With everything that schools have to teach these days, one of the things that could help the most is a class on how to study. During the course of your degree program, they're certainly going to throw plenty of information at you . . . wouldn't it be nice if they helped you out with a way to organize all of it so that you could retain it better?
How do we learn, anyway?
When we're babies, our brains are a mesh of billions of neurons that are figuring out how to communicate with each other over trillions of gaps called synapses. Through a process called synaptic pruning, our brains figure out which connections it needs to maintain. As each brain cell communicates with adjacent cells, a chemical reaction takes place to eliminate the number of synapses the cells have to communicate over. The process results in more effective communication between cells. It's essentially learning on the cellular level.
As the tiny electrical charge moves through a cells, it develops a thicker cover of myelin, a tissue that acts like the insulation on an electrical cord, and the thickening process is known as myelination. It helps to make certain that the signal gets where it's supposed to.
Much of the synaptic pruning and myelination processes take place while you sleep. If you've ever struggled to understand a difficult concept then suddenly woken up to understand it, synaptic pruning and myelination are part of the reason why. Using a few simple study techniques can help you trigger these processes in your brain so that you are literally learning while you sleep. Here are a few:
1. Schedule regular sessions
Shorter, regular sessions every day are much more effective than longer sessions weekly. The ideas behind the technique are called distributed learning and interleaving, but the idea is pretty simple: your brain needs timely repetition to trigger the pruning and myelination.
2. Organize your notes
A simple, effective way of organizing your notes is called the Cornell Note Taking Method (PDF guide). Rather than trying to keep track of a lecture or to work through a chapter writing everything down, divide your page into two columns where the left-hand side is about 1/4 of the overall page. On the left-hand side, identify key terms, or ideas and on the right-hand side, document your notes about the key concepts.
This sort of organization does a couple of things for your brain. First, the act of writing things down helps you retain the information. Second, the process gives your brain a picture it can use later on when it comes time to recall the information.
3. Create flash cards
You may not have thought about flash cards since learning your multiplication tables in 2nd grade. Just like they worked great then, they can likely help you now. Even better, you can make your own and get the added benefit of writing through the material.
A pack of 3" x 5" index cards works great. Write the key concepts or ideas on one side then the definition or an example on the others. You can test yourself on your recollection or work with a partner for reinforcement.
4. Read aloud
Reading aloud will cause many different parts of your brain to go to work. You're having to process the information to get it out verbally, and as you hear it, your brain will process it one more time. Just be sure to find yourself a quiet place where you won't disturb others or deal with odd looks.
5. Get rid of distractions
It's tempting to have email or social media available as you study. After all, what's the harm if you just take a quick look?
You may think you're multitasking. In fact, you're undoing whatever learning you just did. Your brain is toggling between information, and to do that, takes a lot of energy. The same goes for any music other than maybe classical or jazz, so find yourself a quiet place away from the distractions.
6. Ditch the highlighter
You might have learned that highlighting is a great way to memorize information. In reality, it's just about the worst thing you can do. It can help you find things you thought were important earlier, but as a learning tool, it does almost nothing to trigger the processes that make the brain retain information.
Annotate instead. Get into the habit of having a pen in your hand while you're studying. When you find something you would have highlighted before, underline it and make a note in the margin about why you think it's important. Now your brain is processing the material in a way that will make those synopses fire.
7. Take practice tests
A lot of research indicates that one of the best things you can do to retain information is take practice tests. You might have run across this strategy preparing for a test like the SAT or ACT. Those exams have plenty of practice tests out there for you to use. When you can't find practice tests, you can even create a short quizzes and test yourself.
You've got a busy schedule, and you need to make every minute count. Take advantage of those minutes when you're sleeping and put your brain into a mode that will help it keep your studying going.
Put these study tips to use for you. Contact ECPI University today and check out our many accelerated degree programs. It could be the Best Decision You Ever Make!
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