pharmacist