Writing in Psychology

Writing is important in psychology. We expect that when you enter the program, you will be able to organize your thoughts before writing and organize your paper in a logical way, consistent with the goals of the assignment. We also expect that you will be able to write in complete sentences with good syntax and grammar.

By the time you graduate from our program, you will have gained new writing skills, including the ability to use APA style in formatting written work, identify sources as primary or secondary, and identify the strengths, limitations and weaknesses of a research study. We also expect that you will have gained the ability to describe psychological theories in a clear, precise way and describe how published research relates to theories and whether a research study’s results support or don’t support a particular theory.

Types of Writing Assignments

As a student in the Psychology Program, you will find the following kinds of writing are expected:

  • Research reports (Psy 300 and 301)
  • Literature reviews
  • Reflective essays
  • Journal article summaries
  • Journal article critiques

Advice on Successful Writing in Psychology

In the Psychology Program, students should be prepared to write structured assignments based on reading and understanding academic articles. It is always best to select your sources early. Be sure to seek approval of sources and any necessary interlibrary loans from your professor before writing the paper. This way, you will be sure you are on the right track from the beginning of the process. Once you’ve found your sources, it is often necessary to complete article summaries before writing a research based paper. This will require reading the entire article that you’ll be citing, instead of merely reviewing the abstract—your professors can tell when you take short cuts. See the “Study and Reading Methods” section on the next page if you find your readings difficult!

The librarians at the reference desk are happy to help you search for articles— especially if you start early—and tutors in the Writing Center can help you all the way through—from outlining your paper and organizing your ideas, to citing your sources and editing the final product.

Good practices for writing in psychology include:

  • Outlining. Prepare a detailed outline before writing a research report or literature review so that sources and ideas flow logically and lead to the conclusion sought by the writer.
  • Using the rubric. In classes where a grading rubric is used, be sure that you use the rubric to help shape your writing.
  • Giving yourself time. Prepare written assignments a week in advance so that you have time to edit and proofread the written work, including soliciting input from peers and/or writing tutors.
    • Peer editing. If peer editing is available in a class, take advantage of the critical feedback provided.
    • Visiting the Writing Center: The tutors in the University Writing and Multiliteracy Center (Broome 2360) are available to read your work with you. Be sure to take advantage of this free service early enough to give yourself time to make changes to your paper.
  • Proofreading. Before submitting a written assignment, students should read each sentence critically and ask whether it clearly communicates what the student wants it to communicate.

Citing Sources

Formatting guides abound, including the APA guide to writing in psychology and Zotero.

Study And Reading Methods Useful For Psychology

SQRRR Method of Reading

Surely one of the most important skills is reading, especially comprehending what we have read. The key to learning is curiosity--a desire to know. Thus, good reading methods focus on arousing our curiosity, on activating our minds. Some minds are by nature probing and inquiring, others must learn to be curious, to seek answers, to intend to learn. The SQRRR reading method activates our minds:

  • S is for survey: look over the entire chapter to get the general idea of what the author wants to tell you. See the importance of the material.
  • Q for question: ask yourself questions about each section before you read it. Arouse your curiosity. Want to know the author's major points.
  • R is for read: read with the intention of answering the question and learning what the author has to say. Absorb all you can.
  • R is for recite: stop after reading a page or two and recite (repeat in your own words) what you have just learned. Make the author's knowledge your own. The process of QUESTION, READ, RECITE is repeated every page or two.
  • R is for review: after finishing the chapter, go back and review what you have read. Review again in a few days and right before an exam.

It takes a few weeks of determined effort and practice before the SQRRR method becomes habitual. But once you learn to read with an inquiring mind, you will realize the enormous advantage of this approach over an inefficient or inactive mind.

  • To increase your concentration and comprehension of the information you read.
  • To reduce the daydreaming and inefficiency associated with ordinary reading.

Note: this method is not designed for speed reading, that is another skill.


STEP ONE: Survey the entire chapter or article.

Look over the chapter or book; note the chapter title and subtitles. These are usually the main ideas. If there is a summary, read it. This may take 1 to 5 minutes.

Try to study in one place so you will become conditioned to study in that chair. Don't do anything else in that chair. Start studying immediately after sitting down; don't procrastinate. Learn to enjoy learning in that chair.

STEP TWO: Question what the main points will be in the next section (1-3 pages).

From the survey of the chapter or from the subtitle, create a question in your mind that should be answered in the first page or two. Make the question interesting and important to you. Maybe you will want to pretend to be face-to-face and asking the author a series of questions. The author's response to you is in the next few pages.

STEP THREE: Read to answer your question and/or to learn what the author knows.

Read the first page or two of the chapter, keeping your question in mind and focusing on what the author has to say. Be sure the author is answering the question you asked; if not, change the question. Think as you read! What ideas are expressed? What are the supporting arguments?

Always read with a purpose, namely, finding answers to important questions. Try to find the reasoning and the facts that support those answers.

STEP FOUR: Recite what you have read.

