It’s always stressful studying for tests. Whether you’re a parent or a student, an early starter or a procrastinator, everyone has times of stress around exam season. It may be amplified this year, of course, given that things are somewhat going back to normal and exams and grades actually matter again. No need to panic though, because we’ve got you covered! Here are seven great tips to help you study efficiently and effectively. Some techniques may seem unusual, but sometimes it’s good to add a new wrinkle to your study game. Good luck to all!
1. READ THE QUESTIONS FIRST
It seems counterintuitive but it’s actually an amazing technique. It helps in two ways. Firstly and most importantly, your brain will remember enough of the questions so that it will subconsciously look for the answers as you read. A flag will pop up when you land on an answer to one of the questions, and this helps you remember it better. Secondly, it will allow you to see what is considered important to understand and retain. I hate to say it, but there isn’t a single textbook out there that has 100% crucial, must-know information necessary for mastering a topic and doing great on an exam. Reading through questions first will filter out the less important material as you study. Thirdly, it will also give you an idea of the level of difficulty to expect as you study the material, and allows you to go through the questions once without feeling pressured to know the answers yet. Start by reading through the end-of-chapter questions before you study that chapter; you will see the difference.
2. USE SPACED REPITITION
When studying a subject which requires memorizing a lot of vocabulary, processes, sequences, algorithms, or whatever else, it helps to practice spaced repetition. This technique requires one to first study a topic, and then attempt to recall the material, for example, an hour later, then a day later, then 3 days later, and then a week later. This forces you to use the information at regular intervals, keeping it fresh in your brain and ready to be recalled (as opposed to memorizing for one day before the test, and dumping it out right afterwards). To truly learn something we’ve just studied, we need to move it from our short-term to our long-term memory; that takes time. Spaced intervals allow you to keep the information important (since you told your brain to keep recalling it every so often) and gives the brain time to process it into your long-term memory. Spaced repetition is effective and straight-forward to carry out.
3. GET MNEMONIC!
They say the best learners are children, because they are a blank slate of course, but also because they see the world with such wonder and whimsy. Anyone who’s ever spoken with a three year old can attest to the hilarious (and sometimes too literal) connections they make between facts and observations. It’s precisely these connections that help them remember things that would surprise you. In fact, it’s what helps me remember things I learned 25 years ago. Along with spaced repetition, using silly/funny/shocking/childish associations is the best way to remember anything. For example, in chemistry, a “catalyst” sounds to me like “cat”, cats are quick, and so a catalyst quickens a reaction. In biology, a cell “membrane” sounds like “member”, so I imagine a bouncer at a cell club deciding who goes in and out (which is its function). In algebra, two sides of the equations are jealous siblings shouting “Me too! Me too! Me too!” and must always get the same treatment. The list is bounded only by your imagination, so get creative when memorizing!
4. STOP MULTI-TASKING
For some reason, the myth of multitasking (or as we now know it to be, task-switching) is a badge of honour to some, a point of pride; “Even when I’m under pressure, I can do A and B at the same time!” That’s great… if you’re folding laundry while watching TV. Those are tasks that require little meaningful thinking, things that you can do on auto-pilot. But if you’re working on exercises that require focus, there is no way to hold more than one task at a time. That’s not all: a big problem also lies in the switching itself. Studies have shown that it can take up to 20 minutes (!) to get back the level of focus you had before switching. Instead, try to stay focused on the task at hand. While task-switching is sometimes necessary, it’s a lot more effective to simply schedule your work and focus, carving out 60-90 minute blocks at a time (with breaks of course!) That will ensure you get some concentrated quality work done, and may even find yourself in deep focus (what people like to call “in the zone”), where the time flies and you are just operating at a very high level.
5. CRAMMING IS USELESS
As mentioned in point number 3, learning something take time because you need to get the new information that is first stored in your short-term memory, into your long-term memory so you can recall it for a long time. Sleep is when this consolidation from short- to long-term memory occurs. That means that pulling an all-nighter has two negative effects. The first is of course that one’s tired state is not conducive to learning and retaining information. We all operate at a lower level when exhausted. Secondly, if you don’t get any sleep, you don’t have time to properly process and store the new information. I realize that it isn’t always possible to study weeks in advance for most exams but waiting until the night before is simply not effective. Your brain will be overworked, which leads to stress and fatigue… hardly the states you want to be in when you’re trying to concentrate. Make some time to study at least several days in advance, and you’ll see a big improvement in your ability to learn.
6. TEACH WHAT YOU LEARNED TO OTHERS
I know what most students will say: "Wait... not only do u have to learn this, but you want me to teach it too??" Truth is, though, teaching something back to someone is an extremely effective way to learn it. It's called the protégé effect, and it's been known for thousands of years! When studying, keep in mind that you will need to teach this material back to someone who doesn't know it. This will make you take clear notice of what you're not totally comfortable with, meaning you will work harder to understand. It will also make you come up with new questions (the best way to learn), since your brain will ready itself to be questioned by your "students". Furthermore, since you'll need to teach it back without notes, you'll be telling your brain that it's important, allowing for better recall later. In several studies, students who were asked to tutor the material used it more effectively in tests than students who put in the same work without being asked to teach it later. Next time you're learning something, pretend like you're learning it to teach it to someone else!
7. TAKE HEALTHY SNACK BREAKS
As we've mentioned several time before, taking breaks when studying is essential. It helps you relax, gives your mind a break and allows you to continue effectively for longer overall. During those breaks, you can help your mini-recovery by including healthy mind-boosting snacks. Some great and easy ideas:
-Unsalted almonds: they have healthy fats for your brain, they're filling so that they stave off hunger, and they give you a real memory boost. Just a 1/4 cup is enough!
-Frozen grapes: I like to put grapes in the freezer and eat frozen grapes on my break. It's tasty, refreshing and the cold actually wakes me up a little!
-Dark chocolate: Great to help keep you focused, improved blood flow to the brain, and promotes production of endorphins (a happy hormone). Plus who doesn't like a little chocolate??
THIS WEEK'S BRAIN TEASER
JUST FOR LAUGHS!
Until next time!