After a full day of classes, a UC Merced freshman heads back to his room and settles in to begin studying for midterms. He contemplates which textbook he should pick up first. Once he selects the first subject, he gets to work. After reading two chapters, he wonders whether he has studied that topic adequately.
Will studying for three more hours get him a better grade on the exam? Will any amount of studying result in his passing or failing the course? Will studying for three hours on one class make a bigger difference in the grade he receives compared to studying for another class?
He picks up another textbook and continues to study.
This automatic thought process is what cognitive science graduate student 
Corinne Townsend is trying to understand better. Her research delves into how a student's judgment of how well they've learned the material - known as "metacognitive judgments" - and how capable they think they are at performing well - known as "self-efficacy beliefs" - affect motivation and correlate with test scores.
When studying, for example, students judge whether they have successfully learned the assigned material and use these decisions, known as "judgments of learning," to allocate study time. Someone with over-confident judgments of learning might not prepare sufficiently for a course, where someone with under-confident judgments of learning might prepare too much.
Townsend hopes to discover if there is a direct correlation between how well students perform in a specific course and their belief in the likelihood that their study time will payoff.
"Students look for the payoff or return on investment of their study time," said Townsend, a UC San Diego graduate and one of UC Merced's first master's degree recipients. "The return in this case would be the grade they receive."
While teaching her first cognitive science course last summer, Townsend surveyed about 30 UC Merced juniors and seniors on their study habits. Among other questions, she asked them to rate how they think they will perform on their next exam.
"My own experience as a student made me wonder why some students are good at studying while others aren't," she said. "If you don't think you can do well in a particular subject, you probably won't devote a lot of time on it."
Townsend, a doctoral candidate in School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts professor Evan Heit's lab, is also looking at whether college students can accurately judge their rate of learning. As part of her survey, she asked students how quickly they think they are learning a topic. For the most part, she has found that students aren't a good judge of their own rate of knowledge.
Once she finishes collecting her research data, Townsend intends to share her findings with UC Merced's Student Advising and Learning Center in hopes of helping students improve their study techniques.