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Studying much? You might be using the classic moves. You know—rewriting all your notes into a newer, bigger note; highlighting as the new underlining; and my personal favorite, cramming everything into your brain in any way possible. Sometimes those moves work just fine. But what if you’re looking for more than “just fine”? And what if you could get there with a little less stress and a little more purpose?
Researchers at Stanford University in California discovered that using some simple tricks made a big difference in how students performed. The research is based on a classic learning theory that seems pretty obvious when you break it down. It’s called metacognition, and it involves something we could all benefit from: thinking about how we think.
Intrigued? Let’s take a closer look at how metacognition can get you to a better spot with your study habits. Once you’ve got the basics down, we’ll show you how to use it with real-life tips that’ll help you reap the brain-boosting benefits. Bonus points if you drop the word “metacognition” with your friends when talking about your new secret to study success.
What to know about how to think
Metacognition is thinking about thinking, says Dr. Veronica Yan, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. OK, but what does that actually mean? It’s taking the time to consider how you think and why the process of reflecting on your thinking can give you some key insights into what you’re learning and what you’re missing. It means thinking through the methods, tools, and resources available to you and deciding which ones can best get you where you want to go.
Still with us? Think about it like this: Textbooks, tutors, academic advisors, past exam questions, and homework assignments are all resources that you can use to study—but what’s the purpose of each of them? How can they help you? And which ones will help the most? Now you’re thinking like someone who thinks about their thinking.
“We are constantly making decisions, but we aren’t always intentional about these decisions,” Dr. Yan says. So how exactly can doing this help?
Why thinking things through can get you better results
This is where it gets interesting. Researchers at Stanford University wondered if applying some of the principles of metacognition—setting goals, thinking about resources, and crafting a plan—would make a difference in students’ test results. They split students into two groups and reminded both about an upcoming exam.
One group just got a reminder. The other received a reminder and were also asked questions about how they wanted to do on the exam and how they were going to prep. The students received questions about their study resources—which ones they would choose, how they would use them, and why they felt these resources would be helpful—essentially having them create a study plan. The students who thought through their study plan, or used metacognition like pros, did better on their exams than those who did not map out a plan, according to the 2017 study in Psychological Science. They also reported feeling less stressed during the prep process.
“Learners should take the time to explicitly think through why they want to use each resource for learning,” says Dr. Patricia Chen, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford and one of the authors of the study. Bottom line: It’s about thinking carefully about your resources—how to choose them and how you’ll use them.
How to put it into practice
The best part about the Stanford research, and about metacognition in general, is that it’s simple—you can do it yourself by making a plan and setting some goals. And who knows? You may even see the same boost in results. Here’s how to go about it:
Step 1: Think about (and list out) your options before you study
This means ditching your autopilot plan and taking some time to make one that works. Start by jotting down the resources you have access to: books, notes, PowerPoints or class presentations, audio recordings, essay prompts, past quizzes or exams, the syllabus, tutors, classmates, online forums, review sessions, immediate access to the entirety of your professor’s brain, etc. Then list out how those resources could help you craft your plan.
Exam or quiz questions from earlier in the semester
Your prof probably has a particular way of creating test questions, so if you’re looking at an exam from earlier in the semester, it’s likely the upcoming one will follow a similar format or ask questions in a similar way. Use that to your advantage. Practice your responses to the question type and exam format. Just be sure your prof is OK with you using past assessments for study, and steer clear of using materials from past semesters or sections of the class.
“This allows students to identify in advance which topics they need to spend more time on and which they are already very familiar with,” Dr. Chen says.
Step 2: Make your plan
Now that you know which resources will work best, it’s time to make it work for you. And that involves making a specific plan. Participants in the Stanford study were asked to do just that—plan when, where, and how they would use the study resources they identified. We know that worked for them. It can work for you too.
Make a chart that lists out the resources you’re using along with all the dirty details—when, where, how, and why.
“Planning is crucial because it helps learners translate their strategies into action,” Dr. Chen says.
Step 3: Set and get those goals
It comes back to goal setting. Knowing what you’re looking to get out of your studying can help you get there. Think beyond pure performance here; what’s the long-term goal of knowing the material? A foot in the door at your first post-grad job? Feeling confident in applying your newfound knowledge? Grad school goals? Keep those in mind too. Write them down, add them to your chart, Sharpie them on your forehead—whatever makes them stick.
