Through college, I got a lot of advice from professors and fellow students on the best ways to study. Some of the things I heard sounded crazy to me. Like the students who stayed up all night reading chapter after chapter in a textbook or writing papers. I like my sleep too much!
Eventually, I found my own way to study, but I was still curious if there are more efficient ways to study than the one I used. I’ve done the research and collected some science-backed study tips useful for any learner.
1. Learn by “chunking”
If you’ve taken a psychology class, you may already be familiar with the idea of chunking. The theory is that people tend to remember things better when they learn related ideas in small chunks, rather than simply trying to cram all the details of a topic into their heads at once.
It’s all based on the capacity of the working memory and how our brains turn short-term memories into long-term ones. Psychologists have consistently shown that people can easily recall a string of numbers or names that is 5 to 9 objects long. That means the average person can repeat about 7 items back a few seconds after being given a list.
Students who cram may be taking in a lot of information at once, but since their working memories can’t hold all those facts, they tend to forget most of what they learn. One way to overcome knowledge loss by cramming is to chunk topics together. Research has demonstrated that subjects tend to remember more items on a list when they relate certain items on the list with others.
So if you find yourself in the (non-ideal) situation where you need to remember a large amount of information in a small amount of time, try to group facts together based on their characteristics. Or, find a pattern in the information that is meaningful to you to connect seemingly unrelated ideas.
2. Don’t fall victim to the Forgetting Curve
You’ve heard of learning curves, but have you ever heard the Forgetting Curve? Research shows that people are much more likely to be able to recall information from a one hour lecture when they review what they learned later on. And, not surprisingly, the more times one turns the information over in their mind, the longer they’ll remember it.
Like chunking, this hack is based on the functioning of the working memory. People take in an astounding amount of sensory information each day. Since not all of this information is important, the brain must decide what to hold on to and what to forget. One way the brain decides what takes priority is by paying more attention to information that it has processed multiple times.
You’re more likely to remember information from your lectures if you review what you’ve learned every day for a small amount of time everyday rather than cramming. If you don’t have time to review everything you’ve learned in a class everyday at least try to make sure you’ve looked at and actively processed a topic several times before a test.
One way to do this is to actively read the relevant material from your textbook before your lecture, take notes, and then review those notes that night before you go to sleep. Obviously, it’s helpful to look over your notes again before a test, and the more time you can find to review, the less you’ll be re-learning before your test. It can actually help save you time in the long run!
3. Exercise before you study (and consistently!)
Exercise has both long and short-term effects on cognition. When you exercise, your body interprets the physical stress as you fighting or fleeing an enemy and activates your sympathetic nervous system. In response, your brain is flooded with extra blood, rich in oxygen and nutrients, to make what it thinks could be life-saving decisions. It’s even been demonstrated that exercise can lead to neurogenesis, or the creation of new brain cells–a process previously thought impossible.
In addition, a brain structure called the hippocampus is stimulated during exercise. Research has shown that the hippocampus is important for reasoning and memory. Besides short-term boosts in cognition, regular exercise can actually slow down age-related shrinkage of the hippocampus.
Erickson KI, Voss MW, Prakash RS, Bsak C, Szabo A, Chaddock L, Kim JS, Heo S, Alves H, White SM, Wojcicki TR, Mailey E, Vieira VJ, Martin SA, Pence BD, Woods JA, McAuley E, Kramer AF. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. (2011) 108: 3017–3022.
Another benefit of exercise is its role as a stress-reducer. Stress can be a huge hindrance to focus and memory formation (thanks to the hormone cortisol), and unfortunately, college can be extremely stressful. Luckily, exercise is a cheap and easy way to curb some of the stress associated with day-to-day life, ensuring you can focus on learning what you need to for your classes.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week to maximize benefits. Small lifestyle changes, like walking or biking to class or work, are an easy way to get those minutes in. To get the immediate benefits of exercise before a study session, try doing 20 minutes of moderate cardio before hitting the books.
4. Study before you go to sleep
A collaborative study published by researchers from Notre Dame and Harvard found that research subjects tended to remember unrelated word pairs better if they had learned them shortly before a good night’s sleep, rather than in the morning before 12 hours of being awake.
It has long been theorized that sleep helps to stabilize the memories we form throughout the day. Interestingly, it seems that being awake does the exact opposite–creating interference in our memories and causing us to forget some of what we’ve learned.
This just serves as more evidence it’s best not to pull an all-nighter. Try to get 7-8 hours of sleep consistently, and possibly schedule a study session before bedtime.
5. Break up long study sessions for better focus
You may be tempted to commit yourself to hours-long study sessions. There’s nothing wrong with having the occasional study-athon, just make sure that you give yourself shorts breaks while you work.
Research has shown that when people try to focus on a single task for a long period of time, their minds start to wander. It’s the same phenomenon you experience when you hear the same sound over and over again–you become habituated to it, and it becomes background. The idea is the same for a task you’re trying to focus on. In essence, you start going through the motions without actually thinking about what you’re doing.
