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ISBN: 978-1-54391-850-2 (print)

ISBN: 978-1-54391-851-9 (ebook)



The confidence I have, goals I set, and things I achieve all stem from your unwavering love and support. Your faith in me is a cornerstone of my career choices and desire to help others. As a woman, professional, and mother, you are an amazing role model. I am grateful for you and love you more than I can ever express.

Big Sister

The learning books you made me when I was a kid paid off! You helped me value learning, be a good student, and (hopefully) become a good teacher. Baby Brother loves his Big Sister.

My Students

Thank you for teaching me something new every day. I hope to do the same for you. For those of you who shared your opinion for the title of this book, I appreciate your input. Is this the title you voted for?

Gail O’Kane

Sharing your insights, expertise, and experiences as a leader at our college made this book so much better. For all your time, advice, feedback, and editing, thank you!

In Memoriam

With gratitude to John Heinrichs for his unwavering support of Minneapolis Community & Technical College students. He is missed.

Table of Contents













Typical studying strategies are useless if you don’t know how to think and how to learn.

Schools spend a lot of time and energy teaching information to students, but often without instruction on how to learn the information.1 That’s like giving you an unassembled car with no instructions on how to build it. You can know the names of all the parts and understand what they all do. You can know all the ways the car will be useful when it is built. But without knowing how to put it all together, the parts are useless.

In my experience, teachers give students a lot of advice about how to study. You know what I’m talking about, right? They tell you about studying skills such as re-reading, highlighting things you read, making flashcards, memorizing, summarizing, and doing practice questions. However, if you want to maximize your learning and success, you need quality thinking skills, learning skills, and psychological skills far more than you need studying tips.

Have you ever studied for a test, passed it (or better), and then two weeks later, realized you have forgotten most of it? I certainly had experiences like that when I was in school. That is a great example of how we can study but not learn very much. So, are you learning, or just studying?

In a perfect world, studying leads to learning. But as you can see, studying and learning are not necessarily the same thing. To learn, you must know how to think. Thinking skills are not the same as studying skills. Thinking skills will make your studying skills more effective.

Please consider this quotation: “Learning how to learn cannot be left to students. It must be taught.”2 Most students think about learning information in school. If you are doing well in high school, or if you are attending college, you probably don’t think you need to learn how to learn. Some of you may be right.

Before you jump to that conclusion, consider this: A study in 1995 showed that 79 percent of students starting at a community college felt prepared for college-level work, but more than half left school with no degree two years later.3 Data from a 2011 study showed that only 20 percent of students who enrolled in a two-year public college had graduated three years later.4 Do you want to become part of these statistics? I’m confident your answer is, “No!”

Do not be discouraged by statistics like that. This book will help you develop thinking skills and psychological skills to succeed in high school, college, and your career. For example, having strong academic goals, motivation, confidence in your own abilities, and self-control will help you stay in school (i.e., persist) and graduate.5,6,7 Those aren’t studying skills. They are thinking and psychological skills that help you succeed.

I would be lying if I told you that hard work and good thinking skills will get all of you through to graduation and career success. There are many factors related to academic achievement. For example, many of my students have children and work part- or full-time. Others face significant hardships such as poverty and even homelessness.

Scholars and researchers have also looked at how intelligence is related to academic achievement (that is a huge topic and is not the focus of this book).8 Many students get worried when they see the word intelligence. Some worry that they aren’t smart enough to do well in school. If you are one of those students, there is a nice metaphor9 that might set your mind at ease. Each of us is like a rubber band when it comes to intelligence. We come in different sizes. There is nothing we can do to change the size of the rubber band we happen to be. However, we are all capable of stretching a lot. This book will help you develop the skills and strategies that will allow you to…

S - T - R - E - T - C - H .

Being “smart” is helpful, but hard work, practice, persistence, and developing specific skills really matter. For example, one study found that report card grades were predicted more by self-control and homework completion than by IQ scores.10 You need “skill, will, and self-regulation”11 for learning and success. As for success in life, there is much research showing that emotional intelligence (i.e., recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions) can take you much further than IQ smarts.12 You’ll read about that in the psychological skills section of this book.

So, what are your thoughts about being a successful student? Is academic success about intelligence? Studying hard? Getting good grades? Just passing? Memorizing stuff? Getting a degree? What exactly does a successful student look like? Would you know a successful student if you saw one? Is that student staring back at you in the mirror?