“I realized that when I had goals, I did better and got more done. Working at things aimlessly, without goals, has led to poor results, in my experience. The more I reached my goals and saw how they were benefiting me, the better I performed and the more motivated I was.”
—Blair C., fourth-year student, Indiana University Southeast
“Goal setting helps learners clarify exactly what they want to achieve and focuses them on their goal as they plan out their studying,” Dr. Chen says.
Step 4: Know that you can
Yup, we’re asking you to have a little faith in yourself, and not just because you’re awesome (you definitely are), but because it actually affects how well you do.
Self-efficacy, or simply believing that you’re capable of planning and carrying out the tasks necessary for your performance, was the greatest predictor of college students’ achievement and performance, according to a large review of research (Perspectives on Medical Education, 2012).
As you’re working through your study plan, keep track of what you’re getting done. Hit your study session goal for the day? That’s a win. Mastered material you didn’t quite get last time? That counts too. Come up with a system for tracking them. We like unicorn stickers, but checking things off your to-do list will do in a pinch.
Those small successes are part of your bigger goals, and the more you see yourself moving in the right direction, the more likely you are to believe that you can keep going. The wins you rack up in the process are still there cheering for you when you slip up. So remind yourself of them early and often.
Steps 5 through infinity
Identifying resources, making plans, setting goals, and knowing you can hit them is an awesome plan of attack, but don’t be too hard on yourself if some of the steps are a struggle. You might have to do some finagling to figure out what works best for you. “It is the responsibility of the learner to experiment and identify what is most effective for themselves and when,” says Dr. Chen. So keep trying, keep track, and let us know how you do.
[school_resource sh101resources=’no’ category=’mobileapp,studentservices, studentsucess, helpdesk’] Get help or find out more
Patricia Chen, PhD, postdoctoral researcher, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, California.
Veronica Yan, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Texas at Austin.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Study smart. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2011/11/study-smart.aspx
Anderson, J. (2017, May 9). A Stanford researcher’s 15-minute study hack lifts B+ students into the As. Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/978273/a-stanford-professors-15-minute-study-hack-improves-test-grades-by-a-third-of-a-grade/
Artino, A. R. (2012). Academic self-efficacy: From educational theory to instructional practice. Perspectives on Medical Education, 1(2), 76–85. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3540350/
Chen, P., Chavez, O., Ong, D. C., & Gunderson, B. (2017). Strategic resource use for learning: A self-administered intervention that guides self-reflection on effective resource use enhances academic performance. Psychological Science, 28(6), 774–785. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797617696456
Dartmouth College. (2001). Memory is learning that persists. Retrieved from https://students.dartmouth.edu/academic-skills/sites/students_academic_skills.prod/files/students_academic_skills/wysiwyg/retain_information.pdf.
Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE Life Sciences Education, 11(2), 113–120. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3366894/
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Being a person can be complicated. Being a perfectionistic person can be even more complicated. Those standards of yours? They’re so high you can’t see the top of them. It’s either perfect or it’s a problem. It sounds like a surefire way to succeed—as an honors student, in your top-of-the-industry internship, or at being the best in pretty much everything, right? Not really—because there’s a catch. Seeking unattainable perfection, and striving to avoid mistakes, equals serious stress—and that can cause problems with your health and academic performance.
We’re here to help—and so are our experts. We’ll break down the perfectionist basics and give you actionable, evidence-based tips for setting more realistic standards for yourself. Because self-imposed pressure can get in the way of a happy life. And that’s not OK. You ready?
What perfectionism is…and isn’t
Most of us are looking to do our best and are willing to put in the work to get there. So how can you tell when you’re being conscientious and when your drive to succeed is getting in your way? Wanting to be perfect is only part of it. The defining characteristic is a fear of making mistakes—and how you feel about yourself along the way, according to research by Dr. Thomas Greenspon published in Psychology in the Schools (2014).
“Hallmarks of perfectionism include an exaggerated concern over mistakes, lofty and unrealistic self-expectations, harsh and intense self-criticism, feeling other people need you to be perfect, and nagging doubts about performance abilities,” says Dr. Simon Sherry, a registered psychologist, researcher, and associate professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.
To make it more complicated, perfectionism looks different for everyone. But it comes from the same place, says Dr. Greenspon, and it often accompanies some less-than-great feelings about yourself and a troubling sense of hopelessness.
