You know what they say — you can’t spell “studying” without “dying.” Studying is the least fun part of the student experience, as most students forget most of what they study anyway.
Then again, you might have just been studying wrong your whole life.
In this article, you’ll find ways to study and actually remember the material. It doesn’t involve reading your notes a hundred times or rewriting them over and over. You’ll learn to study more efficiently in less time, getting A’s while freeing up your spare time for what you actually want to do.
Taking Care of Your Health
First and foremost, you have to sleep. This means no studying late into the hours of the night and forgoing sleep. Doing that would be as efficient as staring at the wall for a few hours.
Study after study shows the consequences of sleep deprivation on memory. Mainly, losing sleep harms your ability to remember what you’ve studied the day before, according to the Harvard Medical School.
Their research suggests that sleep helps you learn and retain information in two main ways: a sleep-deprived person cannot focus as well as a well-rested one, so they absorb less information off the bat. Further, sleep is important for consolidating memory, which is crucial for remembering new information. If you don’t sleep, you don’t remember.
This is because memory is comprised of three main functions. The first is acquisition, where someone introduces new information into their brain. The second involves consolidation or how memory becomes stable in the brain. The third is recall, where someone accesses their memory (consciously or subconsciously) with ease after the information has been stored.
Proper sleep helps with all these functions. According to Harvard Medical School, you can control how information is acquired and recalled, but you cannot control consolidation. Therefore, to get the most out of your memory, you have to sleep for eight hours a night.
Nutrition is a close second to getting proper sleep. According to Nature, diet is highly correlated to cognitive function. For example, eating a high-fat diet makes the hippocampus produce an inflammatory response because it considers the food a mild immune challenge. During this time, you have memory deficits.
This could be why you feel a bit hazy and sleepy after eating a high-fat diet. The brain’s so focused on having the body digest that fat that it essentially forgets to make you remember. How ironic. Therefore, avoid eating high-fat foods before a study session for best results.
This doesn’t mean you should completely cut fat out of your diet. Your brain needs omega-3 fatty acids to facilitate memories. To simplify the science-ey talk in the paper published in Nature, low dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids not only contributes to depression but can lead to a chain of processes in the memory that contributes to memory loss.
Not only that, but eating too much sugar can negatively impact your memory as well. A study from the University of California — Los Angeles states that excess glucose consumption leads to deficiencies in the consumer’s memory and cognitive functions.
Sometimes we stress eat before a major exam, but you should avoid sugary foods and binge on some apples instead — it has glucose, yes, but the fiber helps slow the absorption of sugar. Whole fruit is always better than fruit concentrates or other byproducts.
As you eat properly, you should be exercising as well. Another study from the Harvard Medical School suggests that exercise changes the brain to make it more conducive to remembering things. In this case, exercise involves anything that gets the blood pumping; it can be running, biking, swimming, or weight lifting.
Exercise indirectly benefits memory because it lowers stress, aids better sleep, improves mood, and reduces anxiety. When these four things are in order, your mind is calmer and well-rested, making it easier to take in information.
But the direct effects of exercise are, arguably, more important. The prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex, which control thinking and memory, are larger in people who exercise versus those who don’t.
While occasional exercise won’t cause substantial changes, a long-going exercise regime lasting over six months to a year can lead to these positive changes in the brain regions.
Now that you know how to keep your health in tip-top shape, let’s discuss how not to study.
Bust Bad Studying Habits
In every class across America, there’s always this type of student.
The student who rarely shows up to class and prefers to get notes from other people. When they do show up to class, they’re distracted and unfocused — often scrolling through Facebook rather than paying attention to the professor.
Then, this student crams the night before, chugging coffee or Red Bulls. They pull an all-nighter, reading through all the notes they took/received until dawn, where they take the exam and, wouldn’t you know, fail it.
The thing is that, even if you’re not as bad as this student, you probably have bad studying habits too. Maybe you don’t study for the exam as soon as you should, or you type your notes over handwriting them, or you don’t sleep as well as you could before the exam because of partying, Netflix, or just a plain ol’ bad sleep schedule.
