Your friend insists they study better when listening to music. Your cousin tells you to rise at 5am to make the most of your “prime learning time”. Your parents tell you to study every day, while your brother says that if you do you won’t have any kind of social life. Your teacher tells you it’s bad practice to cram last minute. Everyone has a study tip they love to share, but what does science say? Here are 10 scientific study tips that are proven to work.
1. Spread it out
Research shows that study sessions are most effective in small, short chunks. This is because your brain is better at encoding information into the synapse (a structure that permits a neuron or nerve cell to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron) in short, repeated sessions. Think about the way you’d learn to play tennis. You wouldn’t book in one 10 hour lesson to learn the sport, you’d gradually build your skills with 45 minute lessons. The same should be done for study. Instead of cramming in a 10 hour session just before a test, try twenty, 30-minute sessions over four weeks.
2. Make flash cards
Re-reading over your notes may seem like a good idea, but it can be detrimental as it draws your attention to less important information. It also fails to link concepts together and improve your understanding of the topic. Flash cards, on the other hand, engage “active recall” by remembering the concept from scratch. When you reveal the answer side of a flashcard to assess whether or not you are correct, you self-reflect – an act known as metacognition. Research shows that applying metacognition ingrains memories deeper into your knowledge.
3. Set small goals
Goals are powerful, precise statements about your intentions. They are the results of plans, dreams and desires, and powered by discipline and commitment. Commit a set time each week to study. Write down a goal for each session, making sure it’s achievable, specific, time-limited and measurable. If your goal is too big, break it into smaller chunks. Studying this way allows you to reward yourself with a break (or some other kind of reward) each time you hit your goal. Your brain will soon learn that good things come from effective study.
4. Train your brain
Random study sessions are a great way to prevent study sessions from getting in the way of your social life, but turns out they are not a great way to learn. Your brain won’t know what’s happening as it hasn’t been trained to learn at that time. Your first ten minutes of study could be wasted because your brain is still figuring out what it’s supposed to be doing. If you pick a routine, however, you train your brain to expect study times and as soon as you sit down to study it jumps into action.
5. Move around
Research suggests that if you study somewhere different each day, you’re less likely to forget what it is you’re studying. Each time you move from your bed to your desk to the garden to the library, you force your brain to make new associations with the same material. Your knowledge becomes a stronger memory and as such it’s easier to pull from.
6. Quiz yourself
Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Repeatedly quizzing yourself affects knowledge retention and transfer of facts and concepts. Don’t worry if testing seems difficult – the harder it is to remember a piece of information in practice mode, the more likely you’ll remember it in the future.
7. Write it out
Writing out your notes by hand will help you remember more than if you were to jot your notes using a laptop. Researchers at Princeton University and UCLA found that people that write out their important study notes by hand have a stronger conceptual understanding and memory for factual detail than those who take notes on their laptop.
8. Join a study group
Studying with a group isn’t for everyone, but it can help you to learn more effectively. When students work together in collaborative teams in classrooms, they learn material better than when they sit alone at their desk. Outside of the classroom, reading notes verbatim and then paraphrasing to a group forces you to start making the material on your own.
Before you sit down to study for two hours, stare at a blank wall for two minutes and meditate. Research suggests that meditation can reduce anxiety and boost attention span, and just a few short minutes of meditation can improve focus and performance. Take it one step further by practicing yoga before each study session.
10. Listen to music
So turns out your friend might be right when they say that music can help you to concentrate when studying. But it does depend on what music you’re listening to. The most famous theory linking music and cognitive performance is the “Mozart Effect” – the popular idea that listening to Mozart makes you smarter – but a closer look will tell you that just about any classical music can have the same effect. The key is to choose music that’s different to your preferred style and music that plays constant in state. Choose neutral music with a repetitive pulse and don’t play it too loud.
Finding your preferred study style
Improving study skills is one of the most important things you can do when embarking on further education. Prepare and train your brain for high volumes of reading and accumulation and it won’t seem so scary when you start. Start learning every day in short bursts and you’ll never have to pull an all-nighter again!