The neuroscience of effective studying

Dr. Todd Handy is a professor in the Department of Psychology who specializes in cognitive neuroscience. He’s also the kind of prof you’d like to have a coffee with.

Dr. Todd Handy

We discussed how the “savvy student”, in his terms, can use neuroscience research to optimize their academic performance.

According to Dr. Handy, “Bringing neuroscience into learning has really expanded our understanding of study strategies and what the smart, effective student can do to bring their A-game to the academic experience.”

Read on for some strategies — based in neuroscience research — that can help you study smarter, not harder.

Strategy #1 — Space it out, don’t do it all at once

Not only is leaving all your studying to the last minute something that can cause you to stress, it’s simply not a smart way to study.

In Dr. Handy’s words:

“The literature has shown that the brain is more effective at absorbing and retaining information if you have multiple, shorter study sessions than if you cram everything in all at once.”

Why is this helpful? Because of how the brain works:

There is a thing called the consolidation process where the brain may be handling some of that information when you’re not thinking about it,” said Dr. Handy.

Allowing time and space for this consolidation process, also known as an incubation period, is vital. By reviewing the material regularly, you’re forcing yourself to recall the information, which helps you retain it.

Again, Dr. Handy:

The real positive kick comes when you go back to it again. Now you have to call it back up again. That helps to solidify the information in your memory. It helps your brain better retain it.”

So if you’re going to devote three hours to studying, the evidence suggests it is much better for you to have three separate, one-hour study sessions than it is to have one three-hour session.

Strategy #2 — Test yourself in the same way you will be tested on the exam

When you take a traditional exam, what you’re basically doing is calling up all this information from memory. Study methods that replicate that experience can help you perform better.

If you have an exam that’s just going to ask you a bunch of questions, it’s helpful to study by practicing answering those questions,” said Dr. Handy.

That’s why using flashcards can be a really effective way of studying. You are not only reviewing the material but you are essentially creating the conditions under which you will be tested.

Not only does the brain re-engage with the material and that sort of solidifies it, you’re also practicing what you’re going to do at the test. People have shown that’s very effective,” said Dr. Handy.

It also helps to try to anticipate what you are going to be asked on the exam:

“The smart student starts anticipating what the questions are going to be like, what the exam is going to be like. And that might require doing something a little different than how you’re currently studying.”

So take a minute to think about the type of exam you will be writing: is it going to be short-answer questions? Multiple choice? Applying concepts to real-life situations?

Make sure you tailor your study activities to the type of questions you will be asked.

Strategy #3 — Lose the electronics

Dr. Handy doesn’t allow any electronics in his classes. That means no phones and no computers. And he provides neuroscience literature to justify it.

First, he said, electronics can be really distracting:

“There are studies out there showing that when somebody is on a computer in a classroom, not only did they perform less well but it’s distracting to everybody around them.”

The second reason is that taking notes by hand forces you to engage with the material on a deeper level than when you’re using a computer:

You’re going slower, you have to assimilate what’s being said and summarize it. The idea is that the deeper you engage with the material, the better you remember it.”

The savvy student, then, not only turns off their phone in class but also while studying for an exam or writing an essay.

Strategy #4 — The Great Triad: Eat, sleep, and exercise

Dr. Handy was afraid of sounding like a broken record. He did…but with good reason. The reason was the Great Triad: eating well, sleeping enough, and exercising regularly.

You may not think about these things as affecting your ability to retain information, but they absolutely do:

This is where thinking about the brain more holistically is really vital. How do you optimize, not just the material you’re learning, but how do you optimize the brain itself? How do you bring the brain’s A-game to the table?

The answer: take care of your brain just as you would any other muscle, tissue, or organ.

The more you can actually exercise on a regular basis, the better you can eat, and the more you’re paying attention to sleep — these are all vitally important for your brain to be working at its optimum.”

Specifically, physical activity can help super-charge your studying:

“It can be really helpful to get up and walk around for five minutes and come back. Even if it’s part of a study session, just moving helps. It doesn’t have to be drastic, but the more you can do can really help.”

The real savvy student will do some studying immediately after exercising:

Studies have also shown that people can learn better right after physical activity. So if you’re somebody who likes to work out, it can be really effective to study right after. Because the exercise actually pumps the brain full of brain growth hormones.”

Dr. Handy himself conducted a study here at UBC looking into the effects of exercise and sleep on exam performance:

What we found is that people who, the more they aerobically exercised in the 48 hours preceding the exam, the better they did on the exam. The people who reported higher sleep quality the night before the exam performed better on the exam.”

Find what works for you

In the end, it’s important to pay attention to what works best for you. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to studying. But by using these tips from neuroscience, you can get a better idea of the things you can do that make for more effective retention of your studies.


This article was written by Ryan Patrick Jones, a graduate student in Journalism.

It was originally published on the UBCfyi Blog. Read the original article.