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Tests, superstition, and self-esteem

Jun 11, 2017

About four years ago, I wrote a post called "The old book-under-the-pillow trick".  It was meant to be a funny account of an interaction between me, my friend Marty, and his friend Bill the Fireman.  Bill was studying for an exam that would promote him to fire captain, he had to memorize a lot of material for it, and it was all in a book.   As you've probably guessed, he would put the book under his pillow at night because he thought it helped him absorb the information.  He wanted to sleep on the material --- literally.

Somehow, this ended up being one of the most frequently visited posts on this site. Over 100 people visit this post each month. Had word gotten out about this funny post?  That might boost page-visits for a few days after it's posted, but not for four years.   It's more likely that these folks are interested in using the old book-under-the-pillow trick themselves.

If so, my post will be a disappointment. It has nothing to do with the benefits of this "technique".

Yesterday, I thought --  given that about 3 people are landing on this page every day, is there anything I want to say to them?  I pictured a person who's worried about passing an exam. I imagined I was speaking to one of my City College students, or to a younger version of myself at a time when I might consider a supernatural solution to a problem I couldn't seem to solve with the natural means I'd tried. 

So, at the end of the post ("Bill... fire captain ... book under the pillow ...")  I wrote this addendum to the post:
... I want to say a few words more about this because, humor aside, I know that some people really are curious about whether this might help.  After all, if it does help, it would give you an advantage with essentially zero effort.

If you're thinking about it this way, I'd ask you to consult your own inner wisdom, your 'intuition', and ask, Is it really likely that I'm going to absorb material in a book that I've placed under my pillow?

If it were true, it would be easy to demonstrate objectively with groups of people studying the same material with and without the pillow trick.  And if one day it was discovered to be true, you'd know about it. It would be on the front cover of every major magazine and newspaper.  (Of course if you look for an internet page or forum where someone swears it works, you're sure to find it, as you're sure to find pretty much anything else on the internet.  Once again, ask yourself, Is this likely to be true?)

If you're considering the old 'book under the pillow trick', it probably means that you're feeling nervous about not being able to absorb material that you need to know for your job or for school or for something that's important to you.  In that case, I suggest reading the material in small chunks rather than overwhelming yourself by reading for long hours.  "A little bit at a time" is a really good strategy. It's been shown to improve learning in humans and other animals.

If you don't have much time to study, here are two other key suggestions:

1)  Don't just read passively. One trick I learned was to test myself in a way that feels like a game. For instance, if  you come across a part of the material that you think is particularly important, write out the sentences, leave one of the key words blank, and place them on the side of the page so you can later cover up the word, and test yourself.

E.g., with the last sentence you might write ...

"... leave one of the key words blank, and place it on the _____ of the page, so you can later cover ..."

[In the side margin of the page, you'd write the word SIDE, and test yourself later]

This is an amazingly effective way to get a high grade on a multiple-choice exam that's evaluating whether or not you've read the material.  It's not a great way to appreciate the material in the deeper sense of applying concepts to new situations.  But in my experience, when you're tested on large amounts of reading material (the kind that would make you think about placing the book under your pillow), the exam is often superficial.   I predict that one minute spent on this fill-in-the-blank approach will help you more than 8 hours of putting the book under your pillow. 
2) It's good to be motivated, but anxiety may be counterproductive. So, remind yourself that your self-worth doesn't depend upon doing well on a test. If you don't do well, there may be some inconvenient consequences (you don't get the promotion this year, or the grade you wanted in this particular course).  But your self-worth remains exactly the same.  And, by the way, your self-worth also remains the same if you get a super high grade.  Unless you accept this truth, your self-esteem will be going up and down, as if you were on a roller coaster, each time you encounter a new challenge.  That's not a very fun way to live, and neither is it a realistic perspective.  How could you possibly be a fine person one day and terrible the next? Or vice versa.

So relax, do your best, look for reasonable strategies to study (not strategies that you know are superstitious), and be kind to yourself and others.