Studying for hours on end in hopes of boosting your GPA may not be as useful as it seems. Have you ever thought that maybe instead of working harder, it might be more beneficial to just be working smarter?
While some of your academic ability is determined by genetics and previous education, your memory, critical thinking skills, and overall brain function– all aspects of mental ability– can be strengthened. Below are some compiled suggestions, all based on statistics and cognitive performance research, on how to alter your study habits.
Work it Out!
While exercise is great for your physical health, its benefits go beyond the body. If you struggle with writer’s block and find it difficult to stay focused after periods of study time, getting your blood pumping can be the perfect solution. An experiment from the US National Library of Medicine at the National Institution of Health concluded that all testing subjects (regardless of age and gender) showed a “significant improvement in both memory and cognitive processing immediately following a basic exercise session for 15 consecutive minutes.” There is no need for heavy lifting or running a marathon, as simply elevating and maintaining a higher heart rate for a few minutes each day can be beneficial to not only your creativity and quality of work but also to your overall mental wellness.
Repetition is the key!
Information is significantly more likely to be stored in memory and readily accessible when the brain is exposed to that information repeatedly. The brain is like a muscle in that it is constantly growing stronger and changing. Neural pathways are constantly being created when the brain is exposed to something new. When it sees that information again, the neuroelectric pathway along which information travels from axon to synapse receptor is strengthened. When that pathway is strengthened by repetition, it causes that idea to become more prominent in the brain and more vivid in memory. Therefore, if there are some important topics coming up on a test that you need to have memorized– names, dates, vocab– the best way to store that information in your brain is to expose that information as often as possible. Make a habit of looking at your notes. Put terms you need to memorize on flash cards and try to review them on a regular basis. You could even try linking review to daily activities like showering and brushing your teeth so you don’t forget to study.
3. Know yourself to know the stuff
Every brain is different. Some people are visual learners, meaning they more easily comprehend and recall information through seeing it. Others learn more effectively by hearing things. Find out which works best for you. Think about whether you remember things more when you read about something or when you hear about it, and adjust your learning habits accordingly; tailor them to best suit yourself.
4. Utilize your resources:
If you are one of the millions of teens prepping for either an ACT or SAT test, consider taking practice tests from previous years. Both the ACT and SAT national websites include tests which were administered in previous years, and include problems which are very similar to the ones that will appear on upcoming tests. As you practice, the site will keep track of your various weaknesses and provide explanations for all the answers.
5. Chew Gum
A 2009 study from Baylor University concluded that chewing gum can enhance test performance. It increases blood flow to the head and brain, allowing for faster processing and helping you remember more.
6. Slow and steady wins the race
Whether doing homework or taking a test, errors can be easily made by simply working too quickly. Careless mistakes are often responsible for points lost on a test and by slowing down while solving problems you are much less likely to miss a negative sign which (in the case of substituting for example) could potentially change your entire answer/solution set.
Additionally, your writing skills can also benefit from taking your time. By slowing yourself while writing you are allowing your brain more processing time, which encourages your sense of coherence and structure. An essay with high quality content and bright ideas can still be spoiled by small mistakes and grammar errors that could have been avoided by simply slowing things down. Never risk losing points and credit on a piece by missing a modifier or leaving out proper punctuation. Always give your work an extra read through!
7. Sleep on it!
A team of psychologist and psychiatrists, most notably Jessica D. Payne and Matthew A. Tucker of Harvard Medical school, conducted research on how sleep impacted the brain. They tested a “range of hippocampus-dependent declarative memory tasks, from text learning to spatial navigation.” (PLoS One, The Benefit of Sleep, the Cost of Wake 2012) The hippocampus is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and plays an important role in spatial navigation and long term memory. An example of a declarative memory task is being able to recall previously learned knowledge. The study tested 207 students and unanimously concluded that information was most effectively encoded into the memory of test subjects who slept right after studying. “When participants were asked to recall unrelated word pairs…the group that slept right after learning…did significantly better…Where it’s forming new connections, sleep makes all the difference.” This technique does not work when trying to recollect prior knowledge. (Adam Pash, “Study Before Bed for Significantly Better Retention.”) Studying before going to sleep (even for just a nap!) allows the brain to store that information longer and helps with recall ability.
“Brain imaging and behavioral studies are illuminating the brain pathways that are blocked or contorted by sleep deprivation, and the risks this poses to learning, memory, and mental health,” stated Harvard Medical School expert on sleep and its deprivation Clifford Saper, PhD, MD. “As these research findings show,” he continued, “we cannot underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep.”
Sleep has been proven to trigger physical and chemical changes in the brain, which strengthen the connections among brain cells, transmitting information from one region of the mind to another more efficiently via stronger synapse connections. The benefits of sleep span beyond aiding memory, critical thinking skills, and problem solving as they can also be responsible for decreasing the chance of developing mental illness and Alzheimer’s disease. Review again for that big test right before you go to bed!
Source 1: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23795769
Newport, C. (2006). How to become a straight-a student: the unconventional strategies real college students use to score high while studying less. Three Rivers Press.
Payne JD, Tucker MA, Ellenbogen JM, Wamsley EJ, Walker MP, et al. (2012) Memory for Semantically Related and Unrelated Declarative Information: The Benefit of Sleep, the Cost of Wake. PLOS ONE 7(3): e33079. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0033079
(Copyright 2019 Elizabeth Negvesky)