Time to study for your tests…

You sit down, you’re all set up.

You have your textbook, your notebook, your favourite pen, 6 different highlighters and your study timetable.

Surely set up for success… but two hours later you haven’t gotten anything done…

If only there was a way to train yourself to study! You could train yourself to be productive and study for prolonged periods of time. Wouldn’t that be great?

Well, there may just be a way with the help of conditioning and gradual training.

Classical conditioning is not a new discovery and most year 12 students who take psychology will be able to tell you all about Pavlov, his dogs and their saliva. However, there are many more interesting applications of classical conditioning that can help you maximise your productivity and get the most out of your study time.

So, what is classical conditioning?

This type of unconscious learning involves creating an association between a stimulus that does not cause a specific response and a stimulus that causes a specific response. To put this into context, think about why you check your phone when you hear someone else with the same ringtone as you. Your brain has formed an unconscious association between that sound and receiving a phone call. This is the same reason you feel stressed when you hear the word test or exam and don’t like needles.

Forming unconscious associations and understanding what current associations you may have, is one way to be more in control of your subconscious and play a more active role in your study routine. When you sit at your desk on TikTok your brain gradually starts to associate sitting at your desk with being on your phone and not being productive. Instead, you want to associate your desk with doing homework and being productive. This means setting your timer, putting your phone away and pumping out that test preparation.

One way you can do this is to study in the same space every day to maximise the effectiveness of this conditioning. This association won’t occur instantly as it will take repeated trials and some conscious effort. To help this process along you should remove yourself from your study space if you are frustrated, struggling to stay focused or if you are tired. This is because you may end up associating these negative emotions with your study space and this could be detrimental to your productivity. Instead, you should aim to be in your study space when you are experiencing positive emotions and are motivated. Over time, you should however be able to sit down to study and feel motivated and be in the mindset to be productive because this is what your brain now associates with this space.

Another form of conditioning for your study routine is operant conditioning. This type of learning employs the use of reinforcers that make a behaviour more likely and punishment that makes a behaviour less likely. Reinforcement is much more effective than punishment in conditioning behaviour so utilising this will help you to maximise your productivity the most effectively.

What is a reinforcer?

This is something that makes the behaviour that precedes it more likely to occur, because it either provides something good or takes something bad away. Think about how you train your pet. When you tell them to sit and they do it you give them a treat. You are therefore reinforcing their behaviour by giving them something good. Having a job and getting paid is another example of reinforcement. You go to work and receive money; they are reinforcing your behaviour of working so you are more likely to do it.

You can apply this to your study routine by rewarding yourself when you are productive. It could be something as small as when I finish this practice test, I’m going to eat a chocolate bar or go for a walk. You could also reward yourself with seeing your friends after completing your tests. Make sure to switch up your reinforcers so you don’t accidentally classically condition yourself, or you could end up associating tests with chocolate. 

Now that we’ve covered classical and operant conditioning, let’s look at some concrete examples of how you can apply these principles to your study routine.

For classical conditioning, one strategy is to create a specific study playlist that you listen to only while you’re studying. Over time, your brain will form an association between that music and being in a focused, productive mindset. Another technique is to use scents or essential oils that you only smell while studying. This could be a certain candle or diffuser blend that you light or use before each study session.

When it comes to operant conditioning, you can use a variety of rewards to reinforce your productive behaviour. Some students like to use a habit tracker or sticker chart to visually track their progress and reward themselves when they reach certain milestones. Others prefer to set up a system where they earn points for studying that they can exchange for rewards at a later time. You could also try rewarding yourself with a fun activity after completing a particularly difficult study task, like watching an episode of your favourite show or playing a video game.

Ultimately, the key to using conditioning to train yourself to study is to be consistent and patient. Don’t expect to see results overnight – conditioning takes time and repetition to work. Be intentional about creating the right associations and reinforcing your desired behaviour, and over time you should start to see a shift in your motivation and productivity levels.

Post by Student Coach – Megan Ross

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