Self-monitoring helps

Research suggests that behaviours that impede studying can be changed.

March 22, 2015 06:40 pm | Updated March 29, 2015 04:08 pm IST

Students busy preparing for the State level model test for BE and MBBS Entrance examination, organised by The Hindu and Aspire, at a centre in T. Nagar, in Chennai, on April 22, 2006.
Photo: M. Vedhan

Students busy preparing for the State level model test for BE and MBBS Entrance examination, organised by The Hindu and Aspire, at a centre in T. Nagar, in Chennai, on April 22, 2006. Photo: M. Vedhan

Just looking at the books piled on you study table makes you queasy. Your exams are a few weeks away and you are trying hard to be disciplined. You lock yourself in your room and try to immerse yourself in your books. Within ten minutes of studying, your phone beeps. You tell yourself you will not check your messages and continue reading. But within five minutes, your mind starts to drift. Soon you find yourself doodling in the margins. You chide yourself and return to the Laffer curves in your economics textbook. But for some reason, you don’t remember what you had read earlier. You go back and start rereading. There’s a knock on the door; your brother asks you to come for lunch. Lunch! A good three hours have gone by, and you have hardly gotten through a chapter. How can you possibly study four subjects?

Attention disorders

Don’t panic. Research published online in the Journal of Attention Disorders in October 2014 suggests that students may benefit from self-monitoring their attention. In the study, conducted by Scheithauer and Kelley, college students with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) were assigned to one of two groups. The first group only received training in study skills whereas the second group also received training on how to monitor themselves while studying. The study skills component involved giving students tips on how to be organised and pick a suitable place to study. Students were also taught how to approach chapters in textbooks by first previewing its contents and then generating questions on the material. Reading the chapter then involved answering these questions.

Students in the second group also underwent the study skills session. In addition, the second group received instructions on how to monitor themselves while studying. This involved identifying specific goals and behaviours the students wanted to cultivate. For example, a student may write, “I will not check for messages while studying,” “I will call my friends only during my pre-scheduled breaks” or “I will limit my calls to ten minutes.” Students then created an Excel sheet where they could check off whether they achieved each goal at the end of the day. The researchers were able to access these online forms remotely and send reminder emails to those who had not completed them.

At the end of the study, students who engaged in self-monitoring did better than the group that did not receive instructions on how to keep track of their own behaviour and study habits. In addition to fewer self-reported ADHD symptoms, these students improved their grades more than the group that did not receive this intervention.

So what take-home message does this study have for you? First, you do not have to be clinically diagnosed as ADHD to partake of this benign intervention. In fact, most people have difficulties focusing, especially when a task is challenging and taxing, like all college exams are. Further, as the strategy suggested is so simple and absolutely free, you have nothing to lose in trying it out. Of course, it has to be personalised for each individual based on your learning profile and study habits. The following guidelines may help you devise a form that is suited to your needs.


Before creating an Excel sheet, identify three or four behaviours that impede your progress when studying. The behaviours you choose must be clearly definable, measurable and achievable. Suppose you talk to your friend Ayesha every day, and you find that both of you end up wasting a lot of time over the phone, you may choose a behaviour like, “Speak to Ayesha only once for 15 minutes.” If you find that you always postpone studying organic chemistry and always pick an easier subject, you may write, “Study organic chemistry for 45 minutes.” In both these instances, the behaviour you select is easy to spell out and measure. Determining whether you meet the criteria set by you is both obvious and easy.

When you choose your behaviours, make sure that you do not include too many at once. Even though you may want to correct a lot of things about your study habits, starting off with too many items is likely to be overwhelming and unrealistic. Begin with modifying few behaviours. You can also use your phone to remind you to fill your Excel sheet every night. Don’t get disheartened if you are not able to achieve all desired behaviours at one go. The idea is to make progress and get better with time. Further, you are likely to feel proud when you do achieve all your goals. This will further motivate you to be disciplined about your study habits. When you feel a behaviour is well under control, you may modify your Excel log to change another time-wasting tactic that you usually employ. As psychologist Frederick Muench says in an article in Psychology Today, “Self-monitoring is possibly the single most important mechanism in changing any thought or behavior.” So without further ado, identify your trouble spots and tackle them sagely.

The author is the Director of PRAYATNA. Email:

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