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Do you know how to study? Like really study? Many of us don’t learn how to truly retain information through studying (PSA: all-nighters are not sustainable) and we are left a bit helpless when we end up in a class where a huge chunk of the grade is determined by a single, big, overwhelming test.
When you’re in middle school and your early years of high school, it’s fairly easy to get by with good grades by cramming and regurgitating information to pass a test. But studies show that that form of “studying” is ineffective and won’t help you in the long run. You don’t want to just pass a test, you want to learn and grow from your classes so you can apply that knowledge in your jobs AND dominate at trivia nights.
Picture this: you’re in your favorite coffee shop with a tall delicious glass of cold brew. Your laptop is charged and ready to go, you have your planner open with an impossibly long list of things to do for school and your colored pens are lined up, ready to cross off things on that To-Do list.
You’re ready to go, but how are you going to make the most of your study time?
Here’s a list of tips, backed by science, to help you study effectively and efficiently. Work smarter not harder, honey!
SPACE OUT YOUR STUDY SESSIONS
The act of studying requires your brain to actually form new connections and strengthen old connections. Like working out and building muscles, this takes time. You can’t walk into the gym, do a few squats and walk out an Instagram model! The same goes for studying.
Flexing your brain muscles a little bit at a time will help you retain information and feel prepared for a test. While cramming may make you feel prepared or help you fake your way through one test, you’ll probably forget all that information in a week and you’ll have to cram all over again for the next test.
UC Irvine Neurologists found brain synapses – which are the connection points among neurons that transfer signals – encode memories in the hippocampus much better when activated briefly at one-hour intervals.
“This explains why prolonged ‘cramming’ is inefficient – only one set of synapses is being engaged,” said Gary Lynch, professor of psychiatry & human behavior and anatomy & neurobiology. “Repeated short training sessions, spaced in time, engage multiple sets of synapses. It’s as if your brain is working at full power.”
GET RID OF DISTRACTIONS
You’ll be most efficient when you rid yourself of distractions and fully focus on the subject you’re studying. Have you ever sat and re-read the same page over and over because you keep checking your phone or thinking about that sassy thing your roommate just said? Distractions come in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few ways to clear out the noise to allow yourself effective studying time.
Clear your head. Are you preoccupied with something that has your mind wandering? Take a minute to deal with it, go on a walk, talk to someone, meditate, do whatever it takes to clear your mind and make room for some fun studying. Creating that clear mental space will be beneficial and reduce the time you spend studying because you’re not constantly distracted.
Now that your mind is clear, DON’T TOUCH YOUR PHONE. You probably do not need your phone to study, and it’s just going to distract you. Put it on “Do Not Disturb” and leave it in your backpack. You’ll be amazed by how much more productive you can be when you aren’t checking Instagram every two minutes.
Same thing goes for your laptop. If you’re working on your computer, do your best to avoid distractions like social media by downloading extensions that block you from those sites. If your computer has it, set it to “Do Not Disturb” as well. Shut off notifications and don’t let yourself online shop. You can do that when you’re done studying!
Dr. John Grohol writes about this on Psych Central. He says, “if you study best with your favorite music playing, try and limit your interaction with your phone while changing tracks. Your phone is a potential time-sink and one of the worst enemies of concentration.”
DO ONE THING AT A TIME
You may think you’re a great multi-tasker, but that skillset won’t help you by studying. Break down your coursework so you can focus on one thing at a time and dedicate your brainpower to that subject.
Thomas Hills Ph.D. said, “Volumes of studies show that multitasking slows you down, creates interference that blocks learning, and generally ruins your ability to think deeply about what you’re learning.”
Also, you waste time trying to skip between subjects because you may lose your spot or forget what you learned. Set small goals and knock them out one at a time, that way you can accomplish more and actually remember what you learned. This also allows you to mentally prepare for each subject. Take a minute between learning new equations and practicing conjugations. You’ve already created a distraction-free work zone, don’t let your studies distract you from one another.
And if your mind wanders, write down what you’re thinking about and get back to it later! Have a sticky note ready to go for your random thoughts and leave it there until you’ve finished studying the chapter or quizzing yourself on a deck of flashcards. You may be thinking about scheduling your doctor’s appointment or what you want to get at the grocery store, but don’t let that take away from your work.
NOW TEST YOURSELF
Once you’ve learned the materials, test yourself. Re-reading notes isn’t challenging your brain since the information you need to know is right at your fingertips. To truly learn the information, researchers have found that it’s helpful to test yourself.
There are many different ways to do this, so it’s best if you find what works best for you.
You can try:
The UNC-Chapel Hill Learning Center found students can benefit from active learning that requires testing, questioning, and interacting with the material, instead of just passively reading it.
Consume the information you need to know multiple ways and test yourself. Instead of reading your notes, re-write them, then make them into flashcards, make mnemonic devices, say the information out loud, watch instructional Youtube videos, take practice tests.
By challenging yourself to know the material and switching up the ways you process it, you’ll have a better chance of remembering it in class.
Since you’re working in short bursts anyway, take breaks. Get your body moving and clear your head to allow yourself to re-center and re-focus on your work.
When you’re planning your schedule, plan your breaks, MIT recommends. By planning for your breaks you can set an accomplishable goal that has an end in sight. Maybe you’re working through a tough new concept in physics that is wearing you down, but when you plan for your break, you have a light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to before getting back into the grind.
Use your breaks to refuel on healthy snacks, move your body with some yoga or a quick workout, talk to friends, or even indulge in social media briefly (with a timer set so you don’t fall into an endless scroll).
Let yourself relax and absorb the information you just learned before diving into the next topic. Plan breaks to match up with your friend’s so you can hang out while studying without distracting yourself from the task at hand. Maybe even plan a little dance party to let loose and boost your mood before you hunker back down.
Let us know in the comments which of these science-backed study strategies gets you through final exams this semester!!