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How to Study for Introductory Psychology Classes

written by: Haley Drucker•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 5/20/2011

Intro to psychology classes are full of useful real-world information, and can be both interesting and valuable. They can also be challenging, however, so here are some tips to help you focus on the right kinds of material and prepare to succeed on the tests.

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    Welcome to Psychology!

    Whether you’re in high school or college, an introductory psychology course can be one of the most valuable courses you’ll ever take. This is true even if you aren't trying to get a degree in psychology, and are just taking the class because you're required to. Unlike subjects like literature or calculus, which are important to know but not often useful in your everyday life, there are many practical uses for what you learn in basic psychology. After all, psychology is the study of people. If you’ve ever wondered how you got to be the way you are, or why a friend or family member acts a certain way, you aren’t alone. Those are the kind of things psychologists spend their lives studying, so you’re bound to learn something in this class that you can apply directly to your life outside of school.

    Psychology isn’t the easiest subject—it’s demanding and has its own unique challenges. But it doesn’t have to be so difficult that you can’t enjoy what you’re learning and still get the grade you want. To that end, here are some tips for studying in basic psychology classes (all of which apply to higher-level psychology classes as well). Keep these strategies in mind and pay attention in class, and you should feel well prepared by the time the test comes around.

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    Go to Class

    This applies mostly to college students. Though high school students have been known to skip class, it’s easier and more tempting in college and some classes seem to just beg you to stay home. However, psychology teachers cover a lot of information in class every single day, and often attending (and taking good notes) is the only way to get access to that information. Go to class, pay attention, and take plenty of notes, and you shouldn’t be surprised by anything on the test.

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    Read the Textbook

    Let’s face it. There are also plenty of classes in high school and college where you never have to touch the textbook, and you can still get an A. Psychology is not one of those classes, however, and it is essential to keep up with the reading and use good textbook reading techniques. For one, many teachers include questions on their tests that ask about information you were expected to read in the book, but that the teacher didn’t talk much or at all about in class. Also, in many cases the textbook will give good examples and explanations that will help you understand a difficult concept you just couldn’t get when your teacher explained it. Psychology textbooks can be dry, but if you take the time to work through your assigned sections, maybe just a little bit every day, you’ll be glad you did.

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    Focus on the Big Picture

    There are two main types of multiple choice questions. The most common is the definition question, which asks you to simply identify a term or concept. For example: “Classical conditioning forms an association between what two things?” Application questions, on the other hand, ask you to go one step further and apply what you’ve learned to a new example or situation. This type of question often read like a story, such as, “Joe shines a bright light into his fish tank every time he is about to feed his fish. Now when he shines the bright light into the tank, the fish swim quickly up to the top. What is the conditioned stimulus in this example?”

    Psychology teachers prefer the second type of question, which means you can’t just memorize facts and definitions and expect to pass. Instead, you have to focus on really understanding the concepts, why and how they work and what they tell us about human nature. Be able to explain terms in your own words, not just recite the definition your teacher or textbook gave you. The best way to do this is to focus on examples and research studies. Every time your teacher gives an example in class, or you read a good one in the textbook, write it down to refer to later. Research studies also make excellent examples, and are sure to show up on the test. If you use note cards, jot down an example on each as well as an explanation. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that if you memorize every term, you’ll be fine.

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    Keep it Real

    Psychology is the study of real people and their lives, so much of it is bound to remind you of your own life. Notice this, and take advantage of it. Come up with personal examples for concepts, like remembering what extraversion means by thinking about your overly social roommate or using your fear of spiders to remember how a phobia is formed. This accomplishes two things. For one, it makes the information more meaningful so you’ll actually enjoy learning about it. In addition, it makes what you’ve learned easier to remember. The more personalized and meaningful something is, the better we remember it. (This is something psychologists discovered, by the way.)

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    Distribute Your Study Time

    Distributed studying means not cramming the night before a test, but reviewing the material a little bit every day long before the exam. This is important when you’re studying for any class, of course. You’ll actually learn and remember more when you study for one hour every day for five days than when you study for five hours the day before the test (this is another one of those things psychologists figured out).

    But distributing your study time is especially important for intro to psychology classes. These classes cover so much information, in so many different categories, that you’ll need time to become comfortable with it all. Also, distributed study gives the information time to sink in so that you can really begin to understand it, which is crucial because of those application test questions we discussed in the “Big Picture” section. It also reduces stress—it’s easier to focus on studying when it’s a week before the test and you don’t have to cram everything into your mind at once.

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    Use Study Guides

    Some teachers don’t provide study guides, but many do. If your teacher does, then be sure to use that resource to help you study. There is a massive amount of information in any intro to psychology textbook, and a study guide helps you identify what your teacher thinks is most important. If your teacher doesn’t provide a guide, focus on the notes you took in class and the end-of-chapter summaries in the textbook to make sure you’ve at least grasped all the most important concepts.

    There you are—your guide to succeeding in Psychology 101. If you follow these suggestions and take the time to figure out what study strategies work best for you, you’ll be well on your way to getting that A. And hopefully you’ll learn a lot along the way, because psychology really can be one of the most rewarding classes you’ll ever take.