This evening I’m doing an online revision workshop for Year 11 students at Uppingham School. I am planning* to mention stimulus generalisation to them and wanted to send them to an article explaining it. I knew I’d written about it on my website – indeed, here, in connection with building good screen habits – but I wanted to be able to relate it specifically to exam revision. So, I’m writing one now!
[Edited to add: As it happens, I didn’t mention it… Too much else to talk about! To the student who asked about procrastination, this is going to be relevant to you, I think.]
Stimulus generalisation is relevant to how we form habits, whether good or bad. When we understand how, we can use it to strengthen or create a good habit and to remove or weaken bad habits.
We are all very much affected by routines and patterns around us. If we always drink a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, that habit is embedded along with all the things about “first thing in the morning”: the time, what we do just before it (get up), whether we do it before or after our shower, where we make the coffee, what’s on the radio, the smell of the coffee, the mug we use, and much more. Each of these might have a tiny effect but it all adds up. Each “stimulus” (thing) triggers our brain to want and then have that cup of coffee. And the more times we do it, the more likely we are to do it again.
Let’s look at another example. I enjoy a glass of wine in the evening. Especially when I’m cooking the evening meal, which I do every evening because I like doing that. I go through the whole day not thinking about my glass of wine and then 7pm comes and I leave my desk and go to the kitchen to start cooking. And suddenly I really want a glass of wine. It’s a habit. But one of the reasons that this is a deeply engrained habit is all of the things that have become cues to having a glass of wine: everything about how the kitchen looks and smells make up the stimuli that surround “have a glass of wine”; the time of day, the actions, the sense of relaxation, the fact that I’ve just left my desk, putting on my apron, my husband joining me (and pouring the wine!)
If I’m away on business and at 7pm I’m doing a talk, the glass of wine doesn’t cross my mind.
We are creatures of habit. Habits are useful things for the brain because we don’t have to spend time and energy deciding every tiny action – it’s just automatic. But habits can be dangerous things, too. We might drink too much wine. Or use our phones when we need to concentrate. Etc.
How can you use this knowledge to improve your work habits for revision?
You want to develop a habit of good working, where you can settle down easily to our work and not be distracted. You’re coming up to exams, so you have a lot of work to do and no time to waste.
- Do you have fairly good work behaviours with little that distracts you? (In that case, you only need to improve your work “stimuli” rather than radically alter them.)
- Or is your work behaviour really quite bad and you are often distracted? (In that case, you need to start your new work stimuli from scratch.)
- Have a desk/table/space that is ONLY used for work. If this isn’t possible, have some ways that you can make this table/desk/space look different for work compared to other activities. For example, cover or remove non-work items when working.
- Have stationery/folders that are ONLY used for work. Put them away when not working and put them on your desk when working.
- Have a mug that is ONLY used for work. NEVER use it when you are not working.
- Have music that is ONLY used for work. Perhaps use headphones or listen in a way that you wouldn’t normally.
- Consider burning a scented candle ONLY when working.
- Perhaps make yourself a mug of tea or glass of milk and a sandwich or flapjack and a piece of fruit to start your work session with.
- Hang a sign on your door saying that you’re working – and tell family members your work schedule for that day/halfday.
- Set an alarm with your intended work time.
- If possible, work at the same times each day. (Obviously this won’t always be possible.
- Switch off your phone and, ideally, put it somewhere where you can’t get it.
- Have any other action you can think of that make this work time different from non-work times. Certain clothes? A post-it note on your computer saying “SHHH – working”?
The more things you do and the more regularly you do them, the stronger your habit will become.
One more thing: you do actually have to do the work! Setting up your workspace and all the “stimuli” is only the start! But it’s a very good start.
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