Why you should care
Exam season? Here’s what you should be doing to ace those finals.
Boning up for a work course or a school test? Trying to learn a new skill? Cramming late, devoting a whole day to nothing but bio, reading that training manual 20 times?
You’re doing it wrong. So very, very wrong.
Nailing the art of studying can be a scientific task. Two professors — Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel at Washington University in St. Louis — and writer Peter Brown condensed the best study knowledge, based on scientific papers published over the past few years, in a book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Roediger distilled his top six tips for successful learning for us. We’re talking the best ways to retain new knowledge for the long haul, whether that’s for finals, your athletic career or learning how to play the piano.
Pull up a seat and start taking notes.
1. Take those notes by hand. That’s right: Go Luddite. In a board meeting or a freshman survey hall, think pen and paper. “When typing, students tend to record information as though they were taking dictation,” Roediger says. Writing by hand is slower, “so they have to think harder about the material to distill it,” he says. So yes, it might seem painful to put pen to paper in class, but you’ll save study time in the end.
2. Don’t study — practice. Stop re-reading the same passage 20 times. Searching your brain for what you’re trying to remember keeps things fresher. In one of Roediger’s studies, subjects who took a test were more likely to do better on a subsequent test than those who only studied. It’s not just about remembering the information but also about using the brain to practice retrieving the information. That’s what a test — and real life — requires of us.
3. Pace yourself. Cramming puts a lot of info into your head, fast, but it also leads to fast forgetting. “Spacing helps embed learning in long-term memory,” Roediger says.
4. Sleep on it. If you never want to conjugate French verbs again, pull an all-nighter before a test. But if you’ve got info you want to keep for the long haul, plan on catching some z’s. Your brain needs time to process all you’ve stuffed in there. Sleep is when it happens.
5. Multitask subjects. Maybe you’ve got finals this week in history, bio and psych. Yuck. If you’ve only got three days to study, don’t tackle just one subject a day, Roediger says. Devote time every day to each subject and you’re more likely to ace those tests. According to one study cited in the book, we’re more likely to confuse similar things when they’re studied together — like if you’re trying to cram on the differences among four kinds of biological processes that all kind of sound the same — than if we break the subject up a bit with something else. The same goes for learning a new sport: “Build free-throw practice into simulated games,” says Roediger.
6. Test yourself. These are the professor’s words, not ours. “Make up practice tests and take them repeatedly as you study,” he says. This goes back to tip No. 2 — finding ways to pull things from your mind. Plus, this way, you’ll learn what you need to work on.