Science of studying: Pass up Primal Scream

    NBN science of studying

    Illustration by Elena Aleksandrova/ North by Northwestern.

    Many of us have the tendency to study right before tests–cram the night before, dump the contents of our brains onto the page and then forget it all. But what happens when it comes to the next exam?

    Dr. Ken Paller, director of Northwestern’s Cognitive Neuroscience program, suggests the “spacing effect.” “If you space your practice, then you’re going to be able to perhaps remember for a longer time,” he says. So when you need to remember information after a test— like when learning a foreign language — the “spacing effect” can mean three A’s instead of one.

    While all nighters occasionally pay off, they’re not always the best choice. Dr. Paller is currently researching sleep’s effect on memory encoding and retention. Evidence shows that a good night’s sleep after studying can lead to better encoding of information. In particular, studies suggest slow-wave sleep helps the brain encode factual information, according to Dr. Paul Reber, a Northwestern psychology professor specializing in memory research.

    “What sleep seems to do is magically strengthen the things you learn when you’re awake,” he says.

    Even better, experiments show that if you study in the same state as you’ll be in while taking the test, or at least in a similar environment, you may remember more. That means your external state—like the room you studied in—or your internal state—like your mood or energy level. Dr. Steven Franconeri, a cognitive psychology professor, says that this is especially true in the short term.

    “When you’re encoding the information, you’re automatically making associations between those words and whatever else is going on in the world around you,” he says. “When those same cues are present when you’re trying to remember the information, it’ll help you bring that information back up again.”

    Sadly, when it comes to studying, there is no miracle strategy to improve your ability to learn. Most experts agree that spacing out studying over a period of time with few distractions will be most beneficial.

    But if all else fails, you could always break into Kresge to cram all night in the same desk where you’ll be taking your test the next day.

    Three ways to retain more:

    Make connections between various source materials (e.g., texts, notes, etc.) and your everyday life. Simply memorizing is less useful than making inferences and building coherence across course concepts, said David Rapp, learning sciences professor. This ties in with the Method of Loci, which is used to memorize things in chronological order. To memorize a list of words, take a familiar procedure (say, your morning routine) and link each word to each step. Try to create a story to go with each step as well. By making unfamiliar words relatable, you can recall things you probably wouldn’t otherwise.

    To memorize large portions of meaningless information, Franconeri suggests chunking data. Find “chunks,” or sets of numbers, that you can give meaning to. This way, you’re effectively remembering fewer things — even though you’re really memorizing tons. For example, a runner learned Pi by finding sets of numbers and syncing them with track race times. It’s key that you chunk them in a meaningful way. “You want to make it so if you remember one thing, you remember all three,” Franconeri said.

    Study in groups, and question the other members of your groups. Discussions of this type help build concrete knowledge about course concepts.


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