10 Practical Study Tips from a Memory Expert, Explained by our Psychologists

When it comes to an approach to study, one size does not fit all.

Many students will find and develop their own approach over time.

But there are some principles that have shown to be particularly effective for many studiers, and can be a good starting point for a new study plan or a change of approach.

A recent article on Buzzfeed identifies some of the best approaches to study by a Professor of cognitive science, and our staff psychologist Christina has weighed in on how and why these tactics work!

  1. Engage with the material in an ‘active and meaningful’ way.

Passive reading and highlighting simply won’t cut it, says Macquarie University Professor Amanda Barnier.

Christina explains that this is because simply reading and regurgitating information only transfers that information into your short-term memory, where we can only hold 5 to 9 pieces of information at a time.

In order for our study to be effective, we need to encode it into our long-term memory.

We do this by adding meaning to the content we are reading by actively interpreting it rather than passively consuming it.

  1. Write your notes in your own words.

This is one way of engaging with the material on a deeper, more active level.

Paraphrasing the content in your own words enables a more in-depth understanding of the work, and therefore adds meaning to it, encoding it into our long-term memory.

  1. Take your notes by hand, rather than typing them.

Barnier says that this is recommended because people can type a lot faster than they can write.

Writing things by hand consequently gives you more time to process the information.

Christina see’s both sides of the argument:

‘Writing by hand is more active, and we can get lazy on the computer. But the computer can help with organisation and presenting information coherently.’

The key is to avoid the temptation of simple cutting and pasting when typing notes, being sure to actively engage with the content while utilising the ability to easily reshuffle and edit content for clarity.

  1. Make a study timetable with a study/ test/ study/ test schedule.

It’s not adequate to simply study or simply test yourself.

‘Complete study’ is the combination of putting into practice what you know and seeing if you’re able to use those skills, then analysing areas of weakness or gaps in your knowledge.

You can then use these results to create a new direction for your future study.

‘The best way to check and see whether or not you’ll remember something in the future is to test yourself on it’, says Barnier.

So study, then test, then study, then test again, and repeat the process until you’re confident that you have retained and understood the information.

  1. Don’t listen to music while you study.

Christina says that the verdict is out on this one.

On the one hand, studies have shown that classical music can help you to relax and provide a good rhythm that’s beneficial for study.

On the other hand, and probably more significantly, music – especially lyric-heavy music – just provides a form of distraction.

So generally it is better to conserve our mental energy for study, and save music for breaks or down time.

  1. Make a mind map to connect all the information you have in a subject.

The masses of competing information in a single subject can be overwhelming and clutter our thoughts.

Christina says that by making a mind map, you can clearly see how everything is interrelated, and the information is cognitively easier to access.

It also allows you to see if you’ve covered everything, and to identify any gaps in your study, while the visual aspect makes the information even more accessible.

  1. Explain what you’re studying to someone out loud, without your notes.

‘Talking to someone about what you’ve been studying is a great way to see exactly how much you really know about it’, says Barnier.

And according to Christina, we gain confidence by being ‘tested’ in front of another person who give us feedback.

This is important because it can help to minimise our anxiety during the actual exam, so we don’t have to waste any valuable time worrying.

The point of doing this practice without notes is to test our ability to retrieve information without the cues we’re used to, which mimics the exam environment.

  1. Read over your notes before you go to bed each night.

Barnier claims that ‘sleep is important for consolidating information, so it’s really good to study before bed’.

Christina says that this approach is beneficial because studies show that summarising your notes help to encode them into your long-term memory, and reading over the notes before bed is like a form of summarising.

  1. Make visual associations with concepts that you find difficult to understand or remember.

This is a way of adding meaning to the content, thereby more actively engaging with it.

This is what is referred to as a mneumonic process – it creates a pattern or system of ideas or associations that makes information easier to remember.

10. Space out your study sessions for each subject.

Quality over quantity!

‘Our memory starts to decline after a day or so’, says Barnier.

So giving yourself scheduled breaks will help fight off fatigue.

‘Open study’, that is, unstructured study, can lead to procrastination because there’s no deadline.

Therefore a study timetable will offer the best bang for your buck as far as quality of study is concerned.

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