The Science Behind Studying

As we delve into midterm season, and the stress of our assignments becomes overwhelming, developing effective learning strategies may assist us in alleviating the pressure and performing our best. Some studying techniques that students typically use, such as highlighting, re-reading notes, and cramming, have been proven to be unproductive. While all individuals acquire different learning strategies, this article looks at some of the methods we can implement to make our study time more effective.

Try Spaced Studying

Most students, given their busy course loads and high volumes of work, tend to cram when it comes to assignments and tests. However, this is a very ineffective method of learning, as it reduces our brains' abilities to retain information. When we try to learn everything at once, we are essentially overloading our brains with information. Rather, it is suggested that we study in smaller intervals over a longer period of time. This way, we are continually re-learning and building upon previous content. If we space out our studying over time, our brains engage in multiple sets of synapses, rather than one set (which would occur if we were studying by cramming). It is more productive to engage multiple synapses at once, because we are strengthening pathways in the brain. Consider the analogy of eating to help illustrate this point. It is easier for our bodies to digest smaller meals throughout the day than one large meal. We can yield more energy and be more productive if we eat in spaced-out times. The same goes for studying: We can retain more information if we space out our intervals of work, rather than jamming it all into our brain at once.

Sleep!

Developing good sleeping habits is a crucial aspect of ensuring that our bodies are performing optimally. Studies show that individuals who lack sleep form weaker memory connections and have difficulty retaining new information, thus making studying for assignments and tests less productive and effective. In fact, pulling an all-nighter can impair one’s memory up to four days after. Sleep is also important because it helps us assimilate the information we have learned throughout the day. The newly formed memories grow stronger, so the information is more likely to be remembered. If an individual spends 10 minutes before bed going over material they learned, it can be extremely helpful in recalling concepts and ideas. While we are getting a good night’s sleep, information is being solidified during our sleep cycles.

Relieve your Stress

When we are stressed, epinephrine is released by our adrenal glands, which elicits other physiological symptoms (such as sweating, increased heart rate, etc.). Shortly after this process, cortisol is released and binds to receptors in the hippocampus (a structure of the brain attributed to long term memory). Cortisol makes memory recall more difficult; therefore, being stressed makes studying more challenging. In order to avoid this hindrance, we should try to mitigate the stress in our lives. For example, taking breaks when studying has been proven to be very effective in increasing productivity and academic performance. Many people generally resort to looking at social media for study breaks; however, this can serve as a distraction and should be avoided if possible. What is recommended are activities such as exercise, short naps (10-20 mins) and meditation. All of these activities are useful in that they work to both clear the mind and refresh the body. The recommended ratio is 50 minutes of work to 10 minutes of break.

Engage in Metacognition

Metacognition is the act of thinking about your own thinking. Through this process, we may evaluate our learning styles, which allows us to become aware of how we may best tackle and solve problems. For example, when we engage in metacognition, we are able to identify our strengths and weaknesses, so we can be attentive to the areas we are struggling with. Metacognition is beneficial when it comes to studying, as it narrows our focus, it keeps us on track and allows us to gain insight through self-reflection. If we fail to participate in metacognition, we may be ignorant to our own incompetence and lose sight of our objectives. Therefore, it is important that we are involved in this process, so we may engage in effective and meaningful studying which can extend beyond its immediate context.

Overall, there is no “set” way in which one ought to study, as every individual is unique. However, there are some universal tips we can use to ensure that the body and the mind are functioning at their best. Although I have not exhausted the list of studying techniques, I believe the ones I have listed are of great importance.