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TCU Magazine "Academe"

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Good help in bad times

Studying reasons

Wanting better grades won't improve study skills, researchers found. But making the process fun will.

By Rick Waters '95

Even psychology professor Charles Lord admits that finding his research on directed thinking splashed in the pages of the women's magazine Redbook is pretty amusing. But look in the October 2001 issue. It's right there, along with an article called "200 percent more fun in bed -- tonight!" and a Heather Locklear exclusive.

"I've gotten some good-natured ribbing from the rest of the department," said Lord, who collaborated with fellow TCU psychology professor Donald Dansereau.

Joking aside, their work on self-motivation and habit formation is the kind of stuff that stops most of us in our tracks at the 10-items-or-less checkout line. That's what the magazine's editors thought when they saw the professors' research in the slightly more academic periodical Journal of Applied Psychology.

Lord and Dansereau theorized that healthy activities often considered unappealing, such as dieting or exercise, are significantly more achievable by using directed thinking -- a psychological term for the way we problem-solve mentally.

"We figured that people have within themselves the motivation," Lord said. "If we could get them to think it was fun, maybe they would follow through more with their commitments."

The professors picked a topic close to home -- studying.

Previous research indicated that just pondering why an activity is beneficial often produced the opposite effect. The professors wanted to test those results against what they believed was a better solution -- to imagine steps or strategies to make an activity more appealing. They thought students might be more dedicated to hitting the books if they could come up with actions rather than reasons.

It's a why-versus-how notion based on experiments with athletes. In previous research, golfers and basketball players who imagined making the perfect putt or a flawless free throw, and then practiced those steps, achieved greater success than those who merely pursued their normal workouts.

"They're imagining the physical process of success," Lord said. "And we wondered if a cerebral, cognitive activity such as studying would work the same way."

Lord and Dansereau conducted an experiment with more than 120 undergraduates -- half coming up with reasons, half with actions. The experiment also called for some to work in groups and others to think alone. Each took a few minutes to brainstorm. Later, all of the students completed a survey to rate two things -- how much they intended to study in the future and how much impact their ideas would have the next time they cracked the books.

The results were as the professors suspected. Directed thinking elicited optimistic behavioral intentions toward studying for both groups. But those who thought about actions such as creating a comfortable atmosphere or rewarding yourself with treats, showed a significantly more positive response than did those who pondered reasons (learning new things, making better grades or boosting self-confidence).

Students also generated more actions than reasons and rated their action ideas as more likely than their reason ideas to have a positive impact on intentions toward studying.

"It remains an open question whether thinking about actions increased intentions to study, or thinking about reasons decreased them," Dansereau said. "The data suggest the former because the greater impact students attributed to their ideas, the more positive were there behavioral intentions."

So when you're faced with the next challenge, imagine possible actions to get you thinking about steps needed to reach a goal. It will make it more attainable. "You'll become confident that you can stick with those steps and eventually achieve your goal," Lord said.

What more could you ask from supermarket magazine advice?