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3 Tips for Effective Studying, Based On How Your Brain Works

Isn’t it incredibly frustrating to come across a question in school that you specifically remember learning about, yet you just can’t quite grasp the answer? Why is it that answers always seem to be on the tip of your tongue, but are unable to come to mind? Is there a way to better remember class material, without studying for hours on end?

These are the questions that plagued me during my psychology class, in which we covered a unit on memory. To my luck, through the coursework, I was able to comprehend how our memory works and to grasp the best ways to study for long-term retention. And in light of the arrival of a new school year, I thought I’d share some psychology-based tips for better recall and more productive studying.

1. Focus on Effortful Processing

How many times have you halfheartedly copied presentation slides verbatim into your notes during class, or had to reread a paragraph over and over in your textbook because you found your mind wondering each time?

Is this scene all-too-familiar to you? Image via Pixabay.

Effortful processing is just as it sounds: encoding, or putting information into your memory, in an attentive, conscious, effortful way. This psychological phenomena helps strengthen retention of newly learned material.

There is a wide variety of effortful processing strategies, and what works for some may not for others. Nevertheless, here are some scientifically proven applications of effortful processing that I find helpful:

1. The Testing Effect. Constantly retrieving (recalling information from your memory), rather than simply rereading information, enhances memory. If you’ve ever used flashcards, Quizlet or practice tests to study, you’re applied the concept of the testing effect. A recent study from the Frontiers in Psychology Journal found that the testing effect improved learning outcomes for short-answer questions that targeted information that participants could retrieve from memory, corroborating the benefits of using the testing effect as a studying strategy.

An example of hierarchical chunking. Image via Pixabay.

2. Chunking. Chunking involves breaking down large pieces of information into manageable, easily-recognizable units that are easier to retain. Think, for example, of phone numbers: do you remember their digits in increments of 3-3-4 or as a string of 10? The way I’m organizing this article also utilizes chunking; I’m categorizing and numbering tips for studying. Our brain has a natural tendency to categorize in order to make sense of the endless input of information life throws at us, and we can use this to our advantage while studying. Distinguishing between paragraphs in a textbook and separating your notes by sections can help you to chunk information and ward off overwhelming feelings that may arise when faced with a lot of information.

3. Deep Processing. Deep processing occurs when words are encoded based on their meaning. More easily said than done, but rephrasing class or textbook notes into your own words can be extremely helpful for understanding what each word means in the context of what you’re learning. Deep processing requires you to focus on the most important parts of what you’re trying to memorize, aiding in long-term storage, meaning that what you do encode will stick with you all the way to your midterms or finals.

4. Mnemonics. Mnemonics use imagery, sentences or acronyms to aid in memory. Did you learn the acronym “PEMDAS” for remembering order of operations in pre-algebra? How about hearing “Dear King Philip Came Over For Good Soup” in biology class as a way to memorize the taxonomic classification system? Even if you aren’t familiar with these examples of mnemonics, you’ve probably used these kinds of simple shortcuts at some point that help create associations between what you’d like to remember and memorable images or words.

Effortful processing is like training for a marathon. If your goal is to finish the race in sub-5 hours, do you think it’d be more beneficial for your training to walk for 10 hours or practice running at racing pace for 5 hours? In terms of studying, if your goal is to finish preparing for your exam in 5 hours, would you rather spend 10 hours passively studying or 5 hours actively practicing effortful processing, with a better chance of retaining the information?

2. Make Use of Timing

In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus devised a mathematical formula dubbed the “forgetting curve.” Through his studies, Ebbinghaus found that humans begin losing the memory of learned knowledge in a relatively short time interval, unless it is consciously reviewed over time.

Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Utilizing distributed study times is much more effective than cramming to remember information for more than a few hours. This idea is known in psychology as the spacing effect.

Use the spacing effect by integrating it with effortful processing strategies. Rather than cramming the week before finals, take the time to review material you’ve already encoded using these strategies in short intervals throughout the semester.

3. Make Small Adjustments to Your Study Routine

The prior two tips are the most important for optimizing your time spend studying. However, they are more difficult to implement and require constant practice to master. Here are some quick, minor adjustments to add to your study routine that may just help you pass your next exam:

Use different colors to mark up textbooks or study sheets can boost memory. Image via Pexels.

  1. Listen to music. Although some people prefer total silence while hitting the books, for others, listening to music can engage parts of the brain that help with attention. Plus, listening to music can be a mood-booster, which may help you study when you’re lacking motivation.
  2. Write in different colors. Color has been found to influence memory performance by increasing our level of attention and arousal. Next time, maybe trade the traditional black-or-blue ink for a bright orange or dark green to switch things up. And keep using those highlighters.
  3. Quit multitasking. The idea that your brain can multitask is a myth, and trying to multitask while studying will probably lead you to Snapchat instead of the next paragraph.
  4. Take frequent breaks. Boost your productivity and reduce fatigue by taking frequent breaks while studying. Data from the DeskTime time-tracking app indicates that a 15 to 20 minute break for every hour of studying is ideal for maximizing focus while minimizing burnout.

It’s unfortunate that it wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I learned how to study as productively as possible, and it was only through an elective course that I was able to figure out how to do so. I hope that I can help bridge the gap where the education system may have failed you by explaining the workings of our memory and how you can apply this to your schoolwork. Whether you’re studying for your history quiz or the MCAT, following these three tips should help you earn the grade or the test score you need.

Featured image via Pixabay.

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Christine is a 17-year-old from Friendship, Maryland. She is passionate about medicine and enjoys writing about health-related topics. In her free time, you can find her on the softball field or listening to podcasts.

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