As we roll into midterm seasons, some of our minds may already be drifting towards summer vacation (I know mine is). It’s easy to get distracted when summer is so close, but we have to finish the year strong! So, I want to dedicate this blog post to neuroscience-based tips that can help you not only be more productive, but also make the most efficient use of your time by using study skills approved by the neuroscience field.
Create a specific space for you to do your work.
I used to start studying in my dorm room, only to find myself staring at the wall five minutes later, my mind drifting off to who knows where. This is because I associate my dorm with sleeping, so I often
start to feel tired if I try to study in my dorm. This is why it is important to create a specific area where you only study, which is why libraries are so great. Creating such a space gets your brain in the habit of associating that specific place with studying and productivity, which allows you to stay more focused when you try to do your work in that place in the future.
Break up your studying into smaller tasks rather than huge chunks.
This study strategy helps you engage in the process of “self-directed learning.” This process plays on the fact that when you complete small tasks, no matter how small they may seem, your brain releases some amount of dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical in your brain associated with learning, pleasure, and motivation. Thus, when you divide your studying into smaller tasks, you regulate periodic releases of dopamine in your brain, which powers you to keep on studying and completing more tasks.
Realize that you cannot multitask.
Do not listen to people who say they are good multitaskers, that literally does not exist. Humans are physically incapable of multitasking. While it is true humans can switch attention between several tasks and focus quickly, you cannot complete several tasks at the same time at the same optimal efficiency. Multitasking, particularly when it comes to studying while using social media / electronic devices, has been shown to have several negative neurological implications. For example, such multi-tasking has
been shown to reduce the brain density within the region of the brain responsible for emotional intelligence and self-awareness, the anterior cingulate cortex. In addition, multitasking leads to “false” dopamine rushes that become addictive (similar to that discussed in the previous tip) and end up rewarding you instead on your constant cycle of focusing on studying and then losing focus when you multitask with an electronic device, thus hindering your productivity in the long-run. Finally, multitasking hinders your creative process because creativity involves longer periods of focused concentration, but multitasking creates continual periods of focusing, losing focus, and re-focusing that prevent the brain from achieving such prolonged focus that allows it to generate original thoughts that build upon concepts learned and encoded into the long-term memory.
Don’t just highlight, test yourself.
Highlighting is passive, and does not engage your brain as actively as recalling information like when you test yourself. When you recall, your brain repeats the neural activity it engaged in when it fired in response to that content the first time you were exposed to it. Therefore, by recalling information, you can actively engage and strengthen these same neural pathways in order to encode long-term memory.
Study in groups.
Keith Sawyer, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, studied college study groups to see what made them so effective, tediously analyzing every behavior of the study group in order to derive conclusions. He found that the people in the student groups often had synchronous eye-gazing,
constantly switching from looking at their lecture notes to looking at the people in the study group. Upon further analysis, he found that this action was notable because it indicated a deeper level of processing occurring in study groups that may not occur as better when you study alone. This deeper level of processing involves looking down at lecture notes to try to understand what the professor said, and then later paraphrasing the information to explain it to others in the group as you look up. Such critical thinking and synthesis skills are critical to future academic as well as career success.
Handwrite, rather than type, notes.
You probably have heard the benefit of writing out notes by hand rather than typing, but what is the neural reasoning behind this notion? The best way to encode information in to your brain’s long-term memory is to process the information deeply, allowing you to build more neural pathways. Although typing is more convenient, you do not process information as deeply when you type it as when you handwrite it. This is because writing out notes gives you the liberty to label, make flowcharts, write questions as you have them, and make drawings, all of which require you to recall prior information and connect it to the information you are currently seeking to understand. This causes you to process the information much more deeply, leading to longer-term memory and better overall understanding of the concept.
Listen to classical music.
Different types of music stimulate the neural cortices in different ways. Although some scientists may feel that music serves as a distractor, many studies have actually proven this notion to be false. For example, classical music helps stimulate the cortical pathways involved in spatial reasoning. Classical music has also been shown to lower the risk for neurodegenerative disorders by aiding in memory, learning, neural transport at the synpases, and dopamine secretion.
Workout before studying.
Exercising before studying helps to prime your brain for learning and aid memory formation. Exercising releases chemicals in the brain that help you stay more alert and focused and help in the long-term development of more gray matter (which is involved in memories) when you study after; also, during exercise, the body pumps more oxygen and nutrients to the brain. However, the effectiveness of this strategy also depends also on the intensity of the workout, rather than simply just working out or not working out before studying. For example, people who did more intense workouts before studying, versus those who did lower-intensity workouts before studying, scored better on vocabulary tests directly after than this lower-intensity group did.
Engage in contextual learning, not rote memorization.
Contextual learning involves connecting new information you learn to real-world situations and making it more relevant. This strategy is much more effective than just rote memorization because it takes advantage of already existing neural pathways, thus increasing the likelihood the new information gets encoded into your long-term memory. While rote memorization simply stores the new information in the brain for quick recall without any deeper understanding of its meaning, contextual learning includes making connections in order to have a complex understanding of a concept. Rote memorization may be useful for learning basic, foundational knowledge, such as an essential equations you may need or basic grammatical structures. However, contextual learning ensures deep understanding of concepts based on and using this foundational knowledge, including how to apply and use these concepts. Additionally, contextual learning engages more of your cognitive processes (remembering, applying, understanding, evaluating, creating, and analyzing) than the simple repetition involved in rote memorization, allowing you to build more meaningful neural pathways and be able to retain new information and transfer new information to tackle real-world problems.
Do. Not. Cram.
Cramming has never helped anyone, and neuroscience backs this idea up. In order for your brain to encode information into long-term memory, your neurons rely on protein transcription that physically builds new neurons (neurogenesis), something that researchers previously thought did not occur in
adults. However, long-term memory and effective learning can lead to the creation of new neurons, via neurogenesis, in the hippocampus (region of the brain associated with long-term memory). In order for your brain to actually want to engage in neurogenesis, though, it needs to be exposed to that information several times so that it can recognize that this information is something necessary for future reference, rather than being exposed to that information the night before the test when you are likely to utilize rote memorization rather than contextual learning.
Use metacognition & adopt a growth mindset.
Growth mindset is the idea that intelligence is something you can develop and improve upon, not something that is fixed and comes naturally. Science has proved this concept over and over again through the phenomenon of neuroplasticity that we discussed. When you learn and grow, you form neural connections; thus, your brain is like a muscle that you can workout and make stronger. Several researchers have used neurotechnology, such as the imaging devices of MRI or TMS, to study the brain and thus the neurological basis of metacognition. Metacognition is basically the process of self-reflection in which you think about your process of learning, and whether or not it is successful. Your frontal lobe allows you to engage in metamemory, which is the process of monitoring your memorization capabilities and techniques and knowing which techniques are effective and the extent to which they are effective. Metacognitive activity engages more regions in your brain and also can lead to an increase in gray matter volume over time (gray matter, again, is involved in memory along with other higher-order processes like speech). The prefrontal cortex is crucial for the process of metacognition, as it is involved in the “closed-loop” monitoring of cognition and how effective your learning is.