How did you learn to speak English? How did you learn that five times ten equals? How did you remember the way to get into college today? Did you find yourself consciously think about which turns you were taking or the way you were going or did it happen so effortlessly it nearly felt automatic? Learning and memory is an intrinsic part of everyday life, from the moment we wake up, we are processing and acquiring new information and using our memory to remember faces, facts and where the door into the lecture theatre is push or pull! But how can we use scientific research and understanding of learning and memory to improve our study techniques?

Information processing occurs in the cerebrum of the brain, which is the large folded mass that makes up most of the brain. From here, sensory information is transmitted from neuron to neuron across the synapses of neurons (a synapse is the space in between the beginning of the signal receiving neuron and the end of the signal transmitting neuron). The information is stored as sensory memory and may further be stored in our short-term memory or long-term memory (LTM) depending on how it is encoded, consolidated and then retrieved. These three steps have a major influence on the type of memory in which the information is stored. Therefore, in trying to improve study techniques, the focus must be on encoding information into the LTM; where it can be relied upon and retrieved effortlessly on the day of the exam.

6 scientifically-proven methods of study and learning

  1. Spaced Repetition

According to recent research into the area of LTM and deep learning, spaced repetition is a key technique in encoding information into our LTM. The idea of spaced repetition is that when studying new information, students should space out their learning, instead of piling it into one or two weeks. For example, when studying a certain topic, if students were to study for 20 hours on the topic spaced out over 4 weeks rather than one, the information would be embedded significantly better. Scientists believe that spaced repetition is so effective because the process of forgetting and retrieving the information furthers solidifies the knowledge in the LTM.

  1. Test, retest, test again

Research has proven time and again, that testing our ability to retrieve information is an effective method of active learning, that supersedes any form of review or rereading of notes. Studies have found up to a 50% improvement in test scores of students who tested themselves after reading a chapter of a textbook than those who produced mind maps. Akin to spaced repetition, the ability to actively retrieve information is a key component of long-term potentiation. As the brain retrieves memories, it actively replays the neural activity that was encoded on the first encounter with the information. The more often these neural networks are accessed, the longer-lasting these memories become.

  1. Become the teacher

Stand in front of the class and become the orator! Yes, teaching what you’ve learned is an empirically-backed method of studying that has been demonstrated in a multitude of studies. The process of explanting and elaborating that which one has learned deepens the neural pathways of these memories. As with testing oneself, teaching also utilises the process of retrieval.

  1. High-Quality Sleep

If the waking part of the day is when memories are encoded, then the sleeping part of the day is when these memories are consolidated. This is primarily due to a state of unresponsiveness, that allows the brain a break from sensory information. During sleep, change occurs in the synaptic connections between neurons and essentially memories are replayed and therefore consolidated in the brain. While not necessarily a study technique, the critical importance of sleep cannot be underestimated, as it allows the information studied in the previous day to be further embedded into the memory capacity of the brain.

  1. Priming

Priming is a psychological term which describes when exposure to a stimulus influences our future behaviour. For instance, if I were to place a folded towel beside my bed at night-time, in the morning, my brain would see the stimulus of the towel and influence my behaviour by ‘going to have a shower’. This same principle has been proven to work with study. If a designated spot is assigned to studying and study alone, the brain is primed whenever the person sits at this designated spot to enact the behaviour of study.

  1. Singular Focus, No Multitasking!

Some people are glorified for their ability to multitask but regarding study, multitasking is your enemy. Scientific research has found that multitasking is only possible when two different parts of the brain are being engaged, like walking and listening to music but not when the same the part of the brain is being engaged, for instance, listening to a podcast while reading a textbook. Here, rather than multitasking, the brain is rapidly moving from task to task. This swift movement creates a lag time and some studies have suggested that so-called ‘multitaskers’ take on average 40% more time to complete a task. Therefore, a singular focus on one task at a time is the most efficient way of completing most tasks.

The process of embedding these new study techniques may take time but when the exam papers are handed out, your memorisation skills will be second to none.

By Richéal Ni Laoghaire – Science Editor