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5 Ways to Study Better, According to Cognitive Scientists

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The science of learning uses cross-disciplinary research to identify the hows and whys behind learning. Much of the brain remains mysterious. However, the research of neuroscientists, biologists, and psychologists has identified habits and behaviors that can lead to improved memory retention and more efficient learning. These five recommendations from cognitive scientists can help you optimize your study habits and get better grades.

1. Space Out Your Studying

Studying at frequent intervals is more than just a good habit, it’s a scientifically proven way to improve your learning. It may seem counterintuitive, but the process of learning, forgetting a little bit, and then re-learning during your next study session actually improves your memory. It's known as the spacing effect, and researchers found a positive correlation between these cycles of learning and final test results. It’s a way you can leverage the brain’s neuroplasticity as it creates new neural connections. There’s even science behind the optimal study intervals. “If your test is a week away, you should plan two study periods at least one to two days apart. For a Friday test, study on Monday and review on Thursday. If your test is a month away, begin studying in one-week intervals,” revealed the research.

2. Practice Memory Retrieval

Re-reading can be a way to refresh your memory about the material that was covered in class. However, the problem with re-reading as a study method is that when the material is right in front of you, then you don’t build the necessary recall tools that you’ll need during an exam. Instead of refreshing your memory with re-reading, repeating a memory retrieval process similar to exams is a scientifically better way to study. This can be done with flashcards, with practice tests in your textbook, or by building mock exams using OneClass Study Guides. Even one session of practiced memory retrieval resulted in students of language studies achieving a 25 percent increase in scores when compared to students who study without practicing recall. The students who scored the best, at 80 percent correct, were those who practiced memory retrieval at spaced out intervals, combining two study hacks. Therefore, the best way to study isn’t late-night cramming; it’s repeated practice testing over time.

3. Don’t Multitask

Multitasking can be a way to increase productivity by accomplishing more in less time. Even though multitasking can help you be more productive when you’re cleaning your dorm room or during your commute to UC-Irvine, you shouldn’t multitask when studying. Cognitive scientists found that multitasking increases cognitive load, burdens the working memory, and slows cognitive function. In turn, this creates suboptimal conditions for studying. Interestingly, this multitasking effect applies to mental tasks as well as to combinations of mental and physical tasks. For example, researchers found that subjects who were walking while simultaneously learning a list of words had 17 percent less word recall when tested. As the physical task intensified from an oval walkway to a more complex pathway, performance deteriorated even further with resulting word recall at 32 percent less than that of seated subjects.

4. Switch Between Subtopics

Interleaving, the practice of switching between related skills or parallel concepts, can result in dramatically improved grades. Scientific American explains it this way: “Whereas blocking involves practicing one skill at a time before the next (for example, skill A before skill B and so on, forming the pattern AAABBBCCC); in interleaving, one mixes, or interleaves, practice on several related skills together (forming the pattern ABCABCABC).” In one example of using interleaving while studying, students at the University of California - Berkeley would start preparing for their Biology 1B midterm by selecting three concepts to study, such as bacteria, carbon-based lifeforms, and inorganic substances. In the first cycle, the student would learn a little bit about each topic. The student would then cycle through the topics two or more times, learning a little bit more during each cycle. After gaining an understanding of the material, the student would move on to another set of three topics, cycling through this new set three or more times. Notably, this learning method may feel harder, but results can make it worth it. In one learning experiment, students who used the interleaving method performed 25 percent better than the control group when tested the following day. That’s significant enough on its own, but there were even more gains over time. The interleaving group performed 76 percent better than the control group when re-tested a month later.

5. Explain It

When you use the information that you’re learning, you activate it in your brain in a different way than if you were just passively thinking about it. That’s why teaching the concepts you’re studying to someone else is such an effective way to learn it yourself. The theory that teaching helps people learn dates back to the Romans. More recently, it’s been discovered that this teaching effect also applies when explaining the material to oneself. Researchers found that people who use this self-explaining method have three times higher learning rates than the control groups. With results that strong, you may want to pull out your class notes to recreate mini-lectures where you explain the material to a class of one. Find out how online study guides on OneClass can help you improve by one letter grade. image attribution: Jacob Lund -


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