Trouble sticking to a study plan? It might come down to how you study. Not everyone can hit the books for hours on end. If you’re struggling to retain information by simply reviewing and re-reading material, here are some unusual ideas to try that are backed by research.
Write Your Notes by Hand
Multiple studies have shown that writing
your notes by hand instead of typing them improves retention of the ideas
taught in a class. According to an article in HuffPost, researchers
think there are two major reasons behind this.
First, writing with a pen activates your
verbal processing and motor skills in a more complex way than typing does.
Second, because you can’t possibly hand-write everything your instructor is
saying, you have to think about how best to summarize their main points as you
write your notes. So, typing your notes into a laptop can mean you focus more
on just getting everything down, while writing by hand means you’re doing more
complex processing of what is being said in the class.[i]
If you’ve already typed out your notes, you
can try hand-writing a one-page summary of the main ideas to help get the
benefit of this hand-brain connection.
Exercise Close to a Study Session
A 2013 Scientific American article
explained that exercising before a study session may benefit memory because the
brain is flooded with fresh, oxygenated blood.[ii] Another study directly tested whether a walk before a study session would help,
and it appeared to boost the subjects’ recall compared to a control group who
sat still.[iii] In 2016, the New York Times reported on a study which showed that
exercising after a study session seemed to boost memory retention for
Squeeze in a half-hour walk or a quick
cardio session on either side of your study session, and you’re likely to give
yourself a better chance of remembering the material.
Try a Cold Shower
If it’s too late at night to head out for a
brisk, brain-invigorating walk, there’s something else you can do to get your
blood flowing: take a quick, cold shower. A cold shower that lasts at least two
minutes can speed up your blood flow and breathing, helping you to feel more
alert in the way that exercise does[v].
Don’t just try to step straight into a cold
stream, however: a 2015 Fast Company article suggests starting with a
warm (but not hot) shower and gradually lowering the temperature until you feel
the stimulating benefits.[vi]
Break Your Session Into “Chunks” and Review
Another way to optimize your study time is
to break it into smaller “chunks”. Using a timer, study for a set period, then
take a five-minute break. When you sit back down to re-start your session, take
one or two minutes to review what you covered in your last “chunk”. This
approach is based in research around two issues.
First, studies have shown the value of
taking regular, short breaks to maintain optimal focus on a task[vii].
Second, it’s known that there is a “forgetting curve”, where your memory of
something you learn decays over time as you fail to use it. Constantly
revisiting key concepts through regular, short review sessions helps lock ideas
in your memory for longer.[viii]
You’re most likely studying because you
want to qualify for new career opportunities and the chance to build a better
life for yourself. However, it can be hard to get fired up over a long-term
goal like that when you sit down to review anatomy terms or circuit diagrams after
a long day of work and class. In addition to taking breaks, you can also build
little rewards into your study sessions.[ix]
Some people gravitate toward food-based
rewards. For example, every time you read a section of a chapter, you could
“let” yourself eat a gummy bear. Some people plan a reward at the end of a
session, such as a visit to the coffee shop. Others set medium-term goals tied
to performance on tests or projects. If you tell yourself you’re going to have
a spa day or go to the amusement park if you get an “A” on your final, it can
keep you motivated to study in the short-term.
Teach the Material to Others
Studies also show that teaching what you
are studying to others helps motivate you to develop a deeper understanding of
the material—and can make you more likely to recall information. Just reading a
chapter to people won’t necessarily be all that effective, though. In 2018, the
British Psychological Society reported on a study which found that the best way
to “teach to learn” was to prepare to teach a concept without notes.[x]
If you can, try to arrange a study group
with classmates where each member of the group is responsible for reviewing one
topic you need to study and then teaching it to the rest of the group without using
the textbook. The “teacher” will deepen their understanding of the concept
through preparing to explain it to others, and the “students” will have another
opportunity to review the material in a new way.
Hide Your Phone
Finally, you probably already know how
important it is to eliminate distractions, and also how distracting today’s
smartphones can be. However, simply putting your phone on “silent” or even
“airplane mode” may not be enough to stop it affecting your focus during a
A 2017 study by the University of Texas at
Austin found that just having a phone within reach—even if it was switched off
and placed in a bag—was enough to reduce cognitive capacity when trying to
Study subjects who had their phones out of sight in another room outperformed
those whose phones were visible or more easily available. If you’re studying at
home, put your phone in another room to maximize your focus. You can always
check it during one of your pre-planned study breaks!