‘Inside UVA’: Listen to These Study Tips Ahead of Final Exams. They Start May 4!
Audio: ‘Inside UVA’ With Daniel Willingham(22:29)
Psychology professor Daniel Willingham talks about how to study smarter in season two of President Jim Ryan’s podcast, “Inside UVA.”
Dan Willingham, professor of psychology: The most common strategy that students use when they’re studying is rereading their textbook. So they read the textbook over and over and over again. And what that does is it builds familiarity; the content seems more and more familiar.
Jim Ryan, president of the University of Virginia: But they might not be able to retrieve it.
Willingham: Exactly. Familiarity is a type of memory. It means yes, I can identify – I’ve seen this before, but it doesn’t necessarily support being able to explain something.
Ryan: Hi, everyone, I’m Jim Ryan, the president of University of Virginia, and I’d like to welcome all of you to another episode of “Inside UVA.” This podcast is a chance for me to speak with some of the amazing people at the University and to learn more about what they do and who they are. My hope is that listeners will ultimately have a better understanding of how UVA works and a deeper appreciation of the remarkably talented and dedicated people who make UVA the institution it is.
I’m joined today by Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Dan explores and explains what cognitive psychology can tell us about learning and teaching, among other areas. He recently published some of his findings in his best-selling book, “Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy.”
He is an influential and prolific scholar; he’s a columnist for the American Educator. He has written a number of books, including “Why Don’t Students Like School,” “When Can You Trust the Experts” and “Raising Kids Who Read,” among others, Education Week recently ranked Dan as the country’s 10th-ost influential education scholar.
He hails from the great Garden State of New Jersey, but has lived in Virginia for over two decades and so now is a proud Cavalier.
Dan, thank you for being with us today.
Willingham: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Ryan: So you went to Duke as an undergraduate, which I’ll chalk up to youthful indiscretion. And then you went on to get your Ph.D. at Harvard in cognitive psychology. And I’m curious what made you choose that route? What made you interested in cognitive psychology and in academia?
Willingham: Well, interestingly enough, my parents met in a graduate course – where they were both pursuing their Ph.D. in psychology and experimental psychology – and a course that was actually taught by my uncle.
Ryan: Family business.
Willingham: It was absolutely the family business. And so I showed up at Duke ready to major in anything other than psychology. But I sort of figured at some point, I should take, you know, Intro to Psychology so that I would know what was going on around the Thanksgiving table. And I took a course in my sophomore year, and I was a goner. I just fell in love with the discipline. And then graduate school just seemed like a natural next step, continuing my studying.
Ryan: And how did your path lead you to UVA?
Willingham: My path that led me to UVA was really fortuitous. I mean, Jim, as you know, when you’re an academic, you sort of surrender on geography and any other concerns. You’re excited to get a job wherever you can. But I got very lucky. I did have some choices. But UVA had such an amazing department, and so many wonderful people here, I was absolutely thrilled. So I got here in 1992. And I’ve never seen any reason to leave.
Ryan: Well, we’re lucky that you’re still here. So talk a little bit about your research; as I understand it, you were going down a particular path until around 2000, and then you shifted course. Can you talk a little bit about that and why you shifted course?
Willingham: For sure. Yeah. And there’s actually an interesting UVA connection in this story.
So as you said, when I got my Ph.D., and when I first came to UVA, I was – had no interest in education at all beyond trying to teach my own courses. While I was a basic researcher, I was studying at the intersection of cognition and neuroscience and problems of memory. And it was really pretty technical. As I like to say, the old joke is that when you get your Ph.D., your parents tell their friends, “My child became a doctor, but not the type who helps people.” And I sort of went one better than that; I was a learning researcher who couldn’t tell you how to learn better. And that continued until about 2001 or so.
And the UVA connection is E.D. Hirsch. Of course, yeah, a very eminent scholar at UVA, who was an English professor, but wrote a bestseller in the ’80s called “Cultural Literacy” that concerned education and had a foundation here in town. And Hersh called me up and said, “Listen, how about coming to the conference for the Core Knowledge Foundation, and talk to about five to 600 teachers about education and cognitive psychology?” And I said, “I don’t know anything about education at all.” And he said “No, we get that, you know, we just think the teachers would find it interesting.”
So I have an ego like anybody else, Jim, and I was like, “Sure, I’ll come talk to your 600 teachers.” I thought that sounded fine.
And then like six months later, I realized I have to give this talk in two weeks. And I panicked, because I realized, what am I possibly going to tell teachers about learning that they don’t already know? So I sort of went to the slides from Psychology 2150, which I had already been teaching for 10 years here, which is Introduction to Cognitive Psychology, and picked out some stuff that seemed relevant to me.
Now, I had asked the woman I had been dating for a while, who is now my wife, who is also a teacher – I had invited her to come with me to Nashville, and come watch me give a talk on teaching. So she was there and half an hour before the talk, I said, “You can’t come,” because I was so confident that this was just going to be a disaster.
