No matter how many hours I spent rereading physics principles, I couldn’t keep the equations straight. Like many students, I was going at it wrong. Reviewing course notes is the most popular study approach (in a Student Health 101 survey, 80 percent of respondents said they do this). But research shows it doesn’t necessarily work—unless you’re reviewing those notes the right way. Fortunately, a vast field of science devoted to memory and retaining information has given us more effective strategies for academic success, and some are pretty surprising.
Short-term fixes for when your test is next week
Instead of highlighting and underlining material—which studies suggest does not boost learning or test performance—come at it actively. Here’s how:
1. Ask yourself questions about your material
“[Y]ou create a better understanding, which leads to better memory and learning,” said Dr. Mark McDaniel, co-author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Belknap Press, 2014), in an interview with Vox.
“I say it out loud to myself [while] either teaching it to myself or to others, or repeating off of flashcards. Repetition and rewriting things helps a lot too.”
—Mia, senior, Boston, Massachusetts
2. Sketch out diagrams and flowcharts
Illustrations promote deeper learning, especially when they draw connections between concepts, according to a study published in Learning and Instruction.
3. Use flashcards
By helping you identify your strengths and weaknesses, flashcards direct you toward the areas that need more of your attention, according to a study conducted at King’s College, London. Don’t drop a card when you get the answer right. “Studies show that keeping the correct item in the deck and encountering it again is useful,” said Dr. McDaniel in Vox.
“Making flashcards and studying them with friends works best for me.”
—Timiekka, senior, Boston, Massachusetts
4. Take frequent practice tests
“The biggest surprise to many people is that taking a test on something—having to retrieve it from memory—leads to much greater retention on a test given later than restudying the information does,” says Henry Roediger, another co-author of Make It Stick.
“I make lots of notecards, ask my teachers questions, and take lots of practice tests—especially when it comes to math. Before my IB exams, I took a math practice test every day to prepare for my test.”
—Moira, recent graduate, Indianapolis, Indiana
5. No cramming
Spreading out your study sessions gives your memories time to consolidate, according to a 2009 study in Applied Cognitive Psychology. During long study sessions, take frequent breaks and focus your eyes on distant objects to alleviate eye fatigue.
And don’t forget to…
6. Switch up your studying HQ
Mixing up where you study (e.g., transferring from your desk at home to the café) can help you remember your material, according to a 2008 study in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Studying in similar locations to where you will take the tests (i.e., a classroom) may help you retrieve the information when you need it.
7. Eat balanced meals
The week of a big test, make sure your diet is balanced and high in fiber. In a 2011 study at the University of Oxford, UK, students who avoided high-fat, low-carb diets in favor of balanced, fibrous meals up to a week before a big exam ultimately performed better.
Long-term fixes for when life is a series of tests
8. Relish your sleep and exercise
Regularly getting a full night’s sleep helps us better retain information and consolidate memories, says a 2006 study in Neuroscientist. Don’t even think about waking up early to cram—this disrupts the REM sleep that solidifies memory. Also, take the scenic walk to class: Regular physical activity boosts your brain’s ability to function, according to Neurochemistry International (2001).
“Getting good sleep and enough food to eat works best for me.”
—Mordechai, junior, Las Vegas, Nevada
9. Practice a musical instrument
People who regularly practice a musical instrument tend to outperform those who don’t in tests of memory and cognitive ability, according to Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2014).
Henry L. Roediger, PhD, professor of psychology, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.
Callender, A., & McDaniel, M. (2009). The limited benefits of rereading educational texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34(1), 30–40.
Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ819481
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105–119.
Retrieved from https://psi.sagepub.com/content/9/3/105.abstract
Carey, B. (2010, September 6). Forget what you know about good study habits. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Stromberg, J. (2015, January 16). Re-reading is inefficient: Here are 8 tips for studying smarter. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2014/6/24/5824192/study-smarter-learn-better-8-tips-from-memory-researchers
Black, P., & William, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 81–90.
Retrieved from https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/Inside_the_Black_Box_184495_7.pdf
Borota, D., Murray, E., Keceli, G., Chang, A., et al. (2014). Post-study caffeine administration enhances memory consolidation in humans. Nature, 17(1), 201–203. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v17/n2/full/nn.3623.html
Holloway, C., Cochlin, L., Emmanuel, Y., & Murray, A., et al. (2011). A high-fat diet impairs cardiac high-energy phosphate metabolism and cognitive function in healthy human subjects. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 93(4), 748–755.
Retrieved from https://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/93/4/748.full
Kornell, N. (2009). Optimising learning using flashcards: Spacing is more effective than cramming. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23, 1297–1317.
Retrieved from https://sites.williams.edu/nk2/files/2011/08/Kornell.2009b.pdf
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., & Nathan, M. J., et al. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Association for Psychological Science, 14(1), 4–58. Retrieved from https://psi.sagepub.com/content/14/1/4.full?ijkey=Z10jaVH/60XQM&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi
Born, J., Rasch, B., & Gais, S. (2006). Sleep to remember. Neuroscientist, 12(5), 410–424. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16957003
Radak, Z., Kaneko, T., Tahara, S., & Nakamoto, H., et al. (2001). Regular exercise improves cognitive function and decreases oxidative damage in rat brains. Neurochemistry International, 38(1), 17–23. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10913684
Nutley, S., Darki, F., & Klingberg, T. (2014). Music practice is associated with development of working memory during childhood and adolescence. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 926. Retrieved from https://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00926/abstract