Tips for successful springtime studying

Tips for successful springtime studying
Studying is difficult at the best of times, but especially as the weather turns for the better, writes Jason Osborne

A  number of friends of mine have been settling down to study recently as one test or another reared its head. The studies range from college to exams for work, but the fundamentals remain the same. In ordinary time, the Junior and Leaving Certificate exams would be rapidly approaching, and so teenagers around the country would have their heads buried in the books too. While many may choose to sit the exams this year, it’ll be a different experience.

Regardless of the reason for our studying, one thing remains the same; it’s very difficult for us to sit down and focus on dry, rote learning, especially as the weather picks up. Despite having left school and college behind several years ago now, I’m not sure I’d be any better suited to the long hours of studying today. Whether this is because of the dry manner with which the subjects are communicated, or because the subjects themselves aren’t sufficiently interesting isn’t entirely clear.

These factors shouldn’t matter, though, as studying is one of the unfortunate facts of life for everyone at one stage or another. While some people are better suited to it than others, few enjoy it. What are we to do then?

There are a number of practical steps anyone can implement to ensure that our displeasure at the prospect of studying doesn’t hold us back. Don’t let despair or hopelessness overwhelm as you sit at the desk – studying smarter is possible.

Space out your studying

We live in a real “cramming” culture – whether it’s trying to cram, or binge, all of the episodes of a new show we like into a day, or whether it’s trying to cram all of our study into the day of the exam. No matter what you’re doing, stuffing a lot of content into a short amount of time isn’t a particularly effective way to assimilate it.

Research has shown that it’s more useful to space out your study – not only are you more likely to take something in, you’re less likely to hate the experience, too. A 2009 experiment saw college students studying vocabulary with flash cards. Some of the students studied the words in spaced-out sessions throughout four days, whereas others studied smaller batches of the words in crammed sessions over a single day – both groups spent the same amount of time studying overall.

Testing showed that the group with spaced-out sessions had more successfully committed the words to memory, creating an argument for spacing out studying rather than cramming it. An analogy is that our memory is akin to a bucket of water with a small leak. If you try to refill the bucket while it’s still full, you can’t add much. However, if you allow time between your sessions, some of the material may leak out of your memory. You’ll then be in a position to relearn it and more with your next session.

Practise studying

As an athlete has to train over and over, so too do those who wish to learn.

One of the best things you can do if you want to retain information is practice. In a 2013 study, students took practice tests for a number of weeks before the real thing. On the final test, they scored on average a full grade better than the students who studied the old-fashioned way, without practice.

The second group of students was found to remember the material more fully a week later”

This is the principle behind redoing old exam papers in school, but the same can be done in college and for work exams. Research shows its an effective method which results in better performance.

Another study saw college students read material and then take recall tests. Some took one test, whereas others took a number of tests with short breaks of a couple of minutes in between. The second group of students was found to remember the material more fully a week later.

Do more than just read and re-read

Re-reading books, notes and worksheets over and over again is generally thought of now as a particularly poor way to study (unless you’re in possession of a photographic memory, which most of us aren’t). Despite this, it’s still one of the only methods most of us employ, rarely studying any other way.

One group wrote questions about the contents, whereas the other group answered questions from someone else”

Flash cards, practice tests, reflecting on the material and other practical activities are all useful ways of supplementing your reading. They actively engage the brain, whereas reading can become a passive activity in many cases.

A 2010 study saw students who reread material compared to students from two other groups. One group wrote questions about the contents, whereas the other group answered questions from someone else. The results revealed that those who answered the questions did the best, offering some evidence towards the idea that active engagement is best. Compounding this is the fact that those who just reread the material were found to have done the worst.

Use pictures

In keeping with some of the advice offered above about mixing up your study techniques, using pictures is one of the best ways to help information stick in your brain. Paying attention to diagrams and graphs can be extremely beneficial, and creating replicas of the pictures goes a step further.

Whether it’s drawings of different biological systems in science, landscape features in geography, or curves and graphs in economics, using pictures is much more likely to engage your brain along a number of metrics, rather than just words.

In a 2003 study, a group of psychologists at a university in Germany gave cartoons to college students along with information about five scientists who study intelligence. An example of this is that the text about Alfred Binet (a French psychologist who is best known for developing the first widely-used intelligence test) came with a drawing of a race car driver. The driver wore a bonnet to protect his brain in the picture, which resulted in the students who saw the drawings doing better in the test than those who only received the text information.

Find examples

A final tip is to find examples of what you’re studying. Abstract examples can be difficult to retain and think about, so practical examples can be very helpful.

If you find studying as difficult as I do, then you’ll be willing to resort to outside the box thinking”

An example of this is that sour foods usually taste as they do because of acid, but this may be forgotten. However, if you think about a lemon or vinegar, it may be easier to recall than if you had nothing to associate acid and sour with.

These are but a few examples to make studying that bit easier, but every little aid helps. If you find studying as difficult as I do, then you’ll be willing to resort to outside the box thinking.