The science of studying

Tanuj Ashwin Kumar

School will soon be in full swing! As is part of the usual first-year rituals, you are about to cast yourself into a new university life with a fresh outlook on things—even if you might still be a little confused about yourself and your future. One thing’s for sure though; you  want to make sure you can jump into your course work with enough verve and vigour that you’ll be able to balance everything elegantly while having enough weird school stories to tell your friends.

But you may be faced with a problem. If you’re like me and many other people I know, some feeling of confidence in your existing high school studying methods can be knocked down by what looks like a great big deal of much more complex university-level work. But that’s okay! You’re ready to pick the fruits of knowledge and launch yourself into new academic waters, even if they’re a bit scary.

While this particular jump in complexity may startle you, the good news is that tried, and generally useful, scientifically-supported study methods grow in scale. This is where The Strand‘s Science section comes in to help! The details of studying can differ between subjects (for example, how I study for mathematics is completely different from how my friends study for literature), and on an individual level, you’re the only one who knows what works for yourself. So, these tips will serve as general guidelines that we hope you will find useful!

Spacing and Repetition

One of the most common ways people end up studying is to cram everything at the last minute. In the first few weeks of class, before the first midterms, students tend to either try and coast in the beginning with the most basic of note revision, and then kick it up much closer to the midterm. Others start off strong in the beginning, drain or loosen out in the middle, and then scramble again near the midterm. Sometimes this  works for people, which is fine, but what’s more likely to happen is an inconsistency in remembering or understanding facts for the long term. Cramming is especially bad for this, particularly with all-nighters. Studies dating back to the 1930s that have been held up and expanded upon to this day posit that the idea of “spaced repetition” has been central to making learning more efficient. The concept is simple; the less you use or think about information, the more likely it is to decay.

So, what to do? A few hours after your lecture, try reviewing the information; then do the same the next day. In the next few days, keep increasing the time spent reviewing. This spaced repetition schedule is actually the basis of a number of flash card programs such as Anki and Quizlet, and is used to great effect in the famous language learning app Duolingo. But generally speaking, spacing and repeating your learning will help better internalize the material, and reduce a bit of midterm week stress.

Testing and Teaching

It’s useful here to draw the distinction between “passive learning” and “active learning.” Passive learning involves just casually reading the textbook, going over lecture recordings, using your cute highlighters while re-reading notes in recitations, and so on. None of these activities involve an active engagement with the information. Active learning, in contrast, is how your brain best solidifies information, tossing and turning it, squeezing it and poking it. Active learning involves asking yourself questions about the material, reframing it, going deeper into the facts, or various other types of self-testing. In fact, self-testing is a simple but fantastic way to check that you fully understand a concept. Physicist, Richard Feynman stated that “what I cannot create, I do not understand,” and while this generally refers to recreating and re-deriving physical and mathematical information, it can be easily extrapolated to the idea that “you can’t fully understand something until you can re-create or summarize it on paper,” which is precisely what a test or an essay is! The natural extension of this idea is to not simply learn the information but to pretend to teach it. This perspective helps you grapple with how to best understand the information so you can express it to other people in a concise way, which will help you understand what you’re learning. People who might not be in your major asking you to further clarify or better explain things will help you extend your thinking into corners of your study material, making you more confident in understanding anything and everything about the topic. Active learning through testing and teaching will help keep your thoughts sharp when confronting your books. 

Sleeping

I know what you’re thinking. You’re either telling yourself “I promise to sleep as much as I can,” or “I don’t need sleep, sleep is useless” (perhaps with less exaggeration, I hope). Why is this here? Isn’t this about study habits, not mom-like advice? Thankfully for your brain and your fatigue, sleeping is extremely beneficial to your study habits. In fact, getting some desperately-needed rest is exactly how your brain is able to retain the things that you learn. In simple terms, deep sleep is when your brain organizes the many bits and pieces of information you stuff into it, and internalizes them. It isn’t unusual to be stuck on a problem late into the night, fall asleep, and then wake up refreshed, suddenly understanding what you might need to do to progress. Of course, sleep also has many other benefits. Keep this in mind when thinking about last-minute cramming and all-nighters, especially when taken into account along with the other study methods. Rest and refresh your brain, you’re human! 

These are all well-known tips, but the biggest challenge is two-fold: getting the energy to start doing these things, and being consistent and diligent with making them habits. This becomes an issue especially alongside all of the confusion that belies a typical first-year experience. Thankfully, you have time to fully hone these skills, even if you only start the minute you step onto the college cobblestones. Many of your friends will likely be in the same boat as you, so working together to help each other understand study material can be really useful. Even if you don’t study well in groups (like me), friendly check-ins and reminders can be nice. Above all, your mental health is important There can be a lot of stress around marks, but your GPA does not define you, especially in post-secondary institutions that are by no means equal in how they may treat students’ identities and experiences. Ultimately, the science behind studying can serve as a guideline for you to tweak what works best for you, but trust me—you will be okay!