For anyone in the thick of study, or about to be, science has been working hard and has found ways to help you get the most out of your study time, all backed by hefty research. Here’s how to study smarter, supercharge your learning and store the information away in your head so it’s ready to jump into your arms when you need it.
Get your heart pumping.
When you exercise, your blood chemistry changes and your brain becomes the very happy recipient of important nutrients. It repays the favour by amping up its performance – specifically memory, attention, information processing and problem solving. Here are a couple of reasons your brain and exercise are one of the great love stories:
• Exercise increases the levels of a crucial brain-derived neurotophic factor, (let’s call it BDNF – it’s much easier to spell). BDNF is important for the growth of brain cells, mood and learning.
• Exercise releases a powerful cocktail of important hormones including serotonin (the mood booster), dopamine (for learning and attention) and norepinephrine (for awareness, attention and concentration).
Try for 20-30 minutes a day. Anything that increases your heart rate will do the trick – running, bike-riding, walking, kicking a ball or turning up the beats and dancing it out. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, strong or graceful. It just has to be active.
Spread your study. Yep. You got it. No cramming.
Cramming doesn’t work, which is one of the great pities – life would be so much easier if it did. The problem with cramming is that the material doesn’t get the opportunity to transfer into long-term memory. Short term memory is like the party space in your head – information is there for a good time but not a long time. When information hits long-term memory, it’s committed and there when you need it. The transfer of information from short-term memory into long-term memory takes time and repeated exposure to the material. It’s not clear why spacing your study is so much better for you, but it’s likely that over a few days you’ll forget some of the material, then remember it again when you come back to your books. This increases exposure to the information which takes it closer to long-term memory.
Know what’s to come.
We only have a limited amount of mental resources, and during a test you want as much of those resources available as possible. The thoughts that come with test anxiety steal some of those mental resources for, you know, worrying, leaving fewer resources available to retrieve important information. Researchers have found that looking through an exam before working on it will reduce anxiety and improve performance. Remember though, that all the mental resources in the world won’t find the right answers in memory if the answers aren’t put there solidly in the first place.
Teach what you’ve learnt.
Expecting to teach what’s been learned has been shown to be better for learning and memory than expecting only testing. It’s a subtle shift in mindset, but the effect on learning is an important one. Learning material with an intention to teach ensures that material is actively understood and stored away in memory, and not passively looked over.
Testing yourself will force you to remember information. Every time you remember something, the information becomes a little more enduring. Testing yourself might also help to take the fire out of test anxiety, in the same way that exposure to any feared object eventually makes that object less frightening. Testing yourself on the material you’ve learned is more effective than reading the material over and over. Re-reading material might get you thinking that you’re familiar with the material, but until you try to retrieve that material from memory, you won’t actually know how well you know it or where the gaps in your knowledge are.
Get some sleep.
Sounds simple enough, but it’s not always easy when there’s so much to do. Deep sleep causes physical changes in the brain. When you learn something, your brain cells grow new connections that reach out and connect to other brain cells. This strengthens the pathways in your brain around whatever it is your learning. Sleeping after learning encourages memories of the information to be wired into your brain, so it’s less likely to fade. Think of your brain like a tree. Learning causes a branch to grow, but sleep helps it to grow the leaves and other tiny branches that will sustain and strengthen it.
And ditch the all-nighters.
All-nighters will mess with your ability to remember and process information. Sleep prepares your brain for learning, so pulling an all-nighter can cut your capacity to learn new things by up to 40% – and that’s not the only problem. Research has shown that it can take up to four days for your brain to return to normal after you’ve been awake all night.
Take a break.
For those feeling shackled to all that is study, here is some sweet, sweet news. Taking a short break after every hour of learning is better than working straight through as it improves your ability to focus on a particular task without being distracted. Research has found that the greatest improvement come following 15 minutes of moderate activity (jogging, a brisk walk, dribbling a ball) but improvement was also shown following vigorous activity (running, jumping, skipping) or a passive break (such as listening to music or watching funny YouTube clips – because for sure that’s why they were invented). Memory is strongest for the things learned immediately before and after a break so keep those times for the tough stuff.
Before a test, find somewhere private (or, totally public – up to you) and strike a power pose. Think Wonder Woman – hands on hips, legs apart; Superman – tall, shoulders back, chest expanded, arms stretched out in front of you; or that boss thing that bosses in the movies do – sitting back the bottom of one leg resting on the thigh of the other, hands behind your head and expanded. This will reduce cortisol (the stress hormone), and increase testosterone (the dominance hormone). The mind-body connection is a strong one. If you don’t believe you can do it, act like you can – eventually your mind won’t know the difference and will have you believing you can do anything – which you can.
So, if study and you are spending a lot of time together, remember to take breaks, get some pillow time, get active, or dig for comedy gold on YouTube – whatever works for you. Maybe try a bit of everything – not for too long though – the world can’t be brilliant without you.
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I have so much interest in your article. Thanks a lot. I admire your kind heart in sharing your knowledge.
this helped a lot
what great tips
This article was informative , precise and easy to understand
Indeed, precise and helpful advice, all tips mentioned match with the research findings especially spaced repetition, teaching others, and self-testing.
pulling all-nighters is the worst based on my own experience as well.
Much gratitude for this superb article Karen.
Hi,your article is good and i have a feeling that it is going to be helpful, however i wanted to ask if sleeping during the evening for about a minimum of five hours and waking up at midnight to study can be helpful or not and why?
Your body needs at least 8-10 hours sleep. There is a lot that happens while you sleep – the body and brain restore, memories are consolidated etc. The restorative sleep happens at the end of the sleep cycle, during REM sleep. If you aren’t getting the sleep you need, you aren’t spending as much time in that healing, nourishing part of sleep.
Hi, thank you very much for this article, I think it will help me lot for my exams ! Can I have the names of the scientifical studies, I would like to read them, thank you in advance !
The studies are all hyperlinked. Look for the words in dark blue.
Hey Karen…….this article is absolutely what I was looking for!!!! but can you please recommend me a study method which is effective for remembering information for a long period of time??? it would be a pleasure if you did!! and by information I meant the subjects which need a lot of patience and focus……like history and geography??……but anyways thanks and love ya!!!!
i love how the writer incorporated sweet motivation like the last sentence (the world can’t be brilliant without you.) and (eventually your mind won’t know the difference and will have you believing you can do anything – which you can.) how nice and sweet i love you guys so much, and these study tips i will live by. can’t thank y’all enough. x
Shreya thank you! You are solid gold.
Hi i find so dificult to study because get distracted. Thinking about work, money etc. What can i do.
Try mindfulness. There is so much research around the benefits of this. It sounds as though your mind is being pulled into the future, and away from whatever it is you’re meant to be focusing on. Mindfulness trains your brain to stay in the present. I think it would be wonderful for you. Here is a link with plenty of info for you about how it works and how to practice it https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/mindfulness/
What an amazing resource! Thank you so much Karen. Your articles reiterate what I preach to my clients daily.
Just discovered your website! It is AMAZING! Can’t wait to start reading all the articles. This one was particularly relevant today as I’m just about to go into yearly exams and trying to keep everything balanced and in perspective 🙂 Thank you so much and looking forward to lots more reading x
So pleased you found the website! And yes – keep everything in perspective for your exams. You’ll be amazing x
Wonderful article with simple, doable tips for the many tests one must take & pass in life. Thank you Karen!
You’re very welcome!