Study Smarter, Not Harder

A science backed study guide

Some college courses are — well — a bit of a joke. But others are really, really not.

For every class where studying is optional, there’s the course where the professor is militant, the syllabus endless, and the exams terrifying.

For those kinds of courses (organic chemistry, anyone?), this is your guide.

So, first things first:

A few simple tips and tricks can making studying for the tough classes much less painful. Illustration by Kate Costigan

The Basics

Get a good night’s sleep.

It’s not news that sleep is really freaking important. Being sleep deprived is a little like being drunk — it’s harder to recall facts or to learn and retain new information.

When you’re sleeping, your brain is supporting and growing protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNFs) which support the central nervous system and are important for long-term memory. As shown in Kuhn’s 2016 study for Nature Communications, the researchers followed 20 healthy participants in “repeated-measures protocol” after one night of sleep and one night of sleep deprivation, determining “a significant deficit in the encoding of declarative memory after sleep deprivation” via a word-pairing task.

While there must be further research conducted to determine the full effects on specific parts of the brain, the long-term potentiation (LTP) is shown to definitively decrease when sleep deprived.

Basically, as tempting as it might be to pull an all-nighter or cram the day of an exam, you’re unlikely improve your performance by doing so. You’re more likely to succeed when you’re fully rested — so turn off your computer, get on your pajamas, and catch between seven to nine hours sweet sleep.

The verdict is in: there is probably nothing more important than sleep! Illustration by Kate Costigan

Don’t study on an empty stomach.

If you’ve been stressing about an upcoming exam or have been trying to write an essay for days, it can seem like a good idea to just skip over meals to save time. But, by doing this, you could just be making all that studying you’re doing half as effective.

When you’re trying to learn something new, your body needs glucose to keep the messengers to your brain going. Without them, there won’t be much going on upstairs; the worst thing you could do is deprive your body of this vital energy. As evident from the 2013 study “Sugar for the brain,” the researchers define glucose metabolism as fuel for brain function, “critical for brain physiology” and “the foundation for neuronal and non-neuronal cellular maintenance.”  

That doesn’t mean you should be stuffing your face full of chocolates, energy drinks and other sugary treats. In fact, too much glucose can have the same effect as having not enough, putting you at potential risk for a sugar crash, an increased chance of type 2 diabetes and an increased risk of heart disease.

Your best bet is to get your glucose from fruits and vegetables, so go crazy in those aisles at the grocery store! To better balance out your study meals and snacks, aim for a well-rounded approach, including healthy fats and lean proteins.

When you hit a wall, quit.

Even though you might believe you’ll be able to learn everything before you have your exam, there are also times when you feel like you simply can’t read anymore. Guess what: that’s okay!

Ashton Anderson and Etan A. Green released their findings in Feb. 2018 with Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S., titled “Personal bests as reference points.” The pair conducted an empirical analysis of behavior of chess players, and found that the players are more likely to quite after setting a new personal best. The researchers determined that “improvement implies that players find some way to exceed expectations when a personal best is within reach.”

So, if you feel as though you have finally hit the point where you can do no more, you have likely reached your personal best. Unplug from your study guides and your textbooks, and go relax as much as possible prior to your exam. You’ll feel better for doing so.

Plan ahead and study incrementally.

More often than not, college courses provide a full syllabus at the very first class. Rather than simply put that thick packet of information off to the side, why not figure out how to set up the best schedule for advance studying?

MIT provides its students with “a realistic and effective plan to prepare for tests.” Their tips apply to all college students, and outline a reasonable timeline of how students can make themselves as prepared as possible for that big week. The suggestions include setting up a daily study schedule, working backward from deadlines and exam dates, and scheduling review meetings with professors and TAs far in advance.

If your final comes at the beginning of December, don’t think that it’s too early to start studying four or even six weeks before. Take one to two hours per day, highlight your challenging topics, and create a study checklist as you go through the semester/quarter.

Okay, so now for some handy tricks!

Try a Pomodoro!