If you want the student in the mirror to be successful, keep reading and I will help you develop thinking skills, learning skills, and psychological skills that will help you stretch!


Studying is what you do to pass a test. Learning is what you do to be knowledgeable and useful in the real world.

Graduating high school and enrolling in college represents a chance to dramatically improve your life. But even the greatest schools and teachers cannot guarantee your success. The only true guarantor of your success (or failure) is you. When you start college, the expectation is that you can organize and manage your own life. It is critical that you make effective decisions about studying and adapt to the expectations of your instructors and college.1 Enrolling in college is a declaration of your willingness to do all the work. College expectations don’t change if you lack skills or have too many other things to do.

“Academic-intellectual work is heavily cognitive, requiring combinations of knowledge and reasoning skills.”2 What does that mean? I’m glad you asked because I’m going to tell you. Earning a college degree is hard work. It requires a lot of effort, studying, concentration, and a stick-with-it attitude. You need to develop some skills (that many students don’t know about) to keep up with the rigors of a college education. The first year of college is when you develop attitudes, approaches toward learning, and perceptions of yourself as a college student that can help (or hurt) you.3

Your Learning Objectives for This Book

The title of this book is Studying vs. Learning. I hope you already wondered what this means. Aren’t studying and learning kind of the same thing? At a minimum the two are closely related, right? Don’t you study to learn…learn by studying?

As a college instructor, I have seen a lot of students do poorly, not because they are stupid, but because they lack important thinking, learning, and psychological skills. They simply don’t realize that studying and learning are not always the same. Studying is what you do to pass a test; learning is what you do to be knowledgeable and useful in the world.

When a class begins at my college, the instructor explains to students what the learning outcomes are. That means we tell you what you can expect to learn and know by the end of the semester. These are called learning objectives. They are important to you because they help you organize, understand, and remember what you are learning and why you are learning it.

With this book, your learning objectives are:

  1. Learn about and develop thinking, learning, and psychological skills (the “what”);
  2. Understand why those skills and strategies are more important than basic studying strategies; and
  3. Understand exactly how to learn in more effective ways.

The Thinking Skills

This book is going to help learn how to think. These thinking skills will make you a more effective student and serve you well in your career (and even your relationships, believe it or not). I call them the Psychological Keys to Student Success. They are:

  1. Beliefs & Mindset
  2. Attributions
  3. Achievement Goals & Interest
  4. Self-efficacy
  5. Metacognition
  6. Self-regulated Learning (SRL)
  7. Avoiding Thinking Errors

The Learning Skills

After learning about the Psychological Keys to Student Success, you will learn some powerful learning strategies that psychologists and educators have known for years but that too few students know. I am going to give you insider information from the world of educational psychology that will help you learn more efficiently and at a deeper level. Remember, you don’t want to just study. You want to learn! You can study information about traffic, road signs, and how a car works and then pass a written test about that stuff. But that does not make you a good driver. You have to practice, pay careful attention, test yourself, and value the importance of what you are learning and why in order to be a good driver.

The Psychological Skills

With over twenty years’ experience in psychology, I believe there are some fundamental principles that will serve you well, in school and in life. Developing your capacity for self-awareness and using a handful of core concepts in psychology can make the thinking and learning skills in this book even more effective.

How You Will Achieve the Learning Objectives

By learning and practicing the thinking, learning, and psychological skills in this book, you will also develop important personal characteristics. That is the “how” part in the learning objectives. Let me highlight some of the characteristics for you.

First, let’s consider something called perceived academic control (PAC). This is how much you believe you can influence and predict your own academic success. In high school, a lot of work was done for you by the teacher (e.g., scheduling, monitoring attendance, recognizing you needed help). In college, you must do these things for yourself. Developing perceived academic control will allow you to:

As I said at the beginning of this chapter, even the best schools and teachers cannot guarantee your success. Guess what -- research shows that good teaching helps students higher in perceived academic control more than those lower in perceived academic control.11 That is why it is so important for you to develop PAC. Think about it this way: it is easier for someone who can run ten miles to run an additional two miles than it is for someone who can only run one mile to suddenly run three. In both cases, you’re adding two miles of distance but the person with better training and endurance will do that more easily than someone with less training and endurance.

