Smart studying suggestions from cognitive psychology

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The word ‘study’ will probably make most of you break out into a sweat, and I don’t blame you – it can be overwhelming. Studying is time consuming, and requires patience and motivation, of which many students will be lacking at the moment. But what is the most effective way to study? Perhaps looking to cognitive psychology can give us the answers, namely the learning and retrieval processes that are the underlying mechanisms of studying. Ebbinghaus’s ‘Total Time Hypothesis’ established that the more time you spend learning (in this case, revising), the better you will perform during recall (in this case, an exam). This makes sense but is a very arbitrary explanation. You need to use the time wisely!

Below I will give 5 general tips (all backed by psychology of course) to use study time effectively

Tip 1: Get in the Right Headspace

Make sure, when you sit down to study, your brain is ready to take in information. Make sure to stay away from distractions (turn off your phone and music).  Stay well rested and take short breaks. All very hard, I know, but necessary to process information better. Exercising before starting work can also help the absorption of information due to the amazing mixture of hormones and neurotransmitters released (all the nice ones like serotonin and dopamine) along with a release of BDNF which is involved in the formation of new brain cells.

Exercising before starting work can also help the absorption of information

Tip 2: Testing your Knowledge

By far the superior method of studying is to test yourself. Repeated testing has been proven by multiple studies to lead to better recall from long term memory. Not only can you learn facts by using multiple choice questions or flashcards, but also gain necessary practice in essay writing. In addition to this, getting feedback matters, whether this is from self, peer or staff marking. A lack of feedback can lead to the same mistakes being made again later on.

Tip 3: Space it out!

Don’t cram it all in at the last minute! The ‘Spacing Effect’ suggests that leaving gaps between learning/studying will make you remember information better and for longer. Even better, using a technique where you alternate between learning and self-testing, while increasing the gap between the two, will allow for better retention for longer.

The ‘Spacing Effect’ suggests that leaving gaps between learning/studying will make you remember information better

Tip 4: Teach and Make

You learn and retain information better from things you have generated yourself. For example, making tests/quizzes, mnemonics, or mind-maps can help you take in the information you need to.

Teaching another means you learn information with the intention to pass it on. This ensures you have retained information completely and it is fully understood, rather than passively learnt.

Tip 5: Interleaving

Interleaved practice refers to using a variation of approaches and studying a variation of topics at once. It is much easier to experience burnout if you stick to one topic for a long time so mix it up! Ensure you cover all bases, alternating between and integrating topics until you have a full bank of working knowledge.

Hopefully, there is something there that is useful, or has inspired you to pick up the books and get stuck in. Find something that works for you – everyone is different and making exam time as stress-free as possible is the most important thing!

Good luck and happy studying!

Image: Lance Goyke via Flickr

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