Study Smarter Not Harder  

By: Sophia Erickson

Ahh, finals season. The last home stretch before four glorious weeks of relaxation, holiday cheer and new years resolutions. If you are anything like me, this time of year creeps up suspiciously quick and I often find myself in the library running on 4 cups of coffee and a bodo’s bagel wondering how to study for what seems like 8 exams in 8 days. This time of year can be especially hard because we are bouncing back from Thanksgiving break, wrapping up all of our loose ends of the semester, studying for finals, shopping for holiday gifts – need I go on? If you too find yourself procrastinating or stressing over everything you have to do then keep reading. Here are 5 simple tips to help you study smarter, not harder, this finals season. 

  1. Find a study space that works for you 

One of my biggest tips for studying is to first set up your environment. Think about the atmosphere that you feel comfortable in that supports productivity and efficient studying. While certain things in your environment may seem insignificant, studies show that even “indoor physical environmental factors, including temperature, noise, and illumination exert significant main effects on learning efficiency in perception, memory, problem-solving, and attention-oriented tasks” (Xiong, 2018).

Once you have picked your spot, make sure you have snacks at the ready, caffeine, chargers and all the supplies you may need so you can limit interruptions. Also, remember to set boundaries for yourself. When you are in the middle of studying, you don’t want to be distracted by roommates or a cluttered room or enticed by your comfy bed only steps away. By creating boundaries you prevent distractions and set yourself up for success. 

  1. Know your best study time 

If you want to study effectively, it’s important that you do it at your most productive time, when your brain can focus better and absorb more information. For some people, it could be in the evening or nighttime, while for others, morning is the most ideal time.

That said, timing is different for everyone. In order to find your most appropriate time, ask yourself these questions:

  • When do you feel the most wide awake? It should be when your brain is set at the readiest state to absorb information and/or do some critical thinking. Don’t try to study during your usual nap time or very late in the night if you are not used to staying up late. 
  • When do you feel it’s easier to concentrate? Don’t choose a study time that is prone to distraction. If your study place tends to be more crowded and louder during your studying time and causes you to be distracted, think about choosing another time or place..
  • Can you stick to that optimal timing? Good timing doesn’t help much without consistency. You should be able to study in your best hours at least a couple of days per week. This will help to improve your studying quality over time.
  1. Space out your studying 

How many times have you had an exam scheduled months in advance only for you to start studying 3 days before? While this is a common problem that students run into, cramming for an exam does no good. When you rush to absorb large quantities of information, important details are often glossed over or lost and it becomes difficult to thoroughly process important concepts and integrate them in a meaningful way. 

Rather than intensively cramming right before the exam, a more effective strategy, that results in better long-term memory, is to distribute your exam preparation over multiple sessions. This is known as spaced practice or distributed practice. By “spacing” learning activities over time (think 1 to 2 hours everyday rather than a 8-hour marathon cramming session), you will be able to learn more information and retain it longer. Simply  “the same amount of repeated studying of the same information spaced out over time will lead to greater retention of that information in the long run, compared with repeated studying of the same information for the same amount of time in one study session” (Weinstein, 2018). Without the pressure of time, you can spend more time processing and integrating important concepts and details from a portion of the course.

If you’re interested, Anki is a great (and free!!) resource that many of our team members use to incorporate distributed practice into our own study routines!

  1. Test yourself instead of re-reading notes and textbooks 

This method of studying is often known as active recall, or when you actively stimulate your memory for a piece of information. Popular examples include using flashcards (like Anki!) or coming up with questions for yourself based on what you have just learned. Simply, when your brain has to search itself and sort through thousands of pieces of information to look for that one specific piece of data, you are much more likely to remember it. 

One study that furthered this concept was done by Morris et al. They simulated a real-life experience of learning names when meeting new people at a party. One group experienced representation of names, and another group applied retrieval practice. On average, the group experiencing representation of the name of a newly met person recalled 5.8 names at the final test. The retrieval practice group recalled 11.5 names on average. If you compare this experiment to studying, it shows how actively trying to remember concepts you learned is a more effective strategy than merely hearing the concepts or reading them repeatedly (Morris, 2005). 

  1. Prioritize rest, nutrition, movement and mental health

When studying, make sure to give yourself at least a five-minute break every hour to remain fresh. Your brain uses a lot of glucose during all that hard work, so it needs time to replenish itself regularly. Take a walk, stretch, meditate, grab a snack – anything to give yourself a moment to collect yourself and recenter. Along those same lines, incorporate movement of any kind into your routine. It has been shown that exercising reduces stress, prevents burnout, and delays the onset of mental health conditions such as depression (Wolf, 2017).

Another aspect of productive studying is getting enough sleep (aka don’t pull “all-nighter” study sessions). Studies show that sleep deprivation reduces the effectiveness of study and can considerably hinder your performance on the day of the exam (Wolf, 2017).  Finally, make sure to take care of yourself through eating nutrition meals. While it may be tempting to sit in a library for 8 hours chugging coffee, this is not sustainable and does more harm than good. In fact, eating an unbalanced diet can actually reduce concentration and attentiveness which in turn reduces effective study time (Solomon, 2016). 

Overall, be kind to yourself! Remember that the stress is temporary and one grade will not dramatically alter your life. And hey! The holidays are just around the corner so hang in there, you got this!

Resources List:

Morris, P. E., Fritz, C. O., Jackson, L., Nichol, E., & Roberts, E. (2005). Strategies for learning proper names: Expanding retrieval practice, meaning and imagery. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 19(6), 779-798.

Solomon, A., Mbat, E., Medavarapu, S., Faleti, O., & Otohinoyi, D. (2016). Feeding habits and its impact on concentration and attentiveness among medical students in Dominica. Arch Med, 8, 5.

Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive research: principles and implications, 3(1), 2. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-017-0087-y

Wolf, M. R., & Rosenstock, J. B. (2017). Inadequate Sleep and Exercise Associated with Burnout and Depression Among Medical Students. Academic psychiatry : the journal of the American Association of Directors of Psychiatric Residency Training and the Association for Academic Psychiatry, 41(2), 174–179. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40596-016-0526-y

Xiong, L., Huang, X., Li, J., Mao, P., Wang, X., Wang, R., & Tang, M. (2018). Impact of Indoor Physical Environment on Learning Efficiency in Different Types of Tasks: A 3 × 4 × 3 Full Factorial Design Analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(6), 1256. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15061256

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