If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance that you’re currently at, or have been to, university. If that’s the case, then you’ve probably developed some study techniques of your own. Wherever you are at in life, learning how to process and retain information is a good skill to improve.
Here are seven tips that you can use to help you handle exams and improve your study sessions. Some of the following can supplement, rather than replace, what you may be doing already.
1. Sleep after learning (consolidate)
Right after you learn or do something, it’s fresh in your memory and you can recall it clearly. As time passes, as you do/read/learn more things, memories slowly fade. In addition, new memories are fragile and can easily be forgotten.
There are things we can do to considerably 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 went to sleep within three hours of learning material remembered nearly 16 per cent more content than a group that waited 10 hours before going to sleep. Going to sleep probably eliminates a lot of environmental stimuli that might interfere with the learned content, too.
Sometimes our brains can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what we imagine. We know that mental imagery can activate some brain regions, and that mental rehearsal can lead to measurable improvement for some tasks. Mentally “visualising” information can also help.
A group study from 2003 investigated the reasons for the superior performance of memory “experts”. The conclusion was that they employed “strategies for encoding information with the sole purpose of making it more memorable”, rather than possessing exceptional cognitive ability or structural differences in the brain.
In essence, those who are effective at memorising things “encode” information (store it in their mind) very effectively. The most common way of encoding large amounts of information effectively is through visualisation.
3. Chunk information together
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 or so bits of information. One technique that can help is chunking.
Chunking is just breaking up 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 sight, this might seem meaningless, but if I rewrite it as 1969, 4, 8, 12, 16, 1066, suddenly it becomes easy to remember. Most information strings will not be this easy to reduce, but you get the idea.
4. Take breaks
Taking a break doesn’t mean giving up entirely. What you ideally want to do is study in several short bursts, mixed with breaks, rather than doing all your studying at once (cramming).
You may have heard of the Pomodoro method (doing focused study or work for 25 minutes before taking a short break). Personally, I can’t speak highly enough of it. However, the 25-minute block may not be optimal for you. Try a few different variations until you find something that works for you.
As well as leading to a significant decrease in academic performance, all-night cramming may cause health problems through lack of sleep and rest. Avoid using this strategy if possible. Preparation and forward planning are very important here.
5. Don’t procrastinate
The reason why many people find themselves cramming is because of procrastination earlier in the study period. Some people do it more than others; but regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or IQ, people procrastinate.
Following on from the earlier point, staying organised, setting aside clear study times and giving yourself time to rest and recover will help to avoid procrastination and ensure that your study sessions are as effective as possible.
Writing down a list of all the things you want to achieve in one session (reading a chapter of a book, rewriting some lecture notes, and so on) will help you to gain a clear idea of what you want to accomplish and will eliminate the desire to procrastinate.
6. Test yourself
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that taking an active role in the creation of revision material is an effective way to achieve strong encoding.
Making up questions and then testing yourself on them (not immediately) involves active involvement with the material and strengthens the encoding of the material to be learned. Even just reading 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 to explain it to someone else (or yourself).
7. Elaborate on material
Thinking about something (a concept/idea/theory) and adding meaning to it by relating it to other things you know about helps you to remember it better. But not only that, the material is much more likely to be transferred into your long-term memory. This process is known as elaboration.
Studying and retaining information is a necessary skill for a university student to be able to take exams and complete assignments. Here are seven tips to help you maximise your study sessions