The best way to study for an exam.

Posted on March 25, 2020 · Posted in Blog, General, How to Study, Personal

It seems like I’ve devoted many years of my life to studying, both during my undergraduate and graduate school days. Here’s what I learned over that period of time:

Quantity is not the same as quality. I used to study all day long, taking no breaks whatsoever and sleeping very little. This did not help my brain retain everything I needed for an exam.

Teaching and learning go hand in hand. If you want to learn and retain what you’ve learned, there’s a small trick to doing it successfully and it involves teaching. More on this later.

Timing is everything. There are certain parts of the day that are the most conducive to absorbing new information, particularly the most challenging cognitive tasks like problem-solving.

So what are the specific tips that made the biggest difference?

I’ve condensed them into these 5.

#1. Study new material early in the day.

  • Why? For most people, your brain’s peak performance happens 2-4 hours after you wake up. This is the time when your brain can focus on analytical thinking that requires the most concentration. For studying, this can be reading, writing, coding, analyzing, critical thinking, or problem solving.
  • When? If you wake up at 7, your peak times are between 9 and 11. You can extend this time until lunch to maximize your peak performance.
  • What are additional benefits? Doing your hard work early in the day allows your brain to focus fully on the problem at hand, with fewer distractions, less inputs from your environment, and with a lot of energy that you’ve gained from a restful night. It’s the exact opposite of what can happen if you leave your toughest studying for nighttime, when you are exhausted from the day.

#2. Use a timer to be more effective.

  • How? Forget about sitting at your desk trying to cram everything for hours. Instead, use a timer to manage your studying better. That way you allow your brain to focus in a more targeted and effective way.
  • What about reviewing? Set the timer to 30 or 60 minute increments to maximize concentration; or, you can also try the Pomodoro technique which consists of 25 minute blocks of time, followed by 5 minute breaks.
  • What about practicing exam questions? Use the review questions provided in your textbook or given by your professor. Write them down on a sheet of paper. Then, use the Pomodoro technique to rehearse for the exam. Give yourself only a short time to answer each question. Use each 25-minute block of time to cover several questions, and go down the list until you’ve covered them all.
  • What about taking a break? You should take not one, but many breaks. When you’re done with one timed segment, step away from your desk and do something completely unrelated to work: get some fresh air, stretch, have a snack, grab a cup of coffee or tea.

#3. Teach what you’ve learned.

  • Why? One of the most powerful memory techniques is recalling newly learned information by teaching it to someone else. This technique helps you review, recall, and retain what you’ve learned better than just silently looking over the material. Try these steps:
  • Who with? You can teach a close friend or family member. Too shy to speak to anyone? Pretend you have a couple of invisible students who really need to learn what you just covered!
  • Where? Create a private classroom. Take a large sheet of white paper (or tape together several sheets for a bigger writing surface), then tape it to your bedroom wall at eye level. Be sure you have some leg room to stand in front of it. Have a pen handy, and a thick black marker (or different colored highlighters) to underline important concepts.
  • How? Write an outline of the most important points in the chapter you just covered, then go over the concepts aloud one by one. Make your “lecture” come alive by drawing diagrams on the side and by providing a few examples. At the end, summarize key parts of the lecture and highlight these sections with a thick marker or highlighter. This helps you recall details better and solidify what you’ve learned.

#4. Get some exercise afterwards.

  • Why? Exercise is definitely important to boost memory, but the timing of it is key. Scientists found that people who exercised four hours after their study session retained the information better a few days later than those who exercised either immediately after studying or those who didn’t exercise at all.
  • What’s the science behind it? Brain scans from the study show that delayed exercising affects the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is important for learning and memory.
  • How? Take a walk for 30 minutes. Go for a bike ride. Make time to be at the gym for an hour. Or, stay at home and pick a YouTube exercise video to practice.

#5. Go to sleep on time.

  • Why? You may be studying for an exam, but in order to pass you’ll need to make sure your brain functions at optimum levels. Chronic sleep deprivation can reduce your cognitive abilities, can impact your concentration, and can even reduce your IQ. Don’t waste all that time you spent going over the course material.
  • How? Train your brain to wind down with these tips. Set a bedtime alarm to go off 30 minutes before going to sleep. Stay away from electronics (mainly your computer and TV screens) an hour before bed. Do something relaxing before hitting the pillow: read a few pages of a book, listen to some music, have a cup of hot tea.
  • What to do before falling asleep? Focus on your breathing. Try to do 10 deep breaths, slowly inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. For even more impact, go for another 10. Try to focus on the act of breathing and listening to your inhalations and exhalations. When you’re done, end your day on a positive note — tell yourself, I’m on my way to pass this exam just fine. – Nela Canovic

Natural memory enhancer