Study Buddy: 5 Science-Based Study Skills for Memory Retention

You know the drill: Cram, test, repeat. But if you’re a serious student, that’s not good enough. You’re here to learn, not just pass exams. When you buckle down and study, you want to retain the information, both short- and long-term.

In the short term, you need to pass your tests in order to graduate. In the long term, you’ve got your whole career ahead of you, and preparing for that career is the whole point of your education. If you learn how to hold on to all the important knowledge you’re gleaning now, you’ll be a lot better off later, when you’re actually on the job.

There are some tricks you can use to help your study material stick, and there are some habits you might have now that you should break. Knowing what to do, and what not to do, can make a big difference in learning retention.

This Study Buddy session is about study skills for memory. We’ve compiled a list of five best practices to better retain information when studying:

1. Teach Someone Else the Material

We’re used to studying as an exercise in incoming information, but flipping the switch and directing the material outward can actually help you learn it better and hold onto it longer. Reverse the roles and teach your material to someone else. This is called The Protégé Effect, which means that you learn something better when you’re going to be expected to teach it later.

The mere expectation of having to teach back instructs your brain to codify and consolidate the information. It’s a challenge to understand comprehensively and be able to explain cohesively, and your brain wants to be prepared. And it’s effective — studies have shown that students who implement this technique perform better on tests.

This is a great exercise to do with your study group, or study buddy, if you have one. Take turns teaching the text back to each other. If your partner or team doesn’t know the material, they can ask questions with fresh eyes, which might lead you to think more critically, or track down information to fill the gaps. If your partner or team already knows the material, they can use the questions to quiz you on the fly.

2. Use Relational Learning

Put whatever you’re studying in the context of something you already know. You can use something you’ve learned previously on the same subject and see how the topics cross pollinate, or you can relate it to something else entirely.

When you have something that’s already familiar and you make an association with something new, you create learning transposition. This can be as simple as comparing one fact or set of facts to another. Here’s an ABC example: Let’s say you have three apples and four oranges. Because you’re learning the number of oranges in relation to the apples, you’re more likely not only to remember that there are more, but also other things about the oranges in relation to the apples (color, size, smell).

The same applies to a more complex comparison. Take the oranges and apples above and replace them with organs in the body for anatomy class. As you learn each body part, think about how it’s similar or different from another organ you’ve already studied. Double bonus: You won’t just get relational learning with regard to the new topic, but you’ll be reinforcing what you already know about the other.

3. Take Practice Tests

Fun fact: You can actually learn during a test, not just beforehand. Doing practice tests puts your memory through its paces, and trains it to remember what you want it to. When you’re taking a practice test, your memory may have to work to find the answers, but once it does (or you draw a complete blank and have to look it up after) you reinforce the recall for next time, when you’re actually going to be graded.

Furthermore, taking a lot of practice tests is scientifically proven to enhance your recall and promote a deeper understanding of the subject. The brain is naturally selective, and can’t recall everything it has seen, heard, read or otherwise learned. But you can train that selection if you teach your brain—through testing—what it is more likely to have to recall.

There’s one more upside to frequent practice tests. In addition to improving recall, you’re also getting a grip on exam-day anxiety. Doing several low-stakes dry runs of the testing experience can help you fear the actual test less, so you can relax, recall, and score high.

4. Multitasking Is a Myth

Think you’re a master multitasker? We’ve got bad news—you aren’t. It’s not your fault. It’s because multitasking is multitasking is biologically impossible already figured out you can’t watch TV and study simultaneously (and if you haven’t, we’ll save you some time, you can’t), you might still be under the hopeful illusion that you can jump around between tasks and topics to cover more ground while studying. This is also multitasking, and it’s actually a pretty inefficient way to learn. It’s also a great way to make mistakes.

Instead, make friends with “monotasking.” Choose one topic or one exercise, and truly immerse yourself, even if it’s just for a short while. This might try your patience at first, because you’re going to have to stop thinking about everything else you have to do and learn, but remind yourself that you’re actually stockpiling time by learning the material correctly, so you won’t have to relearn it later.

Again, this doesn’t mean you need to dedicate a full day to one subject. In fact, there’s value in studying subjects in proximity to each other, because you’ll create connections that will give you a deeper understanding of the larger educational whole. Your understanding of each topic can inform your understanding of the next. But make sure you’re sincerely moving from one subject to another, instead of playing topic hopscotch.

5. Avoid Cramming

The pre-exam cram might seem unavoidable, even inevitable… but please let go of this misconception. Coffee-fueled all-nighters are often cast as a habit of the truly dedicated student, but the benefits of cramming are a myth. In fact, it can do more harm than good. Here’s why:

There’s a word for the instinct to make judgments about our own minds: Metacognition. We believe—and it seems logical enough—that forcing ourselves to consume material in a concentrated fashion is an efficient way to learn it. The problem is that during a cramming session your brain is as focused on the act of learning as it is the material. You think you’re laser focused, but you’re actually splitting focus.

In reality, you’re much better off spacing out your study over time, using “The Spacing Effect.” This is equally logical. Think about it like exercise (hey look, we’re doing “relational learning” now!). Say you want to run a half-marathon. You have two training options: You can run 13 miles twice the day before; or you can slowly build muscles and stamina over months. Option two, right?

Let’s take it a step further. Perhaps you’re wondering, “can’t I do both”? Let’s go back to the comparison. Even if you’ve built up good muscle and stamina over time, will running two half marathons the day before help you perform the next day? No — you’ll be exhausted, and you might even hurt yourself. So plan ahead and space it out.

Ready to Test with Confidence?

Stick to the tips above to maximize your testing memory, and you’ll not only be able to walk into exam day with more confidence, but you’ll set yourself up for the all-important longer-term retention of material for when it’s time to put your studies to use. After all, that’s what your education is for!

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