So I get up there, I give the talk. And to my considerable surprise, it’s not a disaster; the teachers thought it was really interesting. They thought it was really applicable to what they were doing. And they didn’t already know all this content. And again, to emphasize this, the very first course you would take at UVA, concerning how people learn, right? So that changed my career. And I thought my field is doing a terrible job of letting educators what we know about how children learn. And so I started thinking about how I could communicate with educators.
Ryan: You switched, in a sense from doing basic research to doing what people would describe as translational research.
Ryan: And you’re also reaching a broader audience, probably than you did with your basic research.
Willingham: I think. Yeah, I think absolutely.
Ryan: Was that a hard decision to make? And how has it been received by your colleagues? Because you know, there’s often a debate about basic vs. translational research, and some prioritize one over the other. And I’m just curious what your experience has been like?
Willingham: Yeah, I mean, I, candidly, was uneasy about that. So I mentioned, this happened in 2001. And I sort of did both for a while, at first, I was probably 80% basic research, 20% applied. And of course, I mean, I, I had graduate students, I had, you know, who had come here expecting to do what I had been doing, so forth.
And the real watershed moment for me came in 2007 when my grant from NIH was due to be – for me to resubmit to continue to do that type of work. And I decided not to resubmit and to devote all of my attention to the translation work. And I was a little uneasy about how this was going to be received with my colleagues.
And I have to say, my colleagues at UVA had been incredibly supportive from the start. I always had in the back of my mind, like, if this doesn’t go well, I’m gonna go back to doing what I’ve always known best. For the first few years, I did have a little bit of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; I just sort of like didn’t bring it up and hope no one would notice what I was up to. But yeah, my chair, my colleagues and my deans have always been super supportive and really seen the value, especially us being a public university. This really is part of our mission, to not just learn new things that tickle us academics, but bring what we know to the people of Virginia and to the broader public.
Ryan: Right, I agree. It’s interesting, because it’s not that dissimilar from the kind of research that a lot of law professors do and the kind of research that I did when I was a law professor. So you’re taking the knowledge in one field – cognitive psychology – and using that to inform advice about how to teach and how to learn the work that I did focused on social science, literature and sometimes life science literature to inform the best take on legal rules or policy. It’s the same idea. You take what is developed in one field and apply it to another. and oftentimes it can shed new light on that.
Willingham: Absolutely. It’s challenging. And it’s gratifying, not only because you feel like it’s helpful, but it’s also intellectually challenging because you are trying to have several feet in different places.
Ryan: I agree. So let’s talk a little bit about your most recent book, “Outsmart Your Brain.” What will a reader find if they pick it up and read through it?
Willingham: Yeah, so the premise there is, is twofold.
One is that students frequently have a pretty narrow conception of what’s needed in order to succeed academically. So when my students don’t do well on an exam, they come to see me. They’re usually thinking, “How can I cram more stuff into my head?” They’re focused on committing things to memory. And that’s obviously important, but there are lots of bits and pieces that have to go right for learning to go well.
So you need to know how to listen to teacher talk in order to extract meaning from that and understand difficult concepts. You need to know how to take notes; you need to actually know how to learn from labs, not just execute labs; deal with procrastination; deal with test anxiety; and so on. So that’s one theme.
And the other theme is that for each of these tasks, your brain can kind of lead you astray on how things are going. That’s why it’s called “Outsmart Your Brain.” We don’t have direct access as sort of a barometer as to whether or not you truly understand something or whether or not something is actually committed to memory. So we have these other cues that we use to make that judgment. And sometimes we’re using the wrong cues.
And so the book is basically a collection of tips or strategies to make sure that you’re going about these processes the best possible way.
Ryan: So can you give an example of miscue?
Willingham: Sure. So one of the most common comes in students’ judgments about whether or not they know something. And this is really surprising, because if I asked you, for example, “Could you in principle, tell me who the second president of the United States is?” If you reflect on how you would answer that question, most people say, “Well, I sort of pose that question to myself. And then I peeked in memory to see if there was anything in there. And if there was, I said yes. And if I didn’t, or was unsure, I said no.” And that’s a great way to do it. But there are actually other cues that students end up using.
So the most common is familiarity. And this is actually a big problem for students because of the way they try to commit things to memory. The most common strategy that students use when they’re studying is rereading their textbook. So they read the textbook over and over and over again. And what that does is it builds familiarity; the content seems more and more familiar.
Ryan: But they might not be able to retrieve it.
Willingham: Exactly. Familiarity is a type of memory. It means yes, I can identify I’ve seen this before, but it doesn’t necessarily support being able to explain something. So that’s an example of a miscue.
Ryan: One of the recommendations you make is to plan by time rather than task. Can you explain that a little bit?
