Student Resources

“The student is treated not as a bucket for a reception of lectures, nor as a mill to grind out the due daily grist of prepared text-book for recitation, but as being in search of the truth, which he is to discover for himself, the proper encouragement and advice as to means and methods being furnished by his instructor.”

(philosopher John Dewey, describing the pedagogical rebellion against the prevailing American models of graduate education in 1882)


What is a literature review? Here is an explanation for how the “lit review” relates to your larger paper, and some tips to help you get started.

Take a look at my style guide for papers. I drafted it for students taking my classes but the tips and suggestions may be helpful to others.

How do you write an analytical paper? I prepared this document for “Theories of Comparative and International Studies” (SIS 672), but I think it contains some generally helpful ideas.

Have you ever stopped to think about how you actually read and process information? Here are my tips for effective reading, gathered over the years since I was a freshman in college.

Some surprising study tips, based on recent psychology research:

  1. When you are intensively studying a topic or studying for one particular class, change your location rather than putting in eight hours in one sitting.  You want your brain to create multiple associations with the same material, and changing your environment helps
  2. Study different types of material during long study sessions.
  3. Cramming for a test can work, but it gives you short term retention.  This means that whatever you learned for the midterm when you stayed up all night, will be forgotten by the time of the final exam.  A 2010 article in Applied Cognitive Psychology recommends multiple study sessions rather than one long one – this means in part that that tests are a way of learning, not just a form of evaluation.
  4. There is virtually no evidence for the idea that some of us are “visual” learners while others are “auditory.”  Same goes for the old left brain/right brain contrast.  You need both sides of your brain.  (See “Forget What You Know about Good Study Habits” in the New York Times.)
  5. A team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath compiled the findings of 72 studies of attention conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000. Is your cell phone to blame? Read about the research here.
  6. Stressed out? Take a study break. According to a groundbreaking study published in 2008 in Psychological Science, cities wear our brains out.  “Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.”  Henry David Thoreau had the right idea: Go for a walk in the woods.  American University is closer than you know to some great trails in Rock Creek Park— the one off Cathedral Avenue goes all the way down to the Potomac River, west of Georgetown!
    • Psychologists studying the interaction between the brain and nature are now exploring whether technology use inhibits deep thought, and also trying to understand the social impact of cell phones which have redefined what is “urgent.”  This undermines our ability to focus – and generate those insights that your professor is looking for.  Here’s one New York Times article exploring this research.
    • A 2015 New York Times article summarized new research reinforcing many of these findings summarized in “How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain.”

Be smart about when and how you use the Internet:

  • We all think we can multi-task, but none of us really can. In fact, trying to multitask makes you worse at shifting from one task to the next.  People who focus on one task at a time can organize and process information better, and then perform those other tasks better.  There is some evidence though, published in Science Daily, that women are more likely to approach multiple tasks methodically in this way than men.  In sum, the science says that you can’t text or IM during class, even though you think you can.  (See “The Mediocre Multitasker” in the New York Times.)
  • The online magazine Slate published an article on August 12, 2009 entitled “Seeking: How the Brain Hard-Wires Us to Love Google, Twitter, and Texting.  And Why That’s Dangerous.”  Not only does constant internet searching stimulate dopamine in the brain, it also possibly interferes with our sense of time.
  • Your memory is like a muscle, and relying on Google too much makes it limp. The journal Science reported in July 2011 the results of four studies that all came to similar conclusions: when faced with difficult questions, people reflexively think about computers.  Most importantly, when people anticipate easy access to information in the future, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself! Instead, they end up with good recall regarding where to get the information (ie, the website you went to, but not what it said).

“Google is a tool that prevents you from doing research…We have this bizarre notion that we can know things without knowing facts.” (Alexandra Petri writing in the Washington Post about the Science studies.)

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