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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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