Willingham: Sure, I find that one of the most common ways that students plan their time is they come back from the end of the day, after being at classes and so forth. And they think, “OK, what do I need to do for tomorrow or the next couple of days? Do I have reading I’m supposed to do? Do I have a quiz to study for?”
The difficulty with doing it that way is that there is this pervasive phenomenon called the planning fallacy, which doesn’t affect students – it affects everybody. Planning fallacy refers to the fact that we consistently underestimate how long it’s going to take us to complete a task.
So I may have a chem problem set that’s due Friday. And I realized that on Tuesday, but I don’t start it Tuesday, because I figure, well, Thursday night is going to be enough time to do it. But then it turns out, I’m subject to the planning fallacy. And Thursday night, I’m up all night, or I maybe don’t get the thing done, right?
So instead, planning by time means that every day you have a block of time that you are going to devote to work. And it doesn’t matter what’s due tomorrow, the next day. And if you don’t have anything due tomorrow, then you’re working on things that are due next week. So one advantage is that this is more likely to allow you to have a little bit of a cushion. If you’re starting things a little bit in advance, if things take longer than you expect, that’s fine, because you’ve started them early. But the other thing you’re really targeting here is you’re trying to make work habitual, when you get into procrastination is when you’re making a choice. Should I do this fun thing, or should I do this thing that maybe is less fun, I don’t really want to do?
And the great thing about habits is, if it’s habitual, it means you’re not choosing you just sort of do it. The way we find ourselves is brushing our teeth at night not contemplating every night, “Should I brush my teeth or not?” And so if you get into this mode of “what do I have to do tomorrow?” the danger is you’re gonna say, “Well, maybe nothing. And then I could just hang out with my friends or whatever.” So that’s why I’m so strong on planning by time.
Ryan: And is that a way to overcome procrastination as well?
Willingham: I think it’s the best way to overcome procrastination, absolutely, is to just get in this habit of every day, I have supper, and then I’m at my desk for the next four hours or whatever it is.
Ryan: So treat it a little bit like a job.
Willingham: Treat it like a job is a great idea. Yep.
Ryan: So for parents out there who are listening, any advice about how we can help our kids in this respect?
Willingham: You mean besides buying multiple copies of my book? That’s really that’s the first part. Clearly you’ll want to do that.
No, I think that – do bear in mind that these are skills that are assumed in most schools, but are not taught in most schools. So this is something that – there’s this transition that happens slowly, that students become more and more responsible for their own learning. Kindergartners are not responsible for their learning at all, and 12th-graders are responsible for a great deal. But most schools are not teaching your children how to plan their time, how to avoid procrastination, so on. And so this is something that you can help them with.
Ryan: I would guess you would want to see some of this appear in education schools where teachers are being prepared.
Willingham: Absolutely. And there are surveys of both in-service teachers and teachers who are currently in teacher education programs showing that they don’t know as much about how children learn as would be ideal. So yeah, I think that is something that we could be doing better.
Ryan: Yeah. Well, when I was the dean of an education school, I was really surprised that in our master’s program – and we had 13 different master’s programs – there was not a requirement that everyone take a course on how students learn. And I thought, first of all, if you want to establish education as a profession, there should be some core body of knowledge that you expect everyone in the profession to know. And second, if you’re going to have that core body of knowledge, one piece of it should be some understanding about how people learn.
Willingham: Naturally, I think that’s a great idea. Yeah.
Ryan: So you have an incredibly visible presence on social media. And I understand that you’ve recently become a TikTok star as well. So tell me a little bit about your social media presence, and why TikTok?
Willingham: So a story goes with this, as well. So when “Outsmart Your Brain” was in progress, my publisher approached me and said, “We want you on TikTok,” and I said “That sounds like a horrible idea. I really don’t want to do that at all.” But they were really gung-ho about it. They were saying “We are gonna hire a videographer, it’s gonna look fabulous, you’re not gonna have to dance, you’re gonna love it.”
Ryan: That was my question. How much dancing do you have to do?
Willingham: Yeah, there’s no dance – zero dancing, you’ll be glad to know. Anyway, the short version of the story is this just sort of mysteriously got dropped. Maybe they met me and then they realized this wasn’t gonna go. I don’t know. They didn’t. They didn’t tell me.
Ryan: It was a secret audition.
Willingham: Yeah, exactly, without telling me. So they did like a little animated thing for the book. And they put it on their social media. And it was like, candidly, it was like, not really my vibe at all.
But then I was saying, like, it’s such an obvious platform. This is a book for students and TikTok is where the students are, right? So I was talking to this fellow psychologist, and she said – the thing that was worrying me was like, I don’t know anything about making video at all. And she said, “That’s actually an advantage for you. Because what you really need is credibility. And so if they’re no edits, and if you’re sort of saying, whatever, like, then it’s clear, you’re being very sincere. It’s just you and a camera, and you’re more real.”