A second important personal characteristic is resilience, the ability to bounce back after setbacks. Research has shown it predicts academic achievement. Resilient people have:

As you read this book and develop more effective thinking, learning, and psychology skills, you will be developing resilience at the same time.

Third, while personal control and resilience are particularly important characteristics for students, there are many others that will help you in school and throughout your life. Having a positive attitude, internal motivation, passion for your long-term goals, and maintaining effort despite setbacks are examples of personal characteristics associated with success.13,14,15,16

Students with a sense of responsibility, resourcefulness, determination, good time management skills, and who value education are more likely to successfully finish school.17,18 The more you practice the many skills in this book, the more you will be establishing positive habits that will help you succeed in the classroom and beyond!

Fourth is something called productive persistence. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching defines this as tenacity and the use of good strategies.19 Tenacity means you keep up with your studying and attendance even when the going gets tough. Work all day? You still study for an exam even though you are tired. Class not going well? You talk to your instructor, study harder, and refuse to give up. That’s tenacity.

When you’re dealing with hard classes, information you don’t understand, deadlines, low grades, negative feedback, bad teachers -- not to mention all the stuff in your life outside of school -- studying skills won’t help you. When life is tough, you don’t make flashcards and memorize definitions. But these personal characteristics will help deal with difficult circumstances, inside and outside of school.

So, Let’s Begin

The findings I am sharing in this book are based on research, not opinions. The tiny numbers you see after many sentences refer to actual research done by scientific experts in the psychology and education fields. I’ve pulled together hundreds of these scientific discoveries (all listed in the Notes section at the end of the book) and translated them into plain English so you can know what scientists know about what works -- and what doesn’t work -- when it comes to learning and succeeding in college. Ordinary “studying” books do not give you that.

Many students would not choose to read a book about how to learn, especially if it isn’t required. But you did. That tells me you are already on your way to being a more reflective and effective student.

I am excited thinking about what we are going to accomplish together. Are you ready? Let’s go!




Learning how to think will help you spend more time pursuing your goals and less time avoiding your fears.

In psychology, motivation can be considered from many points of view. Sometimes motivation comes from instincts. These are genetically based, pre-programmed behaviors that help us survive. Running away from danger and flinching when you are surprised by a loud noise are instincts. Other times motivation is based on needs. These are requirements you must fulfill. Eating and sleeping are examples of needs.

There is an obvious relationship between instincts and needs when it comes to survival. For example, we have a need to eat. If we do not meet this need, we will die. Our instinct, therefore, is to find and consume food. An animal’s instinct might be to kill another animal for food, whereas our instinct, as it has evolved over time, is to simply walk to the refrigerator and snarf down whatever we want. Instincts and needs motivate basic behaviors.

Abraham Maslow is a famous psychologist who suggested that motivation is guided by a hierarchy of needs, where basic needs like hunger must be met before higher-order needs such as getting an education. Feel free to Google “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” if you are curious and want more details.

Another point of view about motivation comes from the behavioral perspective in psychology. Most famously, B. F. Skinner promoted the view that we learn to do (and not do) certain behaviors based on the rewards (and punishments) we receive. Building on the ideas of E. L. Thorndike, Skinner demonstrated that rewards increase the chance you will perform a behavior again, while punishment decreases the chance you will do a behavior again. You understand this already because your parents used rewards and punishments to teach you what to do and what not to do. Rewards and punishments can be strong motivators.

When it comes to academic motivation, psychologist Henry Murray suggested that you have a “need to achieve.” He believed that people have a natural desire “to overcome obstacles, to exercise power, [and] to strive to do something difficult as well as, and as quickly as, possible.”1

Research by David McClelland and John Atkinson expanded on Murray’s idea. McClelland explained that we “approach,” or pursue, what we want because of a strong need for achievement. Can you think of a goal you set for yourself because you really wanted to achieve something?

Atkinson agreed with McClelland but added we have an equally important and opposite “need to avoid failure.”2,3 That need leads us to move away from, or avoid, what we do not want. Can you think of something you tried to make sure did not happen, such as looking “stupid” or getting in trouble?

