5 Tips to Study Better (Based on Brain Function)

Pending exams jitters can throw you into a frenzy of cramming sessions, burning the midnight oil and a “more is more” studying mentality. But will this really help you cement more information to memory? It turns out that understanding how our brains work provides vital information to help you study better. Maximise your time and learn to work smarter with these five tips to help you study better.

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Before we talk through our study tips, let’s take a quick look at neuroscience. Your brain is made up primarily of neurons. These are cells that send information to each other to help you function. In order to walk, for example, neurons need to communicate the message “move legs and feet” to other neurons. That message then travels down to your lower body to signal movement. Neurons, therefore, are responsible for everything you do, from thinking and writing to talking and dancing. Each neuron can be connected with up to 10,000 other neurons, creating very dense spider webs of connections in your brain.

When we learn new things, new connections are forged between neurons – and this is what we call neuroplasticity. When you practise particular behaviours more frequently, these connections grow increasingly stronger. You could liken these connective paths to trails in a forest. Your first journey is little more than bundu bashing while you break through vegetation to forge a path. The more you return to the same trail, the flatter the terrain becomes, and the easier it is to travel through. The same is true of abandoning the path – the less you travel through it, the more the vegetation grows back and the trail becomes difficult to forge through once again. Similarly in the brain, when we stop practising certain behaviours, those forged connections between neurons weaken and we can’t recall information as easily. (Some connections, however, can become so strong that those neural pathways never fade – like riding a bicycle or recalling nursery rhymes from your youth.)

So, now we know our ability to retain information depends on the strength of neural connections, how can we use this to study better?

Here are five tips based on brain function that have been proven to help you study better:

Repetition, repetition, repetition

If you remember school teachers drumming this message into you relentlessly, it turns out they did so with good reason. Much like you need to bundu bash through the forest a few times before slowly smoothing out a path, we need to activate the connections between neurons many times in order for them to become stronger and more efficient. This is your first tip to study better: the more times you return to the same study material, the better your chances of remembering it.

But – and this is a crucial but – repetition doesn’t single-handedly make your studying more effective.

Retrieval beats observation

Simply reading through your study materials will not prove very helpful in building neural connections and cementing information to your memory. Connections are forged far quicker when we retrieve information rather than observe it. Retrieval means recalling the information from memory rather than seeing or hearing it, like answering a teacher’s question in class or working through a mathematics problem. This is most difficult in the early stages of learning, but becomes exponentially easier the more you practise it. Retrieving information in this way also requires feedback so you can ensure you are securing the correct information to memory. This makes flashcards, practice tests and past exam papers with answers especially useful in your efforts to study better.

Bite-size is better

Want some good news? Taking more breaks actually helps you study better. When you create space between study sessions you enhance learning and minimise forgetting. Instead of studying for two straight hours, for example, try shorter periods of 30 minutes spread out over the day. This practice, known as “spacing the activations of neurons” is beneficial for all studying, but particularly for the retrieval practice mentioned above. Breaks between shorter study sessions allow for important maintenance of neurons, helping them to work better – and therefore commit more information to memory.

If time is of the essence and you don’t have the luxury of taking as many breaks as you like, you can use this next tip to help you study better…

Switch between tasks

Another way of taking breaks between certain chunks of study materials is to switch between tasks. (Gym goers, think of this as super-setting between muscle groups during a workout rather than taking breaks between one consecutive exercise.) This could mean alternating between subjects – e.g. English and mathematics – or simply swapping between subsections in a subject, like algebra equations and geometry theory.

And, finally, this last tip to help you study better brings more good news:

Get some sleep

A good night’s sleep between study sessions (particularly information retrieval) actually serves as a bonus retrieval session. While you sleep, your brain reactivates the connections between neurons that you forged during the day’s learning. You get similar benefits from a nap as well.

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