The Pomodoro technique is perfect for when your mind is wandering and you need to focus. Illustration by Kate Costigan

No, we’re not recommending you get a bowl of pasta (though, make sure to stay satiated during your study time). Instead, we recommend the Pomodoro technique, one of many popular ways of turning big undertakings into manageable chunks.

Developed in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the technique focuses on timing and allowing yourself to take breaks. Rather than sit at your computer for hours upon hours, start your task with a timer, set for 25 minutes. When the buzzer rings, take a break; then, get right back to your work, and repeat!

Not only is the technique easy and accessible, it has been shown to improve productivity almost immediately, with a decrease in working under pressure, lack of confidence and missed deadlines.

If you feel like you can go on longer than 25 minutes, that is a-okay — but make sure to schedule regular breaks at defined intervals. Even five minutes off from every hour will substantially improve your studying as a whole.

Study with a classmate

As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” It’s no secret that study groups can lead to drastically better results, so why tackle the stress of studying on your lonesome?

Dr. Maryellen Weimer of Faculty Focus found in 2012 that — in a 700-student, four-credit lecture and lab introductory biology course — 85 percent of the students who participated in study groups for the first exam believed that their group helped their grade. The students were able to get their questions answered, find clarification, and listen to others to understand the course content better. Dr. Keith Sawyer of Washington University in St. Louis determined in 2005 that study groups were more effective because the students’ “conversation is much more free-flowing […] they are beginning to more easily grasp the material.”

In getting more information from other students and sharing notes so everyone can do better on the final exams, it’s a great idea to find good people to study with sooner rather than later. Plus, it’s a great way to find new friends or even chat up that cutie.

When you get confused, ask a duck!

Don’t worry, we’re not recommending you find a nearby pond. Much like the Pomodoro Technique, the Rubber Duck Problem Solving method could give you thorough explanation as to exactly what you need to know.

Initially referenced in Andrew Hunt’s and David Thomas’s 1999 book “The Pragmatic Programmer,” the technique forces you or your study partners to explain a topic area, line-by-line, to an inanimate object (like a rubber duck). It may sound silly to explain a topic to a bathtub toy, but it is helpful for thoroughly understanding the subjects you’ll be tested on, and showcases how in-depth technological understanding can be in comparison with human understanding of a topic.

As described by The Thoughtful Code, the rubber duck method gives you the ability “to slow down and be more exacting than you are when you’re power-typing code,” and allows you to “pay very careful attention to all that you were previously just taking for granted.”

This method may sound taxing, but the line-by-line method could truly spark a new awakening and comprehension of that drawn out biological study or Chaucer story — test it out!

To retain facts, build a memory castle.

Day-dreaming may not elicit a high test score for your finals week, but a memory palace may.

The method of loci was developed by the ancient Romans and Greeks as a way to recall faces, digits and lists of words, alongside using mnemonics to effectively recall information. The basic idea in modern times is to associate pieces of information you need to remember with a location you are familiar with. For example, you can remember a string of words by associating them with parts of your home, such as working through your home with the periodic elements. You can also use mnemonic devices to remember, such as “Happy Henry Lives Beside Boron Cottage.”

Dependent on your exam topics, this method can work wonders. Make sure to create and practice your memory palace and mnemonics as frequently as possible in advance of your exam for optimal results.

Practice active reading.

Ultimately, one of the most popular and frequented techniques for studying is fairly simple: active reading.

Active reading is defined as “reading something with a determination to understand and evaluate it for its relevance to your needs.” This can include highlighting and underlining important words and quotes, making annotations as you read, and both answering and asking questions as you work. As described by York University, this approach allows students to approach their readings without difficulty and develop their reading strategies for long-term benefits.

Make sure to have your study questions and highlighters at the ready, and you’ll be more prepared than ever by actively understanding the most important facts you need to know.

Good luck out there, You got this!

There are many, many ways to study effectively without feeling as though you’re studying all the time. Use one or a combination of these tips and tricks, and you’ll be set for finals week in no time. Good luck!

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