Unfortunately, the motivation to avoid failure can sometimes hurt you.4 For example, trying to avoid failure can prevent you from pursuing your goals and decrease your self-esteem, sense of personal control, and life satisfaction. The motivation to avoid failure also reduces self-regulation, college persistence, and grade point average.5 Students who are strongly motivated to protect themselves against failure are also least likely to take responsibility for their failures and are more likely to blame others when something goes wrong.6,7 All that stuff should sound bad, because it is. Fear is a strong motivator, but in school, it can get in your way.

Another interesting perspective about achievement motivation is the theory of planned behavior.8 From this perspective, achievement is affected by how hard you are willing to try (i.e., your intentions), your ability to actually perform a behavior (called volitional control), and the situation. Situations and events come up in life that will change your intentions, your motivation, and your ability to do something. Anyone who decided to have children knows this!

The theory of planned behavior also explains how social pressure impacts your intentions and motivation. Here is an example: I have worked with many students who intend to study when they get home from school or work. However, the situation at home is busy because they have family responsibilities. Even though they sincerely want to study, they aren’t always able to because caring for family is the priority.

Psychology often distinguishes between two types of motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is your desire to do something simply for its own sake. Intrinsic motivation comes from within you. Basically, you do something because you want to and you enjoy it. An example from my life was learning to fly. I got my private pilot’s license simply because I wanted to. I love aviation.

Extrinsic motivation is your desire to gain a reward (or avoid a punishment) for doing something. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside you. It is often described as “a means to an end.” An example of this might be going to work to get a paycheck (money is an external reward). You probably wouldn’t go to work if you didn’t get paid.

Both types of motivation impact your desire to approach good outcomes as suggested by David McClelland, and avoid bad outcomes as suggested by John Atkinson. You read, study, and complete assignments because you have an expectation about getting what you want and you then control your behavior as you pursue that goal.9 As an example, if you love feeling knowledgeable, intrinsic motivation will lead you to study hard. At the same time, extrinsic motivation to have a higher-paying job (approach) and get out of poverty (avoid) will also lead you to study hard.

Here’s something about motivation that may surprise you: Some aspects of the school environment might actually decrease your motivation.10 Consider these three examples:

  1. Being rewarded for doing something you enjoy can reduce intrinsic motivation. For example, if drawing is very personal and fulfilling, being told over and over that your drawings are good might take away from the enjoyment of it (believe it or not).
  2. Deadlines can reduce intrinsic motivation by increasing pressure and making what you like to do feel like something you must do. For example, being told to finish a drawing by 9 a.m. tomorrow can reduce motivation to work on it tonight.
  3. Being evaluated can reduce intrinsic motivation. For example, if you enjoy drawing, being graded can take away from your enjoyment of creating a new drawing.

Yes, rewards, deadlines, and evaluations are all part of school. However, before you blame academia for stripping away your motivation by imposing deadlines and evaluations, let me tell you that your perception is very important in this case. If you think that rewards, deadlines, and evaluations are controlling your choices and decisions, you may feel less intrinsically motivated.11,12

You can’t make your classes or your teachers better in terms of the rewards, deadlines, or evaluations given. Some classes and teachers suck (I’m sorry to say). However, do you want to feel controlled by that? Our focus here is on what you can do. You may not get to choose your assignments, but how and when you do them is up to you. You can’t choose your exams, but you can choose how to study for them. You can’t control how your courses are taught or the prof’s personality. But, no matter what, you can choose what you focus on in terms of “This is ok,” versus “This sucks.” Simple changes in how you think can help you control your motivation.

This book will show you how to think so that you don’t suffer a loss of motivation due to circumstances like boring teachers and bad evaluations. Motivation includes setting a goal and then staying on task as you pursue that goal. It is the “thoughts, actions, or behaviors [you use] to influence [your] choice, effort, or persistence for academic tasks.”13 Motivation is about your willingness to keep working on something, especially when you get bored or distracted.

You are about to read the updated Psychological Keys to Student Success. Each Key addresses motivation in some way. In fact, the first six Psychological Keys directly influence motivation. There are even specific interventions to help students with their beliefs, attributions, goals and interest, self-efficacy, and self-regulated learning (Keys 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6). If you want to read a 39-page meta-analytic research study14 about it, check the Notes for this chapter…or you can just take my word for it.

Are you ready? Are you motivated? I am! Follow me as we explore the ways you will become a better student.