Date posted: 8/04/2016

7 Ways to study smarter, not harder

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The brain is a foraging learner, meaning it constantly picks up valuable pieces of information on the fly, often subconsciously, according to New York Times medical and science journalist Benedict Carey, who wrote How We Learn. He proposes that you can tailor your study time to exploit the brain's nomadic learning mechanism to study smarter, not harder.

Here are seven suggestions to study more efficiently and effectively:

1. Break up study periods over days or weeks

Scheduling your study sessions is easier said than done. However, science has proven time and time again that you can substantially boost how much information you retain by taking on smaller chunks of material over a longer period, opposed to one all-night study session.

2. Beat procrastination with science!

We'd all love to start studying earlier, but it's so much easier to do it later. Procrastination stems from negative thinking - "I can't possibly..." or "I don't want to" - and by becoming more mindful of your thoughts you can help beat this way of thinking. Mindfulness is proven to improve focus and productivity. Essentially, start on an easy task, break it down into manageable chunks and always be compassionate and positive with your thinking. Don't beat yourself up if you do procrastinate, and do reward yourself for small accomplishments.

3. Break up the study environment

The brain is hardwired to seek out new stimuli, and so retreating to the same location to study is as good as turning off the brain's learning switch. You should change your study environment as much as possible from one session to the next. Try studying for an hour in the library then moving outside, or even changing the type of music you listen to while learning. These little changes will help reinforce what you're learning and sharpen your memory.

4. Talk to people about what you've learnt

According to Peter C. Brown's book Make It Stick, one of the most effective learning techniques is to discuss what you've learnt with others, which is more effective than just re-reading study material. If you're alone, quiz yourself and then recite the answers aloud.

5. Take better notes during class

Students who take strong notes are seven times more likely to recall information. Writing down everything a teacher says is not only impossible, but doesn't help you actively learn. One way to take better notes is to spend more time listening to a lecture, and then write down your conclusions in a question-and-answer format. For example, question: what have I learnt by reading this article? Answer: the brain is a foraging learner that absorbs information as it goes along.

6. Learn to love reading

Doing extra background reading on a topic you're trying to learn about builds a solid foundation of knowledge. The more you know about a subject, the simpler it becomes to understand new, related concepts. Accordingly, you should genuinely love reading if you wish to learn more quickly. If your passion for reading has waned, pick out a few (non-study-related) books that appeal to you and read them in a comfortable, fun environment. Stick with it - it'll be worth it.

7. Take breaks

Blowing 15 minutes of study time on Facebook isn't necessarily a bad thing, provided you've actually studied something. Distracting the brain from the task at hand allows ideas to incubate, which leads to those light-bulb moments when everything you've studied comes together.

With a few simple changes, you can start learning faster and avoid those brutal all-nighters before exams. Plus, you can earn yourself better results.