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Science Tip of the Week: How to Ace Your Midterms

With the hectic nature of midterms, we’re always looking for tips to give us the extra edge in studying.  Saving time, while also retaining the most amount of information possible is the name of the game—and everyone is playing.  These methods backed up by neuroscience are sure to help you ace your exams!

1.  Practice Makes Perfect

As with anything from a child learning to ride a bike to a singer trying to hit the exact right pitch in her song—practice truly does make perfect. This idiom is brought to life with the latest evidence that maybe the key to retaining information is to overpractice.  In new research conducted by Shibata, et al (2016), it was found that perhaps the key to mastering information is to continue studying it even once you’ve fully mastered it.  The researchers found that sometimes as little as 20 minutes of extra studying after you felt like you have a good grasp of information can help you in the long run by cementing the info in your head and preventing it from being overridden by new information. This hyper stabilization of new information seems to occur because of the abrupt shift of the learning neurotransmitter glutamate being replaced in the brain by the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA.  This seems to prevent new information from replacing older concepts—resulting in long-term retention.

2. Ditch the flashcards

Anyone who has ever taken a test knows exactly what that pre-test stress feels like.  Your mind seems to go blank and you get butterflies in your stomach, and everything you thought you had learned goes out the window.  This seems like an unavoidable issue, right? Actually, scientists at Tufts University seem to think these memory lapses in high stress situations can actually be reduced. In the research of Smith, Floerke, and Thomas (2016), it was found that using practise tests to study, rather than the traditional re-reading and flashcards, can help improve recall under stressful conditions.  Twenty-four hours after studying either through a practice test or through traditional study practice, participants were asked to recall 30 words under stressful circumstances.  Participants in the practice test condition were able to remember an average of 11 out of 30 words they attempted to memorize the day before, while participants in the traditional study condition only were able to remember an average of seven.  It seems like sites like Quizlet can give students the leg up in memory recall under stressful circumstances such as exam taking. 

3. Learning on the Run

With midterms being a stressful time, many students find it necessary to take short breaks in between cramming for tests. From vegging out on snacks to coffee breaks with friends to going to the gym for a quick run, every student has their own tactics to reduce stress.  However, are all these unwinding activities made equal? Research suggest not; In the research of Kindermann, Javor, and Reuter (2016), it is suggested that in terms of retaining information from cramming—taking part in cardiovascular exercise seems to be key. In their study, the researchers asked participants to quickly memorize completely new information.  Immediately after, participants were asked to either play a video game, take a run or simply sit outside.  It was found that the participants who ran right after cramming in new information were able to not only retain information the best out of the three activities, but also were able to remember more than they did before the run. So, next time you feel like you want to go to the gym but don’t want to waste any valuable time that you could be studying, try to think of the run as a part of your study rituals.

So, take these tips and run with it! Science says so.

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