9 Scientifically Proven Ways to Get the Most Out of Study Time

Studying? 9 Scientifically Proven Ways to Supercharge Your Learning.

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. 

  1. 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.  

  2. 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. 

  3. 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. 

  4. 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. 

  5. Test yourself.

    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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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. 

  8. 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. 

  9. Power pose.

    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. 

[irp posts=”1463″ name=”A Message to Students In Their Final Year of School …”]

20 Comments

Lucas M

I have so much interest in your article. Thanks a lot. I admire your kind heart in sharing your knowledge.

Reply
Souhaib S

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.

Reply
Karabo L

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?

Reply
Karen Young

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.

Reply
Riri

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 !

Reply
shanya

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!!!!

Reply
shreya

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

Reply
Shadrach festus

Hi i find so dificult to study because get distracted. Thinking about work, money etc. What can i do.

Reply
Jess Hodgson

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

Reply
Harrier

Wonderful article with simple, doable tips for the many tests one must take & pass in life. Thank you Karen!

Reply

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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