To make your memory as primed as possible for retention, you have to bust these bad habits. At the very least, you have to stop procrastination.
Why Procrastination is the #1 Memory Killer
Your memory works best when it has time to sleep in between the times you review information. When you procrastinate, you concentrate studying to right before the exam, so the brain doesn’t have time to consolidate that heap of information you threw at it, so it ends up tossing some of the material you reviewed.
Second, procrastination is stressful. Who doesn’t berate themselves for waiting till the last minute yet again and cursing themselves for screwing themselves over? You probably had tons of time to review your notes for thirty minutes a day perhaps a week before the exam, but no, your past self decided to screw their future self over, and you’re getting the brunt of it.
Yeah, it’s a little stressful. And when you’re stressed, your mind is preoccupied with other thoughts besides the material at hand.
It’s the same deal with getting inadequate sleep; you acquire less information, probably consolidate it less because you’re not sleeping as well because you’re forgoing sleep due to your procrastination (and you’re probably sleeping less due to stress), and so you can’t recall that information you spent hours reviewing.
It was all a waste of time — the real existential stress.
If you’re a procrastinator, cut it out right now. It’s tough, yes, but you have to do it for the sake of your sanity, memory, health, and grades (and your professors too, as a procrastinator’s worse results force them to spend longer grading).
Work with your memory rather than against it. To do that, you should:
Study a little bit every day. Start at just ten minutes a day. You can study for ten minutes easily, whether it’s on the bus, first thing in the morning or as you lay in your dorm bed at night. By studying a little bit every day, you can sidestep the dastardly Curve of Forgetting.
The Curve involves the progress in which you, well, forget — but also who you can best remember. Here is the source for the below picture.
When you enter a lecture, you go from knowing nothing about the material to knowing 100% of it (if you were paying attention). By the second day, you only remember 25% of what you encountered in the lecture before. By day 30, you can only remember 2-3% of the lecture, which doesn’t help you before an exam.
But if you review your notes for only 10 minutes the following day, you reset the curve and remember nearly 100% of your notes again. The best part about the Curve is that you can study less after the second day and still remember your notes. So if you study for just 5 minutes on day 7 and continue to remember a majority of the material.
Then just a quick two-minute review before the exam and you’re back to 100% again. Total, it would take about 20 minutes of review — not hours the night before — to help you remember the material.
If you get into the habit of studying every day, you take out the guesswork of understanding when you studied for which class at what day and further reinforce information retention.
This is why you have to stop procrastinating today. There’s no reason why you can’t fit in a ten-minute study session the day after your classes. Get in the habit of scheduling studying into your day and reap the rewards.
You can study all you want as long as you want, however, but you will still have poor results if your notes aren’t up to par. This is why you have to write notes to make them easier to remember.
How to Remember Notes Easier
The first and foremost is to go to class. There’s no way of getting around it. It’s not the same if you get notes from a classmate. If they’re good notetakers, they will have chosen the most important information, yes, but you will have missed the context in which those notes were taken.
Therefore, it will just be bland information on a page you have to remember, no different from a book.
So you have to get in that classroom and sit near the front. There’s no getting around it.
And while you’re there, be sure to handwrite your notes. Notebooks are the old school method and are wholly acceptable, but companies have created excellent tablets and apps to make note-taking excel far above what a regular notebook can do.
So in class, you must handwrite your notes. Be sure to pay close attention to the professor and write down if they mention that a certain piece of information will be important, on the test, or if something isn’t important.
Second, once your class is over, take ten minutes and transcribe your physical notes electronically on a Word or Google document. That way, you get a second hit of the notes you just acquired, and the repetition will help you remember the material better.
There, once you take good notes, you’re already miles ahead of the folks who don’t go to class and don’t pay attention. But that’s not all you need to get that A.
