Six ways to study better, according to neuroscience

Six ways to study better, according to neuroscience December 2, 2018

December is here!! Which means final exams are right around the corner. At this time of year, I hear one narrative over and over at Notre Dame:

“I should’ve paid attention in class… or at least gone to class…”
“I wish I’d started studying sooner.”
“RIP my GPA”

But don’t give up! With a little knowledge about how your brain works, you can make your study time efficient and effective, and perform well on your exams. This time of year doesn’t have to be stressful and burdensome, if you’re equipped with a few strategies.

Here are six science-backed ways to study better.

1. First, turn off Spotify.

Your memory is much better when you study in silence. Though this scientific finding is wildly unpopular, it is incredibly well-validated.

Brain circuits responsible for language are also involved in processing music. As such, though music may boost your mood, but it impairs your reading, comprehension, and memory formation. This is especially true for music with vocals, so if you’re going to ignore me and continue to listen to music, at least make it classical.

2. Spread out your review.

The best way to study is through distributed practice. This is when you break up your review into shorter sessions over a longer period of time. Massed practice, on the other hand, is when you consolidate all of your studying into a few long and intense sessions. Basically, massed practice is the scientific term for cramming.

Distributed practice results in better recall, more accurate and durable memories.

Why is there a difference? It comes down to synapses, the connections between neurons that underlie learning and memory. Synapses strengthen with repeated activation over time. As a result, distributed practice creates stronger synapses – and better memories.

What does this mean? Start early – ideally, now. Dedicate a chunk of time to reviewing your notes every day, even if it’s just 15 minutes per subject. Don’t leave it all to the last minute, because cramming doesn’t work.

3. Process the information more deeply

The more deeply you process the material, the better your recall later on.

Don’t just re-read the textbook; this is shallow processing. Solve problem sets. Act it out. Use mental imagery, forming pictures in your mind of the material. Re-organize the information into schematics and diagrams. Create and solve your own exams.

All of these strategies engage more of your brain, recruiting additional synapses and circuits to support the formation of your memory for the material.

This can be hard when you aren’t interested in what you’re learning. So try to find something beautiful that catches your attention and relates to your life. Studies show that material that’s personally relevant is remembered much better.

4. Say it all out loud!

Evidence shows that things you say out loud are remembered better. This benefit, called the production effect, is likely because speaking out loud activates multiple sensory modalities – verbal and mental. Under dual code theory, this process stores the information more strongly, given that you have multiple pathways to retrieve it.

So when you’re reviewing, repeat the information out loud instead of silently in your head.

But don’t just rely on rote rehearsal, or simple repetition. Instead, try elaborative rehearsal. This is when you think about the meaning of the term and connect it to other information that you already have stored in memory. Ask yourself open-ended questions, and try to answer them with as much content as possible.

5. Work with a friend

Studying with a friend is much more effective than studying alone. Study buddies can answer questions you have about the material. Explaining a concept to a peer is a powerful way to process the information deeply. Also, studying with a friend increases your attention and focus, and boosts morale. This makes sense, because we are inherently social and our brain needs relationships to perform its best.

Finally, this strategy takes advantage of the Hawthorne effect. This is when your behavior changes when you know someone else is watching. If someone is observing you, you’re more likely to exhibit self-control and productivity.

6. Sleep

This may seem counterintuitive. How can you learn information while you’re unconscious? But sleep is essential for learning. Consolidation, the process of making memories stable beyond the present moment, occurs intensely during sleep. This is because the structural changes needed to form new memories take time, energy, and rest.

So an all-nighter of studying before your exam is probably the WORST thing you could do for your performance. Instead, call it a day when you reach your normal bedtime. If you respect your circadian rhythm, your consolidation will be stronger.

In the end

In the end, you may or may not perform well on your exams. Shift your mindset from just focusing on the outcome. All you can do now is turn to the present moment, and work to the best of your ability. Instead of getting caught in negative self-talk, focus on the small steps you can take today.

And before you begin, ask for Mary’s intercession through prayer:

O Mary, Mother of fair love, of fear, of knowledge, and of holy hope, by whose loving care and intercession many, otherwise poor in intellect, have wonderfully advanced in knowledge and in holiness, thee do I choose as the guide and patroness of my studies; and I humbly implore, through the deep tenderness of thy maternal love, and especially through that eternal Wisdom who deigned to take from thee our flesh and who gifted thee beyond all the saints with heavenly light, that thou wouldst obtain for me by thy intercession the grace of the Holy Spirit that I may be able to grasp with strong intellect, retain in memory, proclaim by word and deed, and teach others all things which bring honor to thee and to thy Son, and which for me and for others are salutary for eternal life. Amen.

St. Thomas Aquinas

Further reading recommendations

For more on the scientific literature, check out the Journal of Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

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