It turns out that taking short intermittent breaks can help you regain focus and study more effectively.
If you know you have problems focusing while studying or are simply interested in getting the most out of your study sessions as possible, try this: set a timer for the amount of time you think you can study without your mind wandering (you could even use the timer to measure the time between when you start studying until you notice yourself becoming distracted) then, once that time is up, take a short (around 5 minutes) break to engage your mind in some other task, such as grabbing a coffee or starting a load of laundry before sitting back down to study. This should allow you to reboot and refocus on studying.
Not all of these tips will work for everyone. But it’s worth trying them out to see if they can afford you even a small advantage. Time is precious–why study in a way that’s not helping you learn the best you possibly can?
How to Build a Paper Research WikiMay 11th, 2009 · 41 comments
Back in the early days of Study Hacks, I introduced the paper research database. The idea was to build a database of every quote you might need to cite in your paper. These citations could be sorted by date or type, and be linked to their matching source. The technique works because it helps you build and organize a comprehensive understanding of an event or idea before you start writing about it.
I should be clear: I love this technique. I used it to write two massive art history research papers while here at MIT. Recently, however, when I began the research process for my new book, I found myself drawn to a new strategy: the paper research wiki.
In this post I want to explain this approach, which has the potential to significantly improve the complexity and confidence of your written arguments.
The Basics of a Research Wiki
The research wiki I’m currently using is not my first attempt at this strategy. In fact, it’s the fourth research wiki I’ve started. The first three quickly faded in disuse. This last attempt, however, has become an incredible aid to my writing.
What’s the difference? It all comes down to structure…
If you jump blindly into a wiki, and start creating pages left and right, you’re unlikely to gain much benefit. When I attempted this approach with my first research wikis, I ended up building a page for every idea or piece of information, with few internal links. The site soon devolved into an overly complicated, wannabe notebook.
For my latest wiki, by contrast, I enforced structure. Specifically, I introduced a strict information hierarchy:
- At the bottom level, there are primary sources. Above them are second-level structures. Above them are third-level structures, and so on.
- My linking rule is simple: pages can only link to those from a lower level. Primary sources cannot link to any other pages. Second-level structures can link only to primary sources. Third-level structures can only link to second-level structures and primary sources. Etc.
As you ascend through the levels of this hierarchy, you increase the complexity of the ideas being captured. For example, here’s a screen shot of the home page for my book research wiki:
Notice, I have two types of primary sources: interview subjects and research papers. Each interview subject has his or her own page where I capture all of the relevant information — from contact information to interview transcripts. Each research paper has a page with a full citation and summary. These are the foundational blocks on top of which everything else about my book is built.
My second-level structures are ideas. For example, if you click on the ideas link you’ll see a list that includes the Failed Simulation Effect. The corresponding page describes the idea, linking back to the relevant primary sources, including the relevant research papers and students who exhibited the effect.
At the third-level, I have annotated outlines for each of the major parts of my books. The annotated outlines link heavily to both ideas and interview subjects.
When it comes to writing a part of the book, I can start with the relevant annotated outline and quickly drill down to the needed information. As you might imagine, this allows me to write with great confidence.
Applying the Technique to Your Paper
For a standard college research paper, I would suggest the following information hierarchy (this is only a suggestion, feel free to modify as needed):
- Have your primary sources include the actual primary sources: books, articles, interviews. Create one page for each such source. Include on the page the properly formatted citation and a list of the relevant quotes you might use from the source.
- Have your second-level structures include events and ideas. Create one page for each of these items. On the page, you can link every quote and fact in your description to the matching primary source.
- Have your third-level structures capture timelines and comparison charts. For example, you could have a page that orders and dates a sequence of important events (linking each to its matching second-level page), or a page that compares different related ideas (linking to the matching idea descriptions).
- Have your fourth-level structures capture large arguments. Here you can draw freely from all of the lower structures.
Notice, this wiki is different than an outline. Starting from the fourth-level argument pages, you should be able to easily drill down to the primary sources needed to build a standard flat outline. In other words, put most of your thinking into the wiki, then generate the pre-writing outline at the last minute.
The Advantages of a Wiki Approach
Wiki-driven writing enjoys two important advantages. First, the structure of the wiki helps you structure your research. Plugging your research into a clear information hierarchy is superior to simply creating a large pile of stuff. Second, working through these different levels forces you to do lots of high-level thinking before you get to the outlining and writing phase. In some sense, your paper research wiki requires you to master the nuances and complexity of the topic before you think about what you want to say about it. I can tell you from experiences, this is the approach that generates A* results.
Finding a Wiki
If you’re tech savvy, you could potentially setup your own wiki on a personal web hosting account. But I suggest just using PBworks (formerly PBwiki), which has every feature you need, works fine, and is free. It takes roughly 7 seconds to setup a PBworks wiki, so the required effort is minimal.
Practice Makes Perfect
It takes a little time to customize this technique to suit your own tastes. But if you’re serious about producing high quality papers, then I highly suggest experimenting with this strategy. I’ve been loving it.