Reexamining Exam Prep: 3 Learning Myths Busted

Female student on laptop

Studying hard is hard. Especially when the stakes are high. From midterms to finals to certification and licensure tests, preparation is essential. You might already have your own personal techniques and rituals for getting ready to fill in the dots, but some of the commonly accepted study tips for test prep aren’t necessarily the best ones.

We at West Coast University took a closer look at some tips for test prep that might not be as solid as you think. Here are three oft-endorsed myths about studying that you should unlearn so you can actually learn better while preparing for exams.

3 Learning Myths Busted

Myth 1: Always Study in the Same Place

You might have heard that having a consistent study zone is the best way to get your brain to focus and fact-fill. Enter your study space, enter the right headspace, right? Well, not exactly. We’ll explain:

Habit consistency is one of the most common recommendations for good sleep – use your bed only for sleep so your body learns that this is the context for this space is to get some REM. And by and large, this recommendation is a good one… for dozing off. But for the exact reason that consistency is helpful for sleep, inconsistency can actually improve your recall on a test.

Why? When your mind builds associations between particular learning material and familiar stimuli, that stimuli will help with recall. This is sometimes called “context dependency.” The problem is that you’re probably not taking your test in your allotted study space. You’re taking it in a different context with unfamiliar stimuli. So all the environmental and sensory associations your mind has made with the material will not be present when they’d help you most.

It’s still good to have an ergo-friendly space to crack the books. But change up your study spot. Absorbing the same material at your desk, at a coffee shop, in a study buddy’s room, or at the library will train your brain to know the material in multiple locations, so you’ll adjust to your test setting accordingly.

One exception worth mentioning: If you’re enrolled in an online school that administers tests remotely online, feel free to keep your study space sacred and those associations will be intact for exam time.

Myth 2: Always Read Carefully

Everyone reads at different speeds (some people even practice speed reading). Some readers can skim, some need to pace themselves, but you should read at a speed that maximizes retention and comprehension. As they say, “whatever’s clever.”

This brings us to a clever (and relatively new) reading technique for effectively retaining information: bionic reading. What’s “bionic reading” you ask?

Bionic reading is a text treatment, invented by Swiss developer Renato Casutt, that emphasizes certain letters to guide the mind through the text and its meaning, and to retain your attention. It’s designed both as a shortcut for those of us who have a lot to cover and a wandering mind, or those with reading disorders like dyslexia.

Because bionic reading is a fairly new development, the science behind it is still emerging and studies are ongoing. But you can already access extensions and apps that can apply bionic reading treatment to text on your computer or e-reader. We’d like to emphasize that this isn’t for everyone. While bionic reading has been greeted with enthusiasm by many, most of the information out there is word-of-mouth. But there’s no denying it’s a fascinating innovation that you can try out here.

Myth 3: Study One Thing at a Time

It seems logical: If you need to learn something, give it your full focus. Sit down and saddle up with one subject or text and stay put. It’s just common sense, right? Nope!

Turns out, topic-hopping can actually help you absorb and hold on to information. Say you’re a graduate student studying for an MBA in project management and you have an economics exam coming up. It’s okay – even preferable – to take a recess from econ to spend a little time with your statistics textbook. This is because you actually engage your brain more when you switch up your subjects. It’s called “contextual interference,” and studies show it works.

The theory is that “interweaving” your study is a form of “spacing out” your study, so that you in essence learn, unlearn, and then relearn information, which by repetition helps your brain absorb and retain it. In addition, there’s thinking that by interweaving your subjects, your brain intuitively draws comparisons between them, which creates a more integrated web of knowledge memory.

There are many more ways you can rethink your study habits and optimize your chances for success not just on your next test, but for the length of your career beyond schooling. Studying and test-taking are acquired skills. They require practice and patience.

Want more tips and techniques for success in study? Read more our posts on study tips.

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