It’s that time of the year again — the air is colder, holiday carols blast from Ferris, and you are on your 11th hour sitting Butler, staring mindlessly out the window, with very little to show for it. Sound familiar? Even though you’re hardworking and want to do well on finals, studying doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere. It happens to the best of us, because many of the ways students study don’t line up with how humans actually learn. Luckily, neuroscience has made major progress in figuring out how we learn — so you can hack your brain to study smarter.
1. Stop re-reading your textbook — While it might seem like the obvious way to learn information, re-reading the textbook is actually one of the worst ways to learn if you’ve already read it. Textbooks are full of extraneous information that take lots of time to get through, so you’re wasting precious storage space on unnecessary information. It’s also incredibly difficult to focus on ‘passive’ learning of information, such as listening to a lecture or even reading a textbook — your brain has a tendency to revert to its ‘default-mode’ network and your mind wanders. If you haven’t read the textbook yet read it once while simultaneously making a study guide. Constantly ask yourself if the information is relevant, testable, and related to what was said in lecture. Write the important points down in your study guide to be referenced later.
2. Instead, study by re-creating the exam condition — Again and again, education research has found that constantly testing yourself is a much better way of learning than re-reading material. If your professor provides a practice exam, take it under real-exam conditions. The closer you are to taking a real exam, the more your episodic memory, powered by your hippocampus, can easily recall those memories on test day. After you take your practice exam and you’re reviewing your wrong answers, take the time to learn why you were wrong and focus on more practice problems that specifically test the troublesome concept. If you don’t have a practice exam provided or your upcoming exam is heavily essay-based, try coming up with practice problems/prompts for yourself. By becoming the test-maker, it’s easier to see what material lends itself well to making questions, and helps you to focus your studying on the low-hanging fruit that will likely make an appearance on an exam.
3. Study with friends/classmates — This one seems counterintuitive, as many nights spent alone in the libraries by all of us will attest. However, it’s one of the most powerful ways to enhance memory recall. Your brain is wired to prioritize social activity since we evolved as cooperative creatures. Set up a study session with someone else in the class, preferably two other people. Quiz each other on the material, asking each other the hardest questions you can come up with. Make your partners explain the entire concept through. When you have to interact with another person, your brain is more engaged and those memories will be ‘tagged’ with the importance of the interaction, leading to better long-term memory. As a bonus, being forced to explain material to someone else helps you to recognize weak points that you might have been skimmed over otherwise.
4. ‘Tell a story’ of the material to make it emotional — This works best when you’re telling it to someone else, but can also work alone. Human memory is predisposed to narratives; it’s why storytelling was one of our earliest art forms. Correspondingly, we remember best when the material has emotional significance. For some disciplines this may be easier than others, but it’s still possible to ascribe motivation to, for example, the movement of molecules. If you can personify information, your brain will ascribe it more significance and you’ll remember more of it.
5. Do one thing at a time — We all think we’re fantastic multitaskers, but neuroscience has shown that we’re actually horrible at it. On average, it takes you anywhere between 10-25 minutes to get back into an optimal ‘flow’ after a distraction. Switching rapidly between classes means you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to activate your executive attention network, and means you’ll spend more time staring blankly at information you’re not actually understanding. If you need the extra boost, apps like SelfControl for Mac, Freedom for PC, and Forest for both Android and Apple phones will help force you away from distractions. Find what distracts you most, whether it be Facebook, Instagram, or messaging friends, and block access to those activities during study blocks. Your brain will thank you.
6. Take a 15-30 minute study break every 1.5 hours — Attentional control research has found that people can’t really focus for more than 1.5 hours in a row without a break. Set an app like the aforementioned SelfControl for 1.5 hours, and sit down to work just for that time. It’s less daunting than realizing you have 8 plus hours of studying to do in one day, and by delineating specific times for work and breaks, you’ll be more productive overall.
7. Study more than one thing per day, and then repeat it — Reactivation of a memory is essential for long-term consolidation, as it lets your brain know that information is important and needs to be held on to. Those 1.5 hour ‘focus’ blocks provide natural breaks to switch topics. Where those switches happen and after how many blocks is up to you and your personal exam schedule, but switching it up helps to refocus your brain by exposing it to novel content. As a bonus, by studying for three smaller blocks on three days in a row before an exam, you’ll have enough exposure to do significantly better than if you studied for the same amount all on one day.
8. A little stress is good, a lot will hurt you — Much has been said about the ‘stress culture’ that permeates this campus, but being constantly stressed out has extraordinarily negative effects on not only your health, but also your ability to remember anything. Chronic stress has been shown to actually kill off the very neurons in your hippocampus you need to store and retrieve information, meaning the longer you’re stressed about an exam, the worse you’re going to do on it. Short periods of acute stress can actually help your brain remember information, because evolutionarily, if an event might cause you harm, it makes sense to remember what that event was. In an exam context, feeling worried about an upcoming exam can be a potent motivator of helpful study behavior, but feeling full-on panicked can be a detractor. Use those 30 minute breaks to do something that brings you joy, instead of just mindlessly scrolling through the internet. Chat with a friend, meditate, watch a short TV show — it doesn’t matter what your happy activity is, just don’t forget to do it.
9. Get at least five hours of sleep between studying and taking the exam — I know that saying to sleep more is obvious advice, but the science here specifically for learning is the strongest. You need to sleep to consolidate that fragile, newly learned information into declarative memory, which lets you actually access that content when you need it. Five hours is the bare minimum you can get away with, because your brain will go through at least one sleep cycle in five hours. Optimally, you want to aim for at least seven. Your brain uses that crucial time offline from sensory experiences to make connections among all the new information you learned and store what’s most important, making recall that much easier on exam day.
10. Don’t change your routine on exam day — Whenever you usually wake up, whatever you usually eat for breakfast, if you drink a cup of coffee in the morning, try your best to leave all those mundane factors unchanged. Altering routine is one of the biggest sources of stress in animals, and floods your brain with the stress hormones that damage your memory neurons — not what you want before an exam. Give yourself at least 10 minutes before the exam to center yourself, and try to be as calm as you can when you’re taking your test. Stress will suppress your ability to access a lot of information, because your body thinks it’s under attack. Taking the time to calm down before or even during an exam will be much more valuable in the long run than an extra 10 minutes speed-reading notes.