Follow Cal Newport’s Advice
Cal Newport, an associate professor at Georgetown University and author of six novels on personal development, describes the most efficient method for getting A’s college students can use in his book How to Become a Straight-A Student. The book describes “unconventional” (re: efficient) ways students can get A’s in their classes in the least amount of time possible.
Newport’s advice is best used for students in retention-focused classes such as engineering, history, certain humanities, chemistry, physics, life sciences, and more. If you’re hoping to write a great essay, he offers other advice, but the real meat in his book teaches how to facilitate better studying habits.
So, yes, you’ve handwritten your notes then rewrote them on the computer. Once that’s done, compile all the electronic notes for one unit.
From there, make study guides with the notes you’ve already made.
It’s way easier than it sounds. For example, let’s say you’re in an ecology class and you’re learning successional patterns. Your note would look like the following:
- Succession — how the species structure of an ecological community changes over time.
Rewriting your notes would then look like this:
- What is succession? The change in species structure in an ecological community over time.
From there, you would move the answers to a separate document and keep the questions on another one. Print out all the questions and quiz yourself.
You should remember some of the answers from rereading your notes and changing them from statements to questions and answers. But you still can’t recall everything then.
So quizzing helps you improve your memory in two ways:
- You’re forced to into active recall. Most students will reread their notes for hours before the night of the exam (which is already temporally ineffective), which is much less efficient than active recall.
- It’s an upgrade from flash cards. Everybody has their preferences, but quizzing allows you to get the same effect of flashcards without taking the time to fill them out. There’s still the recall method, but by quizzing yourself, you can write down answers to questions that would be too arduous to write down on flashcards.
One such question could be, “How does fire change a secondary successional forest?” But because you’ve augmented your notes into questions, you essentially have the answer key in a separate document. You can hit all the points you’ve written in your notes while practicing how to eloquently answer the question if it arose on an exam.
Once you can answer all the questions on your self-examination, you’ll know the material by heart. If you could answer it yourself, you’ll be able to answer it on an exam. Of course, you should still do any subsequent reading from textbooks and take notes there, but the same method for self-quizzing still holds to remember the material.
So, let’s review Newport’s method and approximate how long it would take:
- Go to class and take notes. This depends on the length of your classes, let’s say an hour long.
- Turning handwritten notes into electronic notes after each class. Ten minutes. If you have five classes, this would mean fifty minutes a week.
- A week before the exam, turning electronic notes into quizzes. Let’s say it takes twenty minutes to do. Times five it’s an hour and forty minutes.
- Self-examination. Let’s say it takes twenty minutes. Times five that’s an hour and forty minutes.
- Let’s say you need another self-examination, but the second time you could answer all the questions quickly and easily. Another hour and forty minutes.
Since you should be going to class anyway, that’s a total of four hours and ten minutes of extra time spent outside of class. That’s probably less time than you use to cram the night before the exam and about a million times more efficient.
Let it be known that Newport didn’t come up with this method all on his own. He certainly used a semblance of it while he was in college, but he interviewed hundreds of top-level students in dozens of universities to see what they did to get their grades. He found that top-performing students used some form of the self-quizzing method because it works quickly and efficiently.
So pull out your notebook and take notes. Quizzing is the way to go while cramming is not. If you’re reading this right before the term starts or in the middle of the semester, start making quizzes.
Other Helpful Tips to Help You Improve Memory While Studying
Practice the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro method is simple: Study/work for twenty-five minutes, take a break for five minutes. Continue indefinitely, although you should take longer breaks after four Pomodoro sessions.
The technique gets its name because Francesco Cirillo, an entrepreneur, and author, used a tomato timer as his main timer (this was in the late 80s), and Pomodoro means “tomato” in Italian. By chunking your time and taking frequent breaks, you avoid burnout and prolong the amount of time you can work.
Just be sure to use your breaks wisely. The breaks are designed to give your brain as full a night’s rest as possible. Don’t scroll through social media or check your email. Instead, eat a snack, go for a walk, or just close your eyes for those five minutes. Avoid electronic stimulation as much as possible.
