The Trick to Studying: Categories!

By Azure’Rea Hike

When I was a kid I used to play a pool game called ‘Categories’. The game went a little something like this:
-One person is ‘it’. This person has to pick a broad category. A category is defined as “groups of objects that belong to the same class of objects” (Goldstein). These classes are created by similarities of characteristics. Some examples could be favorite food, nickelodeon shows, Characters from a specific T.V. show, etc. The goal is to make the broad category as narrow as possible.

-The other players have to pick something that falls under the category. For example, if the category is favorite food someone might say pizza.
-The player that is ‘it’ has to turn his or her back to the other players and stand in the center of a pool wall. They have to guess which item in the category that the other players pick.
-If the player that is ‘it’ calls your item, you have to swim across the diameter of the pool and hope not to get tagged.

What we did not know as kids was that categorizing is one of “the most basic functions of human cognition” (Connor and Lawrence). Anything and everything can be categorized! Categorization is defined as “the process by which objects are placed in categories” (Goldstein). This is something that all of us have been doing since long before we were consciously aware of what categories are! One of the first things we learn to categorize is emotion. It starts in infancy as infants “younger than 7 months, can discriminate between positive and negative facial expressions, such as happy and fear (e.g., Bornstein & Arterberry, 2003), and between different negative facial expressions, such as anger, sadness, and fear” (Ruba et. al.). The “comparing and contrasting preverbal infants with verbal children and adults could provide valuable insights into… how emotion categorization abilities change over time, particularly in relation to language” (Ruba et. al.).

“[Categorizations] are a means of investigating cognitive maps”, or in other words help give a general idea of things (Connor and Lawrence). There are plenty of categories that have been predetermined for us. Like the 5 food groups or a family tree. We don’t necessarily create those categories on our own, we just sort things into them. Let’s refer back to the family tree. If you look in Figure 1.1 you will see the Oedipus family tree. Oedipus is a character of Greek Mythology who (spoiler alert?) kills the king of Thebes and marries the queen. What he does not know is that the king was his father and that the queen was his mother. So as he reproduces with her, his family tree becomes a web of complication. Our broad category in this example would be the term ‘family’. The sub-categories that we then organize are titles like mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, spouse, etc. In Figure 1.1 you can see how complicated categories can get the more you try to narrow it down. In this particular family, you can see the multiple relationships and titles Oedipus has for his mother, wife, sister, brother, children, cousins, and nephews. It gets weird.

This example of a family category has many connections, but they get a little confusing and complicated. To be fair, incest complicates everything. But other categories can help you. Especially when it comes to studying.

When studying material, you can organize related information into broad categories. This technique can help you relate material to each other. As you create more narrow category criterion, you can continue to separate into subcategories. This is called ‘Hierarchical Organization’. This helps elaborate on the information. As you continue to dissect the information, it will help you familiarize yourself with the content. The more in depth you get about your categories, the more information you begin to identify and the better you will understand it. Let’s try an example:

So you start with your largest category. Make it something as broad as possible. This is the ‘Global’ level. An easy way to remember this is that the globe is big and broad, and so is this category. So our example Global Level will be something everyone likes. Dogs. (And if you don’t like dogs that’s a you problem.)

Next, break it down a little more. The next categorical level is the Basic Level. And not like #Basic. It is a little more specific than just the broad category of ‘dog’, but it still isn’t narrowed down. To create the Basic Level, you can further separate this category into Big Dogs, Medium Dogs, and Small Dogs.

And just to break it up even more, you have your most narrow level. This is the Specific (or subordinate) Level. With the broad topic of ‘dog’ this level would consist of things like different breeds. The breeds would be separated by the categories in the basic level which consists of big, medium, and small. You can see how this works in Figure 1.2.

Through this example, you can see that as you break down the information, you become more familiar with it. This is a great way to engage in elaborative rehearsal, which is defined as “rehearsal that involves thinking about the meaning of an item to be remembered or making connections between that item and prior knowledge” (Goldstein). Overall, this results in a deeper understanding and is a great study technique! This can even be done in group settings. Studies suggest that overall, categorizing can be pretty general. One study showed that “even without any supervision or prerequisite, a consensus of a color naming system can be reached in a population solely via the interactions” (Li, Fan, and Tang). This generalization can be a result of how the material is learned and categorized. This can either be by conceptual association or classification learning. A study in which they “assess the ability of participants to contrast new sets of categories using individual categories that were learned during [a] training phase. The results show that participants in the [conceptualizing] condition could generalize their representations during the test phase (with a small switch cost). This was not the case for participants in the [classification] condition, which reverted back to chance performance” (Hélie, Shamloo, & Ell).

For your next exam, try breaking your information into conceptual categories in which to study. Find how things relate to each other and continue to narrow down those subjects to help elaborate on the concepts!

Connor, M., & Lawrence, A. B. (2017). Understanding Adolescents’ Categorisation of Animal Species. Animals (2076-2615), 7(9), 1-16. doi:10.3390/ani7090065

Goldstein, E. Bruce. Glossary. Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience, 4th ed., Cengage Learning, 2015.

Hélie, S., Shamloo, F., & Ell, S. W. (2017). The effect of training methodology on knowledge representation in categorization. Plos ONE, 12(8), 1-23. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0183904

Li D, Fan Z, Tang W. Domain learning naming game for color categorization. Plos ONE [serial online]. November 14, 2017;12(11):1-19. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 4, 2017.

Ruba, A. L., Wilbourn, M. P., Ulrich, D. M., & Harris, L. T. (2017). Constructing Emotion Categorization: Insights From Developmental Psychology Applied to a Young Adult Sample. Emotion, doi:10.1037/emo0000364.

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