Studying can be made easier by removing distractions and spacing study out over a couple months. Shutterstock
Right now, thousands of Australian school children and university students are taking a well-earned break from the classroom. Long breaks like this help us clear our minds, but they can also provide an opportunity to prepare for the learning year ahead.
If you’re a student, this might mean thinking about your study habits. Here are some suggestions to help you learn as efficiently as possible.
Our brains are impressive machines, but they can’t handle everything at once. There is simply too much going on in our sensory environment for us to digest. To be effective, we need to direct our attention to just one or two tasks at a time. That generally means no background music – it won’t help you learn.
Having music on while you study makes it harder for your brain to digest information. Shutterstock
Don’t be tempted to multi-task while you learn. When you do, your brain is actually trying its hardest to switch rapidly between tasks. But whenever you get distracted and switch focus, it takes minutes to settle back into the groove of studying. Minimise your distractions and focus your attention on the task at hand.
Learning isn’t easy, and being able to focus is important for digesting new information and understanding concepts. When you get a good night’s sleep, you feel fresh and attentive the next day.
Sleep is also critical for what happened the previous day. Extensive work in both animals and humans shows a crucial function of sleep is to re-process and consolidate what happened during the day.
For example, scientists have recorded brain activity patterns first while an animal learns a task, and again when the animal next sleeps. Remarkably, the patterns in sleep are strikingly similar to what is seen when the animal learns.
This replay of activity patterns during sleep happens in your brain too, hundreds of times each night. As a result, the connections between our neurons change, helping the patterns become embedded in the brain. In other words, sleep plays an indispensable role in storing our memories for the long-term.
The “testing effect” is a well-established phenomenon in learning. Essentially, we learn much better by testing our own knowledge than by re-studying material. So if you’ve got an exam coming up, don’t just re-read a textbook and highlight important passages.
Instead, test yourself by doing practice exams. The process of actively recalling information helps deeper learning take place, and it works even better if you can check whether your answer is correct.
You don’t have to wait until exam time to capitalise on the testing effect. As you read through a textbook you can give yourself mini-tests, trying to recall the major points of each chapter you finish.
Although researchers are still trying to figure out the brain mechanisms behind the effect, there is plenty of evidence for its effectiveness. When combined with spacing (below), practising recall is an efficient way to commit information to your long-term memory.
Teachers and parents are always telling us cramming is the wrong way to learn, and for good reason. It just isn’t as effective as spacing your learning over days, weeks and months. This is known as the “spacing effect”.
Whenever you practise something, you give your brain the opportunity to strengthen the connections between neurons. The strengthening process is similar to how hikers trampling through a forest create worn paths over time. The more hikers, the more distinct the path, just like repeated practice helps lay down strong neural pathways to store memories.