Here’s what perfectionism might look (and feel) like
Feeling less than Those who struggle with perfectionism often feel that they’re not good enough, according to Greenspon’s research, even if they never say it out loud. If they do happen to make some mistakes, perfectionistic people are likely to take that personally. Their slip-ups become reflections of themselves as people, not just of their performance or achievement. Every mistake feels like a character flaw, which increases the pressure to be exceptional and the despair when they mess up. “Anytime I am trying something new, I put a lot of pressure on myself, causing me to feel extremely inadequate with any sort of mistake I make in the process,” says Erin S.*, a first-year student at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina.
Setting rigid rules Look, we all have to set some structure for ourselves, or else we’d end up in Netflix-land permanently. But perfectionistic people take that rule-setting to an extreme, one that can get in the way of daily functioning. This intense structure can lead to other stressful and time-consuming habits, such as over-checking work to excess or missing deadlines, according to research published in 2016 in JMIR Research Protocols.
Being inflexible Say your roommate wants to take a spontaneous hiking trip or your go-to spot in the library is taken. Those curveballs can be a problem for someone who’s dealing with perfectionism—they struggle to go with the flow. Their tried-and-true problem-solving method works for them, but only under certain circumstances. This inflexibility can be limiting and may also be a sign that something is off. Flexibility is an indicator of positive mental health, says Dr. Sarah Vinson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Georgia.
Procrastinating on assignments People struggling with perfectionism are often totally consumed with making sure that every last detail is perfect. While some may be horrified by the idea of missing a deadline, others might finish tests late, hand in assignments past deadline, or never finish them at all, according to the 2014 study published in Psychology in the Schools. Seem counterintuitive? Only at first glance. If you’re striving for a standard that you can’t hit, you’ll never fully be finished with a task. For some, this might mean spending too much time double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking work until deadlines have long passed. For others, the idea of handing in something that is “imperfect” is worse than handing in nothing at all. “It might feel easier to say you ran out of time than to admit that you couldn’t do it as perfectly as you wanted,” explains Dr. Keith Anderson, staff psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.
How perfectionism can get in the way
Perfectionism is no joke, and neither are the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that go along with it. It’s linked with burnout, which can zap your motivation, wipe you out, and keep you from doing your best. A meta-analysis of 43 studies found that those who struggled with “perfectionist concerns,” or being worried about making mistakes, feeling like there’s a big difference between their standards and their performance, or being concerned about looking imperfect in front of others, experienced increased feelings of burnout (Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2016).
Some people who struggle with perfectionism may also struggle with mental health conditions, according to the American Psychological Association. And those can be serious. Some potential effects of the pressure to be perfect include:
Being perfectionistic makes you more vulnerable to anxiety, says Dr. Sherry. And the research backs this up. Feeling that mistakes make you inadequate can result in anxiety and shame, according to Greenspon’s research.
Increased suicide risk
Perfectionism is linked to an increased risk of suicide, according to a 2014 article in the Review of General Psychology.
Body image issues
Perfectionism, and the behaviors that go along with it, is associated with increased body dissatisfaction, which, for some, can lead to the development of disordered eating, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Eating Disorders.
What you can do about it
It’s OK if you see yourself or your habits in some of this. In fact, the first step to challenging perfectionistic tendencies is to recognize that they’re there, so high five for self-awareness. If you’re ready to push back against your fear of making mistakes, here are four things you can try.
1. Think process, not results
You’re in college to learn, not churn out flawless papers and perfect scores, and that means being an active part of the analytical process. Rather than focusing on how you’re doing (i.e., your performance), try focusing more on what you’re learning and stay engaged with the material, knowing that making mistakes is often critical in deepening your understanding. “Part of the college experience is learning to think independently and see things on a conceptual basis, and that’s hard to do if you’re so focused on getting every detail right all the time,” Dr. Vinson says.
2. Change the conversation
“In high-pressure academic environments, there’s this culture of [competition around] who works the hardest. People brag about doing really well,” Dr. Vinson says. This can lead to an intense atmosphere that fuels perfectionistic traits and keeps you quiet when your experience differs from the stories you’re hearing. So tell a different story.
Try it: Talk openly with friends about the work you’re putting in, where you’re struggling, and the mistakes you’re making. Feeling anxious about an assignment that you didn’t do well on? Your roommate probably has similar stories. The more of those you hear, the more you realize that we’re all making mistakes, and that doesn’t make us less worthy.
