Say Goodbye To Cramming: Research-Based Study Tips

This week we turn the calendar page to May and enter the final month of school — a month packed with special events, assemblies, projects, goodbyes… and semester exams.

These assessments loom large in the minds of our students (and parents!), so I wanted to share some of my favorite research-based resources about the study process. If you want to know more about any of these topics, click on the link at the beginning of each paragraph.

Try “retrieval practice”: We all know the feeling of “it’s right on the tip of my tongue,” when we know the information is in our mind somewhere but we can’t quite pull it out.  The ability to retrieve key information from our brains is essential to success on assessments.  One way to do this is to simulate a testing environment during studying.  Students can review notes on a topic, then put them away and free-write for 10 minutes, writing down everything they remember. Then, by comparing their writing with their notes, they will have a clear sense of what material they have mastered and what gaps persist. Flashcards (including digital versions such as those you can create on are another way to practice this technique.

Start early: Another study technique is called “spaced repetition.” In the classroom, teachers utilize this strategy by deliberately revisiting key content and skills several times over the course of a semester.  But students can create their own “spaced repetition” by identifying concepts that need more review and revisiting them every couple of days. Time, not cramming, is key to solid understanding.

Change the scenery. It turns out that studying the same material in multiple locations improves retention. In a 1978 study, one group of students studied a list of vocabulary words in a windowless room and then studied the list again in a room overlooking a courtyard. Another group also studied the list twice – but they stayed in the same room. Students who switched locations performed better. Why? Research suggests that “forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.” New contexts provide a workout for the brain.

Work hard, but take breaks. The brain needs occasional breaks to process what it has learned. Strategic “brain breaks” are not wasted time because the brain never truly turns off.  Rather, as the linked Scientific American article notes, “downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”

Speaking of mental breaks, aerobic exercise has repeatedly been shown to improve memory and cognition. And during exam time, getting one’s heart pumping can also improve mood and reduce anxiety, both of which provide direct benefits for students!

Don’t neglect sleep. Research shows that sacrificing sleep for studying can be counterproductive. Why? Sleep has a cleansing effect on the brain. When we sleep, we replay and consolidate what happened during the day – and make room for new learning. REM sleep “purges unnecessary details.” Or, as Dr. Matt Carter notes, “If you didn’t get a good night’s sleep it’s really hard to learn new things because you didn’t clear out all the synaptic connections.”

These study strategies are not just for exam time, of course. Many studies of cognition and memory focus on the elderly population. There is wisdom here for all of us who want to model good habits for our children and stay at the top of our own game for years to come.

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