Do you remember cramming for a big test–possibly pulling an all-nighter. And yes, you may have passed with flying colors, and what a relief that was! But did you really learn the material–meaning did it stay with you in the long run? And did getting a better grade than one of your classmates indicate you had a better understanding of the subject matter?
That’s the subject of Tara Parker-Pope’s latest Well Column in The New York Times in which she focuses on a new thought-provoking book by science writer Benedict Carey. “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens” may get you to rethink your strategy of waiting to the last moment and then cramming to prepare for exams.
While lengthy last minute study sessions may seem like a good idea, Carey says that they can actually use up a lot of your energy that the brain needs to learn and retain information: “When you are cramming for a test, you are holding that information in your head for a limited amount of time. But you haven’t signaled to the brain in a strong way that it’s really valuable.”
To boost your ability to truly learn, Carey suggests “spacing” your study time. Try several shorter sessions rather than one long one. For example, study every week for an exam that is a month away. If it’s only a week away, you may want to start studying on a Monday, then review the day before a Friday exam. He advises talking about the material, repeating what you’ve learned, even writing it down, as well as employing study tools like flashcards. And occasionally changing the location of where you study can help you to better recall information, since Carey says, “The brain wants variation. It wants to move, it wants to take periodic breaks.”
And Carey also points out the importance of getting a good night’s sleep so that the brain has time to fully do its job: “Sleep is the finisher of learning. The brain is ready to process and categorize and solidify what you’ve been studying.”