If you’re reading this, chances are you’re currently in college or have been. If so, then you’ve probably developed your own study skills. Wherever you are in life, learning to process and retain information is a good skill to improve.
Here are seven tips you can use to help you manage exams and improve your study sessions. Some of the following can complement, rather than replace, what you may already be doing.
1. Sleep after learning (consolidating)
Right after you learn or do something, it’s fresh in your memory and you can remember it clearly. As time passes, as you do/read/learn more things, the memories slowly fade. Also, new memories are fragile and can easily be forgotten.
There are things we can do to significantly improve the consolidation process. You might be surprised to learn that one of them is sleep.
Recent research supports the idea that consolidation is particularly strong during sleep. A 2006 study found that students who fell asleep within three hours of learning materials remembered almost 16% more content than a group who waited 10 hours before falling asleep. Falling asleep probably eliminates a lot of environmental stimuli that might also interfere with learned content.
Sometimes our brain cannot tell the difference between what is real and what we imagine. We know that mental imagery can activate certain regions of the brain and that mental rehearsal can lead to measurable improvement in certain tasks. Mental “visualization” of information can also help.
A 2003 group study investigated the reasons for the superior performance of memory “experts”. The conclusion was that they used “strategies to encode information for the sole purpose of making it more memorable,” rather than possessing exceptional cognitive abilities or structural differences in the brain.
Essentially, those who are good at memorizing things “encode” the information (store it in their minds) very efficiently. The most common way to efficiently encode large amounts of information is through visualization.
3. Gather information
Did you know that we can theoretically store about seven pieces of information in our short-term memory at any given time?
But sometimes it can be beneficial to be able to remember more than seven pieces of information. One technique that can help is decoupage.
Segmentation is simply breaking a long stream of information into manageable “chunks”.
Consider the 14-digit number string 1-9-6-9-4-8-1-2-1-6-1-0-6-6. At first glance, it may seem meaningless, but if I rewrite it in 1969, 4, 8, 12, 16, 1066, suddenly it becomes easy to remember. Most news channels won’t be as easy to trim, but you get the idea.
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4. Take breaks
Taking a break doesn’t mean giving up completely. What you ideally want to do is study in several short periods, mixed with breaks, rather than doing all your studies at once (cramming).
You may have heard of the Pomodoro method (doing focused studies or working out for 25 minutes before taking a short break). Personally, I can’t say enough. However, the 25 minute block may not be optimal for you. Try different variations until you find something that works for you.
In addition to causing a significant decrease in school performance, cramming all night can lead to health problems from lack of sleep and rest. Avoid using this strategy if possible. Preparation and anticipation are very important here.
5. Don’t procrastinate
The reason many people find themselves cramming is due to procrastination earlier in the study period. Some people do this more than others; but regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or IQ, people procrastinate.
Continuing from the previous point, staying organized, setting clear study times, and giving yourself time to rest and recuperate will help avoid procrastination and ensure your study sessions are as efficient as possible.
Writing a list of all the things you want to accomplish in one sitting (reading a chapter of a book, rewriting lecture notes, etc.) will help you get a clear idea of what you want to accomplish and eliminate the urge to procrastinate.
6. Test yourself
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that taking an active role in creating review material is an effective way to achieve strong encoding.
Formulating questions and then testing yourself on them (not immediately) involves active engagement with the material and reinforces the encoding of the material to be learned. Even just reading a text with the idea of making up questions based on what you have read is beneficial.
To really improve your understanding and recall of a concept, you can always try explaining it to someone else (or yourself).
7. Elaborate on the material
Thinking about something (a concept/idea/theory) and adding meaning to it by connecting it to other things you know helps you remember it better. But not only that, the material is much more likely to transfer into your long-term memory. This process is known as elaboration.