Listen to Music
Studies show that listening to music helps you remember what you study — as long as you’re listening to the right music. Music with lyrics tends to be distracting. Emotionally neutral music helps people learn better, but pleasurable music helps people test better.
While most soundtrack playlist will do the trick, opt for classical tunes with slow tempos between 60 – 70 beats per minute.
Change Up Studying Locations
We’re creatures of habit, and you might have found a nice nook on campus you’ve designated your go-to studying spot. But cognitive scientists suggest changing up your studying spots for better recall.
These studies are based off a finding in which students studied 40 vocabulary words. One group studied once in a cluttered room, another time in a bright, sunlit room. Another group studied the words twice. Researchers found that those who studied in different locations remembered more words.
You can remember more too. Whether your campus is huge or only contains a few buildings, find good spots to study and rotate throughout them.
Go for a Walk Before an Exam
Walking, and any type of light exercise, for that matter, boosts brain activity. Circulating blood to your brain stimulates the parts you need to remember your material like the prefrontal cortex. Walking can help you remember what you studied and allow you to ace the exam.
If you have a choice, don’t take a bus to the exam location — walk instead.
Teach Your Classmates the Material
We’ve known it for thousands of years. The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “We teach it, we know it,” and the same holds today.
Find a few of your classmates and offer to teach them the material. They’ll most likely enjoy reviewing the material with someone, and you’ll be forced to thoroughly understand the material to explain it to someone else. It’s a win-win, but the real winner is your memory and recall.
In a study, researchers found that chewing gum slightly increases heart rate three beats per minute. The slight increase in heart rate improved circulation and boosted brain activity, which facilitated information retention and recall.
Mint also boosts cognition, problem-solving and memory, so mint gum, in particular, could have further memory benefits. And if you the same flavor gum while studying that you do during the text, the association can further facilitate recall. With how cheap gum is, most students should be able to afford these slight cognitive boosts.
Eat Less Added Sugar
Added sugar not only reduces memory performance when you consume it, but it causes the dreaded energy crash once your body has processed it. Cut out sugary beverages, meals, and snacks. Opt for natural sugars in their unprocessed forms, such as fruits and vegetables if you have a sweet tooth.
Be sure that gum you’re chewing doesn’t have added sugar either. The sugary negatives will overpower the gum positives.
Drink Less Alcohol
We get it, you’re young and you want to enjoy your student years. But a study featuring 155 college freshmen showed that those who drank too many alcoholic beverages had detrimental impacts on their memory.
Binge drinking patterns that raised the blood alcohol levels to above 0.08 grams per ml have had these altered effects. This equates to about six drinks within a short period. Researchers found no difference between weekly or monthly binge drinking sessions.
The results showed that those who binge drank had more difficulty in immediate and delayed memory-recall tests compared to students who didn’t. Perhaps save the drinking for the end of finals.
Build a Routine
Get in the habit of studying at a certain time every day. You’ll train your brain to expect information retention. You’ll also avoid the feeling that you do not want to study since it will be a habit. If you start at the beginning of the semester, you’ll solidify the habit by the middle of the semester, making finals a breeze.
There Are Numerous Ways to Improve Memory While Studying
But nothing helps memory retention like repetition. Constantly go back to your notes — not the day before the exam, but at least a week prior. You’ll reinforce the information you learned in the way your brain was meant to learn — not all at once, but spread out among multiple days.
This metaphor should help. Which makes you feel better: eating all your meals at once, or spreading your meals out throughout the day? The brain, like your stomach, isn’t designed to binge. It prefers little bits of food sporadically for the best digestion. Work with your brain, not against it.
These other tips, like chewing gum while you study, changing up locations, listening to music, and more help facilitate the digestion of information. They’re garnishes. Be sure to remain balanced and consistent in your studying, and you’ll make A’s in all your classes. It won’t burn you out, and you’ll free up more time to actually succeed in college, not just float by.