Schools

Hitting the books: some evidence-based advice for doing ‘study’ right

It’s late October which means that exam season is here for our senior students.

Cue lots of late-night cramming, sugary snacks and mounting stress… right?

That might be the cliché, but according to brain and learning experts, your teen’s best chances of a good result – and overall happiness and wellbeing – will come if they do the opposite of all those things.

In a nutshell, that means a big dose of self-care (a good night’s sleep each night is top of the list for the brain to function at its best) and a well-planned, strategic approach to study sessions.

Changing up where your teen studies and how they revise their subject material is also important, according to the research.

We’ve compiled some of the top science-backed tips below (including further reading at the end of the story if you want to dig deeper).

Spread study sessions apart

This technique is called ‘spacing’ and is the opposite of cramming. It essentially means do some study, then come back later and revise and study some more – and repeat.

“Overstretched students often rely on the time-saving strategy of cramming for exams, but the science says this study technique is highly flawed,’’ according to an article compiled by the University of Queensland’s Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) titled Factors affecting learning

“Many experiments have shown that ‘spacing’ which involves spreading study sessions apart, leads to far superior results when it comes to long-term retention,’’ it says.

Mapping out a realistic study plan and allocating enough study sessions for each exam will help avoid last-minute panic.

Get a good night’s sleep

Sleep deprivation can affect the brain’s ability to retain the information it has learned; while sleep is thought to help create long-term memories and consolidation.

“In a study of high school students, UCLA researchers found that sacrificing sleep for extra study time was counterproductive and resulted in increased academic problems the following day,’’ the QBI article reveals. It goes without saying that limiting screens before bed is also conducive to a solid night’s sleep. “When you get a good night’s sleep, you feel fresh and attentive the next day,’’ QBI’s Director Professor Pankaj Sah writes in a piece for The Conversation. “Sleep is also critical for what happened the previous day. Extensive work in both animals and humans shows a crucial function of sleep is to re-process and consolidate what happened during the day.’’

Minimise distractions

Forget multitasking and try to reduce distractions like mobile phones, social media and television while you are hitting the books.

“The easiest and most obvious way we can help to focus our attention is by reducing the amount of distractions in our environment,’’ says QBI cognitive neuroscientist Professor Jason Mattingley.

Chronic multitasking impairs both long-term and short-term memory, the QBI goes on to advise in their downloadable document Boost Your Learning.

“Although some people are convinced they can do two or more mental tasks equally effectively at the same time, research shows this isn’t the case.’’

Take control of stress

High levels of exam stress can interfere with attention and memory but some stress can work to your teen’s advantage if they learn to view it differently and keep it in check, according to Mandie Shean, a lecturer in Education at Edith Cowan University in her recent piece for The Conversation.

“Start to read your stress response as being there to help you prepare for the challenge,’’ she says. “Instead of seeing it as a threat, try to see it as a coping tool. When you are experiencing stress you can say to yourself: ‘I am feeling a little uncomfortable; my heart is beating faster, but my body is getting me ready to compete’.

“Rather than framing exams as a threat, try to frame them as a challenge. Part of the reason they are seen as a threat is because your whole future, identity and worth appear to be at stake. This is not true. Exams are one very small part of your life that does not decide your whole future.’’ Exercise, meditation and mindfulness techniques (which encourage your mind away from worry and back into the moment) are advocated by many as effective ways of toning down stress.

Mix up your study techniques

“We learn much better by testing our own knowledge than by re-studying material,’’ says QBI’s Professor Sah. “So if you’ve got an exam coming up, don’t just re-read a textbook and highlight important passages. Instead test yourself by doing practice exams. This process of actively recalling information helps deeper learning take place…although researchers are still trying to figure out the brain mechanisms behind the effect, there is plenty of evidence for its effectiveness.’’

Reading, writing the concepts in your own words or explaining what you’re studying to someone else are other techniques advocated. Incorporating memory aids or mnemonics (linking the information you want to remember with a made-up story or acronym) is another recommended device to imbed concepts.

Avoid processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt

“One of the most nurturing ways you can help your teenager through the study and exam period is to provide nutritious meals and healthy snacks during the day,’’ says Raising Children Network executive director Associate Professor Julie Green.

“A healthy diet includes lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy, nuts and grains and proteins such as eggs, meat, legumes and fish.”

Further reading:

Raising Children Network | Top tips for exam stress

The University of Queensland’s Queensland Brain Institute | Factors affecting learning

The Conversation| How to make your memory work for you

The University of Queensland’s Queensland Brain Institute | ‘Boost your learning’ poster

The Conversation | Don’t calm down! Exam stress may not be fun but it can help you get better marks

The Conversation | Study habits for success: tips for students

The Conversation | Studying for exams? Here’s how to make your memory work for you

The Conversation | Curious Kids: is it OK to listen to music while studying?