This is the most important part. Using your own words, repeat to yourself what you have read. You may want to read only a couple of paragraphs if the material is difficult. If you are reading easy material with lots of examples, perhaps you can read several pages. Read as much as you can remember. Do not look at the book as you recite; it is necessary for the knowledge to get implanted into your brain. Of course, if you can't remember what the author said, you'll have to re-read some of the material. Try to minimize the re-reading.

After talking to yourself (about the answers to your question), you may want to make a brief summary in the margin of the book next to where the information is located. Later, you can quickly review the book by looking at these key words in the margin, and if you discover you have forgotten some points, you can re-read the pertinent paragraphs again and refresh your memory.

Recalling the author's answers to your basic questions is the essence of active learning. Don't just copy the author's words into your notebook. The knowledge becomes yours as you recall it and repeat it to yourself. Fantasize telling someone about what you have read or imagine teaching someone about this material. Attending and remembering are not easy; you can't just casually read through a book, forgetting the material about as fast as your eyes skim over it. However, if you work hard on this method, you will not only become an excellent reader but a more knowledgeable person and a clearer thinker.

After reciting what you have read, go to the next section and repeat the same process: QUESTION, READ and RECITE until you are finished.

STEP FIVE: Review what you have learned.

As research has demonstrated well, we forget much less if we review the material periodically. Ideally, we would review a chapter right after reading it, then 2 or 3 days later and again a week or two after that. This reading method divides a chapter into many parts. A review of the whole chapter helps you integrate the parts and get an overall perspective.

Try a little review right now of the last several paragraphs. Do you remember the name of this method? What are the steps in this method? What steps are repeated over and over as you read a chapter? Why is talking to yourself important?

STEP SIX: Use your knowledge; preparing for a test.

The best way to keep knowledge is to use it, to give it away. Knowledge is of value only if it is used. Reward yourself for learning and for sharing your information with others who are interested.

A common way for students to use information is to perform well on a test. There are several other techniques, besides SQRRR, for improving your memory for tests. Here are a few:

Take lecture notes. You need to be able to refresh your memory. It is best if you rewrite these notes shortly after class, putting the ideas in outline form and filling in or clarifying the information that you couldn't write down during class. The outline form is designed to put facts in meaningful clusters, that makes it easier to remember. Then, try to use some system to help you remember a list or series of points, (e.g., use the first letter of each point as a clue for remembering, such as SQRRR). Associate the new information with things you already know, (e.g., you know that active rehearsal is critical for remembering).

Protect your memory from interference. If you know some material will be on the exam, review that information frequently, preferable every day for 4 or 5 days before the test. Recite it to yourself. Try to study each subject for only an hour or so at a time, then switch to a very different subject during the next hour. Similar information causes more confusion. And, spacing out your learning into smaller batches is helpful too.

Over-learn the important material. Keep on rehearsing even after you think you "have this stuff down cold." The anxiety of the test may disrupt a weak memory, so overlearn. Moreover, you aren't just preparing for a test; you are preparing to design a space ship, to teach a learning disabled child, to make major business decisions, to do bypass surgery, etc. You need practice learning and remembering well.

Time involved

It may take only 5 minutes to learn this method. It will take several hours to make it a habit. At first you will have to force yourself to QUESTION, READ and RECITE. When you have become proficient with the method, it is uncertain how much extra time it will take (beyond straight reading) because you will comprehend faster and more, and retain more from your reading.

A classical study by Gates in 1917 indicated that self-rehearsal greatly improves the recall of facts. He concluded that 10% to 50% of your study time could profitably be used reciting and reviewing what you have read. The drier and more disconnected the facts, the more rehearsal is needed. Also, some material needs to be known in minute detail; other material needs to be recalled only in general terms and can be skimmed.

Common problems

Three problems are common: (1) many people think they are already good readers (that usually means fast) and are disinterested in learning to read better. Most of us would benefit greatly from retaining more of what we read. (2) Some people fail to stick with the method long enough to learn the skill. Reading is an unpleasant chore for many people, even college students. Unfortunately, we are not a land of readers; lacking that skill will limit our depth of knowledge. (3) Some people waste time by applying this method even though the material doesn't need to be recalled in detail. Many things don't deserve to be read laboriously.

Effectiveness, advantages and dangers

Frank P. Robinson (1961) described this method in the late 1940's. Since then, research has repeatedly shown that the method and modifications of it increase our reading comprehension. This is an important skill. Except for reading light material in a compulsive manner, there is no inappropriate use.

Recommended readings

Armstrong, W. H. (1998). Study is hard work. David R. Godine Publishing.

Ellis, D. B. (1997). Becoming a master student. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

James, E., James, C. & Barkin, C. (1998). How to be school smart: Super study skills. Beech Tree Books.

Pauk, W. (1974). How to study in college. Boston, Mass.: Haughton Mifflin Co.

Sedita, J. (1989). Landmark study skills guide. Landmark Outreach Program--for parents trying to help a student who can't get organized. Look up on Amazon.

Source: Robinson, F. P. (1970). Effective Study (4th ed.). New York: Harper & Row. ISBN http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Standard_Book_Number 978-0-06-045521-7http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:BookSources/978-0-06-045521-7.