This comes a bit late for some students’ mid-semester exams, but Sue Shellenbarger’s Wall Street Journal article offers a number of tips on the best way to study. I’ve summarized eight of them and then added two of my own (# 9 & 10).
1. Testing yourself repeatedly before an exam teaches the brain to retrieve and apply knowledge from memory. The method is more effective than re-reading a textbook.
2. Review the toughest material right before going to bed the night before the test. That approach makes it easier to recall the material later.
3. Don’t wake up earlier than usual to study; this could interfere with the rapid-eye-movement sleep that aids memory. (All-nighters impair memory and reasoning for up to 4 days).
4. Eat breakfast the day of a big test. High-carb, high-fiber, slow-digesting foods like oatmeal are best.
5. What you eat a week in advance matters, too. Students who ate a regular balanced diet that included fruit and veg did better than those who ate a high-fat, low-carb diet that was heavy on meat, eggs, cheese, and cream. The brain requires a constant supply of energy and “has only a limited backup battery.”
6. While many teens insist they study better while listening to music or texting their friends, research shows the opposite: Information reviewed amid distractions is less likely to be recalled later.
7. Reducing “novelty and stress on the day of the exam” can prevent choking under pressure. If you are taking the exam in an unfamiliar place, visit the room in advance.
8. If you’re still feeling anxious about an exam, set aside 10 minutes beforehand to write down your worries. Expressing one’s worries in writing, unburdens the brain.
Here’s 9 & 10 from me.
9. Short and frequent is better than long and rare. It is better to study your four or five subjects every day for shorter times than to study one subject each day for the full day. By the time you go back to what you studied four or five days previously, most of what you learned will have gone.
10. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I know it’s really boring but it’s also really effective. When I ask struggling Hebrew students about their study habits, they will usually say, “Well, I study 2-3 hours every day. The first thing I tell them to do is to shorten their study time. Once they’ve started breathing again, I explain the strategy using the following diagram:
(I can’t remember where I picked this up, but it works for all subjects, and especially for language study).
8am: Study the subject first thing in the morning for 45-60 minutes maximum. As soon as you end that period, your mind immediately starts losing data at a frighteningly rapid rate. Imagine where this graph ends up by the end of the day (feel familiar?)
11am: Re-study the same material again, although this time it should only take you 20-30 minutes. Notice that the knowledge level is higher than the the first period (and reached faster), and that the data loss rate has a shallower gradient (it takes longer to forget what you’ve learned).
4pm: Re-study same material again, this time for 10-15 minutes. Knowledge peak is even higher and gradient of loss even shallower. (In between these study times, you can be studying other subjects using the same method.)
9pm: Just before bed, review the material one more time for about 5-10 mins. Note peak and gradient (appealing, isn’t it!). Compare where you are now with where you would be if you only studied the subject for one long period. Where would that red line be? Preachers, imagine what this could do for your eye-contact!
And if you want to seal it for good, do a quick 5-minute review first thing the next morning before studying new material. That will really set the mental concrete.