To prevent people from attributing their shortcomings to personal flaws, and to draw attention to how much failure it takes to get where you want to go, a Princeton professor created a nontraditional résumé.
3. Make a mistake on purpose
Yup, we went there. So much of perfectionism is about this fear of making a wrong move. And one way to deal with fear is to face it head-on—by making a few intentional and noncritical errors here and there, according to a guide to perfectionism created by Dr. Glenn Hirsch, director of student counseling services at the University of Minnesota. Psychologists call this exposure therapy. (The rest of us call it courageously superhuman.)
Try it: Keep your intentional slip-ups small: Wear your t-shirt with the bleach stain on it to grab pizza with friends. Be a few minutes late to a club meeting. Send an email with an intentional grammatical error. Once you see that making mistakes doesn’t mean instant catastrophe, you might be able to ease up on the pressure you put on yourself. And that can be liberating.
4. Commit to cutting back—just a little
When you’re deep in perfectionistic territory, you’re triple-checking your triple-checks, rereading a two-line email for two hours, or putting in a crushing amount of study time for a five-question quiz. One way to work against this is to cut back in tiny ways over time rather than trying to stop your perfectionistic patterns all at once, suggests Dr. Hirsch. This is a behavior change staple because it works.
Try it: Take your eight-hour window of quiz-studying to six—and then stick to it. Maybe next time, knock it down to five. Pay attention to how you feel as you’re making the adjustments and see how that changes over time. The point isn’t to lower your standards, but instead to get them to a point that feels less soul-crushing and more realistic.
If you’re still struggling, that’s OK
If you’re feeling bogged down by perfectionism, reach out to a counselor or therapist at your school or in your community. Because perfectionistic people have a hard time admitting when they’re not feeling perfect, this may not feel easy. But it’s so worth a try. Dr. Greenspon describes moving past perfectionism as a recovery process, one that involves adjusting your worldview and sense of reality. Let’s be real: This is a big shift. It takes some work and time to rebuild your sense of yourself independent from pure achievement. Here are some treatment options to talk through with a professional.
Radically open-dialectical behavioral therapy (RO-DBT): RO-DBT is a therapy for people who struggle with “emotional over-control” that teaches strategies to increase flexibility, openness, and communication in social situations, according to research published in 2015 in the American Journal of Psychotherapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a therapy that teaches you how to transform unhealthy, negative thoughts into positive thoughts and behaviors.
Visit or call your counseling center to chat with a therapist, or use this tool from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for help finding one in your area.
*Student name has been changed for privacy
Third-year undergraduate, University of Central Arkansas
“Perfectionism is a word I never thought I’d associate myself with. However, this app helped me understand the term better, which helped me recognize that I am a perfectionist to an extent. Using the six steps given, I was supplied nice, calming thoughts to read when I needed it, as well as examples of exercises I can do to calm myself down. These tips are based on the research of the Anxiety Disorders Association of British Columbia, a nonprofit dedicated to improving mental health and reducing stigma surrounding anxiety and its related disorders. It’s great having all this information in the privacy of your own home, right at your fingertips.”
There’s always that one assignment you can’t stop reviewing. Or maybe you’re like me and every email or message must be checked and rechecked…so much that it might even take a day to send! The exercises helped calm me down.
The app isn’t really “fun” per se, unless you consider reading fun, which I do! There were also recordings of how to do the exercises, which was helpful. If you’re not used to listening to recordings, there will probably be a chuckle or two the first time!
For the first time, I sent an email without checking it more than twice. I still need to work on it, but I’ve eliminated the rewrites after rewrites! The app has helped me worry less about the smallest flaws.
[school_resource sh101resources=’no’ category=’mobileapp,counselingservices, studentsucess, studentsucess, helpdesk’] Get help or find out more
Keith J. Anderson, PhD, registered psychologist, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.
Simon B. Sherry, PhD, registered psychologist, researcher, and associate professor, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Sarah Vinson, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist; assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia.
