1.4 Psychology in Everyday Life

Learning Objectives

  1. Apply psychological principles to learning and remembering.
  2. Explain the self-reference effect.
  3. Explain how meta-cognition affects how we acquire knowledge.

Psychology in everyday life: How to effectively learn and remember

Psychology research can help make our lives better or more productive. One way that the findings of psychological research may be particularly helpful to you is in terms of improving your learning and study skills. Psychological research has provided a substantial amount of knowledge about the principles of learning and memory. This information can help you do better in your coursework, but it can also help you learn new concepts and techniques in other areas of your life. The most important thing you can learn in college or university is how to better study, learn, and remember. These skills will help you throughout your life as you learn new jobs and take on other responsibilities. There are substantial individual differences in learning and memory, such that some people learn faster than others. Even if it takes you longer to learn than you think it should, the extra time you put into studying is well worth the effort, and you can learn to learn. Learning to study effectively and to remember information is just like learning any other skill, such as playing a sport or a video game. Later in the textbook, we will be exploring memory more thoroughly in Chapter 10.

Are you ready to learn?

To learn well, you need to be ready to learn. You cannot learn well when you are tired, when you are under stress, or if you are abusing alcohol or drugs. Try to keep a consistent routine of sleeping and eating. Eat moderately and nutritiously, and avoid drugs that can impair memory, particularly alcohol. There is no evidence that stimulants such as caffeine, amphetamines, or any of the many “memory-enhancing drugs” on the market will help you learn (Gold, Cahill, & Wenk, 2002; McDaniel, Maier, & Einstein, 2002). Memory supplements are usually no more effective than drinking a can of sugared soda, which releases glucose and improves memory slightly as a result.

Learning is an active process

Psychologists have studied the ways that best allow people to acquire new information, to retain it over time, and to retrieve information that has been stored in our memories. One important finding is that learning is an active process. To acquire information most effectively, we must actively manipulate it. One active approach is rehearsal — repeating the information that is to be learned over and over again. Although simple repetition does help us learn, psychological research has found that we acquire information most effectively when we actively think about or elaborate on its meaning and relate the material to something else. When you study, try to elaborate by connecting the information to other things that you already know. If you want to remember the different schools of psychology, for instance, try to think about how each of the approaches is different from the others. As you compare the approaches, determine what is most important about each one, and relate it to the features of the other approaches.

In an important study showing the effectiveness of elaborative encoding, Timothy Rogers, Nicholas Kuiper, and William Kirker (1977) found that students learned information best when they related it to aspects of themselves, a phenomenon known as the self-reference effect. This research suggests that imagining how the material relates to your own interests and goals will help you learn it. An approach known as the method of loci involves linking each of the pieces of information that you need to remember to places that you are familiar with. You might think about the house that you grew up in and the rooms in it. You could put the behaviourists in the bedroom, the structuralists in the living room, and the functionalists in the kitchen. Then, when you need to remember the information, you retrieve the mental image of your house and should be able to “see” each of the people in each of the areas.

One of the most fundamental principles of learning is known as the spacing effect. Both humans and animals more easily remember or learn material when they study the material in several shorter study periods over a longer period of time, rather than studying it just once for a long period of time. Cramming for an exam is a particularly ineffective way to learn. Psychologists have also found that performance is improved when people set difficult yet realistic goals for themselves (Latham & Locke, 2007). You can use this knowledge to help you learn. Set realistic goals for the time you are going to spend studying and what you are going to learn, and try to stick to those goals. Do a small amount every day, and by the end of the week, you will have accomplished a lot.

Our ability to adequately assess our own knowledge is known as metacognition. Research suggests that our metacognition may make us overconfident, leading us to believe that we have learned material even when we have not. For example, when we feel that a passage of a textbook is familiar, we may fail to recognize what aspects of it we do not know very well. We may fail to understand why we did poorly on an exam because we felt confident. To counteract this problem, avoid going over your notes again and again. Instead, make a list of questions, and see if you can answer them. Study the information again, and test yourself again after a few minutes. If you made any mistakes, study again. Then, wait for about half an hour to test yourself again. Test again after one day and after two days. Testing yourself by attempting to retrieve information in an active manner is better than simply studying the material because it will help you determine if you really know it. In summary, everyone can learn to learn better. Learning is an important skill, and following the previously mentioned guidelines will likely help you learn better.

This is an excellent time to remind you about the information in the Approach and Pedagogy section near the beginning of this book for helpful information on how to get the most out of your learning experience. The suggestions there deal directly with applying psychology to everyday life, more specifically, with the active learning processes referred to here. Please make sure that you familiarize yourself with these suggestions, and keep referring back to them as you move through the book to ensure that you are doing the best you can at using evidence-based practices in effective learning.



Key Takeaways

  • Adequate sleep and nutrition are important for learning.
  • Learning is an active process, and techniques that promote elaborative encoding will be more effective.
  • Metacognition is our ability to think about our own thinking; understanding this might help you to find effective studying strategies.



Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Think of an example from one of your current courses where you could use the self-reference effect to learn the material better. Be specific.
  2. Increase your metacognitive skills by going through a chapter of a textbook in a current course, identifying and making notes on only those aspects that you don’t understand. Study your notes, make a list of quiz questions, and test yourself.
  3. Make yourself a plan for one week of study time in a current course that covers all of the material using a spacing strategy.


Congratulations on completing Chapter 1! Remember to go back to the section on Approach and Pedagogy near the beginning of the book to learn more about how to get the most out of reading and learning the material in this textbook.


Gold, P. E., Cahill, L., & Wenk, G. L. (2002). Ginkgo biloba: A cognitive enhancer? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 3(1), 2–11.

Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (2007). New developments in and directions for goal-setting research. European Psychologist, 12(4), 290–300.

McDaniel, M. A., Maier, S. F., & Einstein, G. O. (2002). “Brain-specific” nutrients: A memory cure? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 3(1), 12–38.

Rogers, T. B., Kuiper, N. A., & Kirker, W. S. (1977). Self-reference and the encoding of personal information. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 35(9), 677–688.


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