Psycho Babble

What Actually Works

By Jessica Love | January 26, 2012


With an astonishing one year of preschool, one year of kindergarten, six years of elementary school, two years of middle school, four years of high school, four years of college, and five years of graduate school under my belt, I’ve had the occasion to study for a test or two.

For this reason, what cognitive psychologists know about the best ways to learn and remember material has always seemed extraordinarily relevant to me—more so than, say, what they know about the role of expertise in memorizing chessboards or counting cards. Psychologists have shown that plenty of study techniques work, but I want to share two in particular that have wormed their way into my learning routine.

Why be so self-indulgent? Why not consider everything that has been shown to significantly improve what is retained after a study session? First, a significant improvement only means an improvement reliably larger than no improvement at all. Eating two peanuts might affect hunger cravings reliably better than not eating two peanuts, but nobody bothers carrying around just two peanuts in case hunger sets in. Second, techniques that work in the laboratory might not translate well to real-life study sessions, where we cannot generally change the font of the text we are reading or consider our physics equations in a “survival context.” (See “The Lion, the Yurt, and the XBox.”) So here, then, are the two things that have always worked for me:

1) Distribute your learning. Four hours of studying is far more efficient when broken into eight half-hour sessions than when undertaken all at once. When I heard this advice growing up, I assumed that it was moral rather than practical in nature: my teachers just didn’t want me to grow into the kind of person who would wait until the last minute to begin studying. They didn’t want me to be the sort of girl who sits cross-legged in a skirt.

But no, there is something to this distributed learning. Every time we sit down to study our Spanish vocab, we do so in a slightly different context. We are in a coffee shop, or on a bus. The room is flooded with afternoon light, or checkered with evening shadows. We are full or ravenous or caffeinated. We are never in the same place or time or state of mind twice, and retrieving and refamiliarizing ourselves with the Spanish term for alarm clock again and again in such different contexts makes our memory for reloj despertador more robust. Alternatively, when we cram for hours, we encode the relevant information in just a single context and never, until the test, engage in that crucial act of retrieving it. This leaves the memory frail and given to fainting.

2) Use sleep to your advantage. Everyone has to sleep, so we might as well sleep productively. A number of researchers have found that when testing participants on previously learned skills or information, test performance was considerably better after a night’s sleep than after an equivalent number of hours of wakefulness. It is thought that sleep speeds up memory consolidation (the process by which a memory transforms from ephemeral to permanent).

Far more important, I swear by sleep. Sleep is the Achilles heel of forgetfulness. When I have to give an academic talk or teach an unfamiliar lecture, I read over my material right before bed and then I lie back, relax, and let my brain do its thing. In addition to bizarre dreams involving Powerpoint slides and dueling columns of data, this leads to a far more sharply coherent understanding of the material I’ll be presenting. Try it! Even a 90-minute power nap (between those distributed study sessions, of course) will do in a pinch.

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