For anyone in the thick of study, or about to be, science has been working hard and has found ways to help you get the most out of your study time, all backed by hefty research. Here’s how to study smarter, supercharge your learning and store the information away in your head so it’s ready to jump into your arms when you need it.
When you exercise, your blood chemistry changes and your brain becomes the very happy recipient of important nutrients. It repays the favour by amping up its performance – specifically memory, attention, information processing and problem solving. Here are a couple of reasons your brain and exercise are one of the great love stories:
• Exercise increases the levels of a crucial brain-derived neurotrophic factor, (let’s call it BDNF – it’s much easier to spell). BDNF is important for the growth of brain cells, mood and learning.
• Exercise releases a powerful cocktail of important hormones including serotonin (the mood booster), dopamine (for learning and attention) and norepinephrine (for awareness, attention and concentration).
Try for 20-30 minutes a day. Anything that increases your heart rate will do the trick – running, bike-riding, walking, kicking a ball or turning up the beats and dancing it out. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, strong or graceful. It just has to be active.
Cramming doesn’t work, which is one of the great pities – life would be so much easier if it did. The problem with cramming is that the material doesn’t get the opportunity to transfer into long-term memory. Short term memory is like the party space in your head – information is there for a good time but not a long time. When information hits long-term memory, it’s committed and there when you need it. The transfer of information from short-term memory into long-term memory takes time and repeated exposure to the material. It’s not clear why spacing your study is so much better for you, but it’s likely that over a few days you’ll forget some of the material, then remember it again when you come back to your books. This increases exposure to the information which takes it closer to long-term memory.
We only have a limited amount of mental resources, and during a test you want as much of those resources available as possible. The thoughts that come with test anxiety steal some of those mental resources for, you know, worrying, leaving fewer resources available to retrieve important information. Researchers have found that looking through an exam before working on it will reduce anxiety and improve performance. Remember though, that all the mental resources in the world won’t find the right answers in memory if the answers aren’t put there solidly in the first place.
Expecting to teach what’s been learned has been shown to be better for learning and memory than expecting only testing. It’s a subtle shift in mindset, but the effect on learning is an important one. Learning material with an intention to teach ensures that material is actively understood and stored away in memory, and not passively looked over.
Testing yourself will force you to remember information. Every time you remember something, the information becomes a little more enduring. Testing yourself might also help to take the fire out of test anxiety, in the same way that exposure to any feared object eventually makes that object less frightening. Testing yourself on the material you’ve learned is more effective than reading the material over and over. Re-reading material might get you thinking that you’re familiar with the material, but until you try to retrieve that material from memory, you won’t actually know how well you know it or where the gaps in your knowledge are.
Sounds simple enough, but it’s not always easy when there’s so much to do. Deep sleep causes physical changes in the brain. When you learn something, your brain cells grow new connections that reach out and connect to other brain cells. This strengthens the pathways in your brain around whatever it is your learning. Sleeping after learning encourages memories of the information to be wired into your brain, so it’s less likely to fade. Think of your brain like a tree. Learning causes a branch to grow, but sleep helps it to grow the leaves and other tiny branches that will sustain and strengthen it.
All-nighters will mess with your ability to remember and process information. Sleep prepares your brain for learning, so pulling an all-nighter can cut your capacity to learn new things by up to 40% – and that’s not the only problem. Research has shown that it can take up to four days for your brain to return to normal after you’ve been awake all night.
For those feeling shackled to all that is study, here is some sweet, sweet news. Taking a short break after every hour of learning is better than working straight through as it improves your ability to focus on a particular task without being distracted. Research has found that the greatest improvement come following 15 minutes of moderate activity (jogging, a brisk walk, dribbling a ball) but improvement was also shown following vigorous activity (running, jumping, skipping) or a passive break (such as listening to music or watching funny YouTube clips – because for sure that’s why they were invented). Memory is strongest for the things learned immediately before and after a break so keep those times for the tough stuff.
Before a test, find somewhere private (or, totally public – up to you) and strike a power pose. Think Wonder Woman – hands on hips, legs apart; Superman – tall, shoulders back, chest expanded, arms stretched out in front of you; or that boss thing that bosses in the movies do – sitting back the bottom of one leg resting on the thigh of the other, hands behind your head and expanded. This will reduce cortisol (the stress hormone), and increase testosterone (the dominance hormone). The mind-body connection is a strong one. If you don’t believe you can do it, act like you can – eventually your mind won’t know the difference and will have you believing you can do anything – which you can.
So, if study and you are spending a lot of time together, remember to take breaks, get some pillow time, get active, or dig for comedy gold on YouTube – whatever works for you. Maybe try a bit of everything – not for too long though – the world can’t be brilliant without you.
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