Benson, E. (2003). The many faces of perfectionism. Monitor on Psychology, 34(10), 18. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/manyfaces.aspx
Capan, B. E. (2010). Relationship among perfectionism, academic procrastination and life satisfaction among university students. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, 5, 1665–1671. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042810017167
Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., & Heisel, M. J. (2014). The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited: Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide. Review of General Psychology, 18(3), 156–172. Retrieved from https:// psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2014-38880-002
Greenspon, T. S. (2014). Is there an antidote to perfectionism? Psychology in the Schools, 51(9), 986–998. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265514641_Is_there_an_antidote_to_perfectionism
Handley, A. K., Egan, S. J., Kane. R., & Rees, C. S. (2015). A randomized controlled trial of group cognitive behavioural therapy for perfectionism. Behavior Research and Therapy, 68, 37–47. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273706203_A_randomised_controlled_trial_of_group_cognitive_behavioural_therapy_for_perfectionism
Hill, A. P., & Curran, T. (2016). Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 269–288. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279191467_Multidimensional_P erfectionism_and_Burnout_A_Meta-Analysis
Hirsch, G. (n.d.). An imperfect look at overcoming perfectionism. University Counseling and Consulting Services. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from https://www.sass.umn.edu/pdfs/II%20Self%20Awareness/Perfectionism/C%204.4.8%20Imperfect%20Look%20at%20Overcoming%20Perfectionism%20%20rev..pdf
Kothari, R., Egan, S., Wade, T., Andersson, G., et al. (2016). Overcoming perfectionism: Protocol of a randomized controlled trial of an internet-based guided self-help cognitive behavioral therapy intervention. JMIR Research Protocols, 5(4), e215. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309959188_Overcoming_Perfectionism_Protocol_of_a_Randomized_Controlled_Trial_of_an_Internet-Based_Guided_Self-Help_Cognitive_Behavioral_Therapy_Intervention
Lynch, T. R., Hempel, R. J., & Dunkley, C. (2015). Radically open-dialectical behavior therapy for disorders of over-control: Signaling matters. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 69(2), 141–162. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279987144_Radically_Open-Dialectical_Behavior_Therapy_for_Disorders_of_Over_Control_Signaling_Matters
Wade, T. D., & Tiggemann, M. (2013). The role of perfectionism in body dissatisfaction. Journal of Eating Disorders, 1, 2. Retrieved from https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2050-2974-1-2
University of Michigan. (n.d.). Coping with perfectionism. Retrieved from https://caps.umich.edu/content/coping-perfectionism
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Grades not what you expected? You’re not alone. I see countless students each semester who have that shocked look on their faces when they get their first midterm back. (In some cases, they’d thought they aced it.) Many students tell me stories of little work and decent grades in high school; they sincerely want to pick up their performance in college but don’t know how. I have whittled down my advice to the four “Ps” (and “party” is not one of them).
Problem: If you’re always putting something else before your classes and schoolwork, that’s a major red flag. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, one in three students who responded said that prioritizing their studies is often or sometimes a struggle.
Solution: Your academic life and tasks need to be very high priority. Paid jobs and downtime are important too, and call for careful, ongoing time management. If hanging out with your friends routinely trumps your studies, you need to make a change. Much of what you do each day should have to do with class work.
Problem: You won’t be able to focus if you don’t have a place to do it. Roommates, group meetings, and social media will destroy your time management strategy. In our survey, one in three students said finding a place to study is sometimes or often a challenge.
Solution: Find a quiet place where you can think and do. It may be the library. It may be the coffee shop. It may be an empty classroom. It needs to be a place that you associate with getting down to business—the business of doing the work.
Problem: If your study habits aren’t effective, you won’t retain what you’re learning. In our survey, nearly half of respondents said this is sometimes or often a struggle.
Solution: It is not enough to passively read a chapter for sociology. You also need active learning strategies, like taking notes, creating flashcards, and sketching diagrams. If you don’t have a product, whether it’s a completed assignment or a summary of a reading, you haven’t done the work necessary to build the knowledge base you need.
Problem: Other people can work with or against us. In our survey, three in five students said they are sometimes or often distracted from their studies by others.
Solution: Ask at your tutoring center about academic coaching, and/or find an “accountability partner” to check in or study with each week. This person should be at least as responsible as you are, if not more so. These students seem to know what is going on in class and they’re making good grades, which means they often have good habits you can learn from. Also, don’t be a distraction to anyone else.
Amy Baldwin, MA, is co-author of The College Experience (Prentice Hall, 2015) featuring realistic student scenarios and strategies.
The College Experience: Amy Baldwin, Brian Tietje, Paul G. Stoltz
2nd edition, Prentice Hall, 2015
The A Game: 9 Steps to Better Grades: Kenneth Sufka
Nautilus Publishing Company, 2011