While plenty of us love learning, studying can be an entirely different beast. Training your brain to remember information when the pressure’s on is no easy feat, and sometimes you might feel like no matter how much time you spend reading the material you’re tasked with absorbing, your studies are not very effective.
Even adults who are no longer technically students — or those who are grad students, or are taking online courses to advance their career — might feel like they’ve never really figured out the best way to study. Part of the problem, of course, is that every person’s brain and study skill set or style is so unique. This means that different methods work for different people, and it can be tricky to figure out what kind of study session will be effective for you — especially if you’re working alongside other people.
Some of us like to take notes or write down our ideas to retain knowledge; some of us like to jot down questions and ideas as we read; and some of us prefer to take a practice test or make a study plan or study guide to help prepare for a test or exam. Whatever helps your mind absorb knowledge might be drastically different from the tactics that work for every other student in your class.
Luckily, there are lot of researchers who have done a lot of in-depth studies about the best way to study — and we’re compiling some of those findings for you so that you can figure out what kind of tips will work for best for you while you’re studying (note: millennials and non millennials alike might have to force themselves to take a legit social media break while studying!)
Study when you’re tired, perhaps just before you go to bed.
According to research published by The National Center for Biotechnology Information, our new memories become stronger while we sleep — so if you study before you go to bed, you may be more likely to retain the concepts you were focusing just before you said good night to your study guide.
Thebestcolleges.org also suggests that if you’re studying when you’re tired, in the hours before you go to bed, your mind is more likely to retain new concepts and skills. While your study plan should not be to procrastinate and save all of your studying for the night before an exam or presentation, it is wise to review problems, questions, and relevant material before getting a good night of sleep.
Listen to music.
This is a study habit that may not work for everyone, but it’s worth trying. Listening to music — especially classical music, which tends to make people relax — during study time can make students more receptive to information, according to researchers.
Take a practice test.
Research shows that when students take practice tests, which is a method of studying known as “retrieval practice,” it enhances their learning. An extra bonus of this method of studying is that if you’re creating a practice test for yourself, your building in more time and activity that may help you learn the material.
Pay attention to where you study.
When you’re studying, it’s obvious that hours matter — but so do your surroundings. A 1978 experiment in which college students were given a list of 40 vocabulary words to study in two different rooms — one of which had no windows and was full of clutter, the other of which was modern and had a courtyard view — showed that the students who studied the words in the two different rooms outperformed (by far) the students who studied the words twice in the same room.
So if you’re not already in the habit of changing up your scenery, start thinking more about your study location. Whether you’re moving between your desk and a cafe or a courtyard and the library, it’s worth your while to make sure you’re giving yourself some different views throughout your hours of studying.
Everyone knows that exercise is good for your physical health. But the benefits it can have on your brain are also tremendous, and all the more reason you should prioritize exercising even when your workload seems overwhelming.
The New York Times’ Gretchen Reynolds writes that scientists “have discovered that exercise appears to build a brain that resists physical shrinkage and enhance cognitive flexibility. Exercise, the latest neuroscience suggests, does more to bolster thinking than thinking does.
“Why would exercise build brainpower in ways that thinking might not?” she continues. “The brain, like all muscles and organs, is a tissue, and its function declines with underuse and age. Beginning in our late 20s, most of us will lose about 1 percent annually of the volume of the hippocampus, a key portion of the brain related to memory and certain types of learning. Exercise though seems to slow or reverse the brain’s physical decay, much as it does with muscles.”
In the study Reynolds analyzes, researches found that 65-year-olds had achieved the brains of 63-year-olds — simply by walking. So whether you’re a runner or a yogi, try to work in time for some physical movement — ideally before you sit down to study — to increase your alertness.
Taking a walk right before a test is also a good idea. It can improve your performance.
This one is easier said than done, because oftentimes you’re not particularly relaxed while studying. But if you can get yourself to chill out — whether by meditating, doing yoga or breathing exercising, or simply taking breaks to either mentally or physically recharge – it’ll probably impact your study session for the better.
Stress can hinder your ability to absorb material, while meditation and relaxation can boost your attention span.
Another trick to reducing stress while studying is finding a quiet, peaceful place to make your own. This might be your living room, your backyard, the library, or anywhere else that feels comfortable.
Practice teaching the material you’re studying.
It’s one thing to learn a bunch of concepts, but imagine if you had to not only better your understanding of them, but you also had to teach the concepts to ensure that another group of people understood the material?
Studies have shown that people who study under the assumption that they’ll then have to teach the material to other students are more likely to better grasp the content. This is not surprising if you think about it; if you’re memorizing information, there’s a better chance that you’ll be able to recall and discuss if you task yourself with being able to explain to someone else.
Additionally, speaking aloud what you're studying can help solidy the material in your mind as well. So even if you're saying it aloud to no one in particular, you're still studying and learning.
Take the occasional break.
Taking a break every hour and a half or so can have some benefits to studying, such as improving your focus and attention when you return to the material. However, it's important to choose the right activity for your break. Stretching, tidying up, taking a quick shower, meditating, cooking, and taking the aforementioned walk can benefit your mind and body. Meanwhile, taking a nap, snaking on junk food, watching TV, and surfing the web can have a detrimental effect on your studying—these activities will make you feel lethargic and be less productive.
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