By Freeha Anjum
If you’re a student in STEM, you’ve likely read about the best ways to take notes, or maybe you’ve looked into active recall as well – but there are lots of factors that go into studying, and I doubt you’ve ever had them all laid out for you in one place…until now! In this article, we’ll be overviewing the many factors that affect your studying, and how to reach that optimum point in the battle to “study smarter, not harder.”
Note: This is part two of a two-part article series
You’ve likely written different types of notes before, trying to figure out what works for you – let’s take a look at what science has to say about note taking.
Firstly, it’s important that you write your notes by hand, as it means you’re forcing your brain to process the information in a more detailed and slow manner, giving it time to engrain itself into your memory. This goes hand in hand with highlighting important information: highlights can help your brain sort information better – different colours can correspond to different types of information, allowing your brain to process highlighted portions more effectively. It’s important to read before highlighting, however, so that you actually know what’s important and what’s not…instead of just highlighting every other line, like we often find ourselves doing.
Another tip that many scientists recommend is using images in our notes, as studies show that this can help boost your memory. Drawings that are labelled will provide your brain with information that looks different, similar to highlighting, which makes it easier to remember as it is distinguishable.
It should also be noted that everyone will process information differently, and different note-taking techniques work for different types of people, so don’t be afraid to try a variety of different methods before settling down on one that works for you.
The best way to make sure you’re using your study time to the best of your ability is through active recall–something you may have heard of. This technique should be used after you’ve taken notes and read them over (i.e. once you feel you have a decent grasp on the content). Active recall, as in the name, means your brain is actively involved in the studying process – unlike with notes, active recall practically forces you to pull information from your memory, making you more likely to actually remember it on the day of the test. This method works to practically test yourself, with the two most common ways to do so being flashcards and the Feynman technique.
The Feyman technique essentially has you teach the material you’ve learned. This can be to another person, or just to yourself, but it requires you to explain information you’ve learned in your own words (again, after having read your notes). This way, you’re forcing yourself to remember details and connect ideas in a way that makes sense to you.
Flashcards are also a very common technique, where students write questions based on their notes and then answer them. You can do this on your own, or with a partner. To make the experience even more useful, you can use apps like Quizlet or Brainscape, which track your progress for you and show flashcards a different number of times depending on how often you got the answers correct. This essentially means you’re quizzing yourself, and is a very effective study method.
If you’re writing a big exam, practice tests can also be an option for you. This can be a form of active recall, depending on the type of test (multiple choice does not count as active recall, since the answer is in front of you), but more so it helps you become accustomed to the types of questions you’ll be asked.
Some Extra Tips, Proven By Science
Of course, there are endless studies being done on our brain function, and scientists have found some interesting results regarding tips and tricks for studying that may seem random, but can get you better grades all the same. Below are a few more tips and the science behind them!
- Chewing gum: Although no conclusive research has been done, there have been many studies that show chewing gum of the same flavour when you’re studying, and then again when taking a test, makes it more likely that your memory recall will be improved during the exam. Some scientists believe this may be because the gum creates a link between when you were studying and when you are taking the test, so your brain thinks back to those moments and remembers what you learned better. Other scientists suggest that the chewing movement tricks your brain into expecting food, thereby increasing the insulin levels in your blood, which in turn increases glucose uptake in the brain, giving you more energy to concentrate on the exam.
- Mnemonic devices: Mnemonic devices are techniques you use to help you remember pieces of information by processing them in a form that your brain will remember more easily. Acronyms, for example, help you remember information by sorting it into a singular word or phrase – then you just need to remember that word/phrase, and the rest of the information follows. Similarly, using imagery to imagine pictures in your head to help you remember information serves as a good way to ensure that you remember the information for test day
- Walking backwards: Although unclear as to why, studies show that walking backwards improves memory in the same way that “retracing your steps” can, and that people who are walking backwards can remember details better than when they are sitting still. I know what you’re thinking, though: how am I supposed to walk backwards while taking a test? Well, the good news is research shows that imagining yourself moving backwards yields the same results as actually doing it!
- Listening to music: Music won’t just help you improve your memory by forcing your brain to use both hemispheres, but it’s also proven to help reduce stress – which is not only good for your mental health, but actually helps your body focus on the task at hand better, because you’re not stuck in a panic attack
These tips don’t work for everyone–every brain is different so don’t be afraid to take some time to see which strategies work best for you! The purpose of this article is to point out study habits that have been scientifically proven to give you a place to start, but effort and experimentation will still be needed on your part to ensure that you can optimize your studying.
Feel free to comment below on other study habits that have helped you with your exams in the past few years!
Kowalski, K. (2020, September 04). Top 10 tips on how to study smarter, not longer. Retrieved January 10, 2021, from https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/top-10-tips-study-smarter-not-longer-study-skills
Publishing, H. (n.d.). Can you boost your memory by walking backward? Retrieved January 10, 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/can-you-boost-your-memory-by-walking-backward
Publishing, H. (n.d.). In Brief: The Quirky Brain: Chewing gum and memory. Retrieved January 10, 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/the-quirky-brain-chewing-gum-and-memory
Ramsay. (2020, October 29). What is Active Recall? How to use it to ace your exams. Retrieved January 10, 2021, from https://www.brainscape.com/academy/active-recall-definition-studying/
Science-based tips on how to study for exams more effectively | CBC News. (2016, December 23). Retrieved January 10, 2021, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/exams-studying-tips-brain-science-1.3864360
Staff, P. (2016, May 17). Memory and Mnemonic Devices. Retrieved January 10, 2021, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/memory-and-mnemonic-devices#3