A change of ‘scenery’ and sleep are two of the key factors when preparing for exams according to a new book by science and medical writer, Benedict Carey, entitled How We Learn: the surprising truth about when, where and why it happens.
Carey argues that while a student may do well in an exam by cramming, they probably lose the information quickly.
“The key is not to study more, but to study smarter,” he says.
Mr Carey offers students a new blueprint for learning based on decades of brain science, memory tests and learning studies.
“Most of us study and hope we are doing it right,” Mr Carey says. “But we tend to have a static and narrow notion of how learning should happen.”
He says that cramming can work in the short term, but by studying only once in a concentrated fashion, the brain does not realise that the information is important.
An initial study session starts the process of learning, but it’s the next review session a few days later that forces the brain to retrieve the information — essentially flagging it as important and something to be remembered.
“When you are cramming for a test, you are holding that information in your head for a limited amount of time,” Mr. Carey says. “But you haven’t signalled to the brain in a strong way that’s it’s really valuable.”
He says a valuable way for the brain to realise that information is important is to ask students to talk about it, self-test or write information on flashcards.
Mr Carey also recommends against long and focussed study sessions because then the brainpower goes into maintaining concentration, leaving little energy for learning.
“It’s hard to sit there and push yourself for hours,” Mr. Carey says. “You’re spending a lot of effort just staying there, when there are other ways to make the learning more efficient, fun and interesting.”
He compares it to watering a lawn.
“You can water a lawn once a week for 90 minutes or three times a week for 30 minutes. Spacing out the watering during the week will keep the lawn greener over time.”
He says the first step towards better learning is to change the study environment from time-to-time.
“The brain wants variation,” Mr Carey says. “It wants to move, it wants to take periodic breaks.”
Rather than sitting at your desk studying for hours, finding some new scenery will create new associations in your brain and make it easier to recall information later.
Moving the study environment can also add contextual cues. At home, a student trying to memorise Chinese vocabulary may hear the dog bark or phone ring. Move the study time to the coffee shop a few days later, and the student hears the barista steaming milk. Now the vocabulary is embedded in the student’s memory in two contexts - which makes the memory stronger.
Not surprisingly, sleep is an important part of good studying, Mr Carey says.
The first half of the sleep cycle helps with retaining facts; the second half is important for maths skills. So a student with a foreign language test should go to bed early to get the most retention from sleep, and then review in the morning. For maths students, the second half of the sleep cycle is most important — better to review before going to bed and then sleep in to let the brain process the information.
“Sleep is the finisher on learning,” Mr Carey says. “The brain is ready to process and categorise and solidify what you’ve been studying. Once you get tired, your brain is saying it’s had enough.”