Studying smarter, not harder

As exams approach, success is on everyone’s mind. Hard work is probably going to get you 80% of the way there but there is always a feeling that you could do more. We’ve all wished at some point for a magical pill that will instantly make us remember everything or simply to wake up the day after your final exam. Though science still hasn’t invented a magical pill to get a first or a time-machine to avoid exams altogether a lot of research is being conducted on how to best orient your efforts for success.

One thing nearly everyone has heard before is that they should learn actively, not passively. Our brains are terrible at retaining information we don’t actively engage with. Average student retention rates from unused information gained from reading or attending a lecture are only between 5-10%. This tiny number quickly increases to 50% if the content is actively discussed and debated, 75% when executing practice questions, and reaches as high as 90% when the student teaches the content to others. A study published in the journal of Anatomical Sciences Education showed a mean increase of 12% in exam mark in students who took part in peer-led seminars compared to those who only attended lectures.

So what can we learn from all of this? Never waste time blindly reading through content; take notes, meet up with friends and discuss the content, engage with what you learn.

In his most recent book Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker writes extensively about the effect of sleep on our information retention. If you take away anything at all from this article, let it be the importance of getting your 8 hours every night. Sleep allows us to remember the important and forget the useless. When awake the brain receives so much sensory information, some of it useful and some not so much.

A lot of the information we need for exams comes in the form of facts and figures. A specific part of the brain (the hippocampus) is responsible for remembering this kind of information in the short term. The hippocampus, however, like any other short-term storage device has a maximum capacity. If you take in too much information you run the risk of not being able to remember new information; experiencing a phenomenon known as interference forgetting – where information previously stored in the hippocampus is lost.

Remarkably, sleep allows information in the hippocampus to be transferred to and stored in a more permanent area of the brain, the cortex, creating space for new memories to be formed. In a study Walker conducted, two groups of participants were challenged to learn and were tested on two sets of information, once in the morning and once in the evening. The catch was that one group took a 90-minute nap in between while the others stayed awake. The napped group scored 20% higher than the group that didn’t sleep, despite the non-napped group showing no decrease in concentration. Findings were the same with a full night of sleep as opposed to a short nap.

In addition to this, sleep helps us remember what we have learned. Jenkins and Dallenbach took two groups of participants who learned a list of facts. One slept eight hours, the other group stayed awake. Predictably, the well-slept group performed ~40% more effectively.

While awake our brains seem to have the ability to tag short-term memories that are formed with labels of ‘to be forgotten’ or ‘to be remembered’ – when we sleep the memories which are tagged to be remembered are consolidated and those that aren’t are flushed from our minds. This helps us to store useful information we need for exams and forget what we overheard the people next to us in the library talking about.

In short, cramming the night before isn’t going to work. Your hippocampus will simply reach capacity and you will forget information previously stored and struggle to remember that which you are attempting to learn. Most importantly, getting 8-hours after your hard work revising is instrumental in remembering everything you’ve learned.

Okay so you get it, you need to learn actively and get your sleep. But we can’t study 24/7 in the time leading up to exams – everyone needs a break. Fortunately, recent research conducted at the University of British Columbia in Canada shows that cardiovascular exercise, pretty much anything that gets you sweating, increases the size of the hippocampus. In addition to this, exercising promotes good sleep, improves concentration, and reduces stress and anxiety. So, take a break and go for a run, swim, or for a walk (or as scientists at Harvard medical school suggests, “intense floor mopping or vigorous raking of leaves”).

Image: Sage Ross

While on the topic we might as well dive into some of the cutting edge research going on in terms of memory which may help you learn things in the future. As discussed earlier, sleep helps memories to be transported to more permanent sites. For this to happen, rhythmic electrical signals called sleep spindles flow over the surface of the brain. Some researchers have tried putting electrodes on subjects’ heads while they sleep to increase the occurrence of sleep spindles. In some cases, it worked, memory retention was improved.

While you can’t put electrodes on your head to boost your memory, you can make sure to consistently get a good nights sleep, and exercise regularly. These tips aren’t going to hand you a first but they’ll make the coming month easier and less stressful.

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