So I decided I’m just gonna make, you know, I’ll try it and make a few, and like the first video I made got, like, 300,000 views or something.
Ryan: Holy cow.
Willingham: Yeah. And so if not all of them are – needless to say, have had that many. But I think I’ve made about 20 videos now.
And the other thing that’s been so nice, Jim, is that the comments I’ve gotten are like, so nice. All of these students have just been really pleasant. And you know, you hear terrible things about social media and on TikTok, that just hasn’t been my experience at all.
Ryan: Is the audience mostly students?
Willingham: It is, yeah.
Ryan: It’s interesting. So you have students themselves who are interested. It’s not just teachers or parents.
Willingham: I think it’s primarily – I mean, just based on the comments. Yes. It’s really students. Candidly, I don’t think there are many parents on TikTok. But I think it is a, you know, a platform for younger people.
Ryan: Yeah. Well, it just goes to your point earlier that we assume that students pick up along the way how to best study, how best to master a body of knowledge or a set of skills, but we don’t actually give them a lot of practical advice about what is involved. And so we’re just hoping that they figure it out or figure out what works for them.
Willingham: Once you put it in those terms, it’s almost like there’s a second curriculum, going alongside the taught curriculum that’s going on top. Everyone’s like, “Oh, my gosh, yes.” But it’s not obvious until you point it out.
Ryan: Yeah, well, I remember the experience in law school took me a while to figure out how best to prepare for exams. And I was guilty of this as a law professor, you know, I would teach a body of knowledge. And then the tests I would give would basically require you to apply that to a completely different set of facts, nothing that you had seen before. But I didn’t provide much in the way of instruction about how do you go about doing that? How do you go about preparing to do that? And we think that we’re testing just knowledge.
But to your point about the hidden curriculum, we’re also testing skills that we haven’t really taught, but expect students to have somehow acquired.
Willingham: It’s true. And so we are served rewarding the more resourceful students who are able to figure that –
Ryan: – figure it out on their own, right.
Willingham: Yeah, yeah. Or had, you know, a friend or someone else who taught them how to do it.
Ryan: Right. Right.
So what’s next for you?
Willingham: I’m working on a book about thinking. So this book was about memory. And I’m trying to see if I can come up with some solid advice about how to be a better critical thinker. It’s a very challenging topic. Needless to say, I’m not the first to tackle it.
If I tell you, Jim, I’m writing a book about consciousness after that, then feel, feel free to smack me.
Ryan: Being and existence.
Willingham: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Ryan: Well, if it goes well, maybe you could have a television series called “Thinking” that could pick up on the popularity of “Shrinking.”
Willingham: I love that idea.
Ryan: Well, Dan, I want to thank you again for taking the time to talk a little bit about your work, which is as fascinating as it is important. And I’m sure everyone who is listening is as grateful as I am that you’re doing this work and helping out an awful lot of students and teachers and parents.
Willingham: Well, thank you so much for having me, Jim. It’s really been a pleasure chatting with you.
Mary Garner McGehee, co-producer: “Inside UVA” is a production of WTJU 91.1 FM and the Office of the President at the University of Virginia. “Inside UVA” is produced by Kalea Obermeyer, Aaryan Balu, Mary Garner McGehee and Matt Weber. We also want to thank Maria Jones and McGregor McCance.
Our music is “Turning to You” from Blue Dot Sessions.
Listen and subscribe to “Inside UVA” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
We’ll be back soon with another conversation about the life of the University.
Students, do you plan by task or by time?
Meaning, when there is something on your to-do list, like writing a final paper for your English literature class, do you say to yourself, “Well, the paper is due Monday morning, so I’m going to write it Sunday night.” Or do you say, “My paper is due Monday, so I’m going to spend an hour working on it each day the week before.”
The answer for many students is probably the first one. That approach is called a “planning fallacy.” And it doesn’t just happen to students – it happens to everyone.
That’s according to psychology professor Daniel Willingham, a well-regarded scholar who has been a member of the University of Virginia since 1992. “‘Planning fallacy’ refers to the fact that we consistently underestimate how long it’s going to take us to complete a task,” he told President Jim Ryan on his latest “Inside UVA” podcast
“Planning by time means that every day, you are you have a block of time that you are going to devote to work. And it doesn’t matter what’s due tomorrow, the next day,” Willingham said. “And if you don’t have anything due tomorrow, then you’re working on things that are due next week. So, one advantage is that this is more likely to allow you to have a little bit of a cushion.”
Ryan was talking with the psychology professor about his approach to teaching and his latest, best-selling book, “Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy.”
Willingham’s tips for making learning easier come at a great time, with final exams beginning May 4. Learn more about them by listening to the entire episode – and previous podcasts – on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts.
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May 28, 2023