15 Smart Study Tactics Based on the Latest Brain Research

May 2nd, 2016 15 Comments Features

deeper learning

Think you know everything there is to know about smart studying? You may be surprised by some of the past year’s research. Below are 15 new insights on how to prep for exams and boost your academic achievements in general.

1. Learn slightly differently each time.

When acquiring a new skill, make slight changes during each practice session to expedite the learning process:

In a Johns Hopkins University study that required 86 healthy volunteers to learn a computer-based motor skill, those who quickly adjusted to a slightly different task the second time around performed better than when repeating their original task:

“What we found is if you practise a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practising the exact same thing multiple times in a row,” said senior study author Pablo A. Celnik, M.D., professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

But Celnik says the modifications in training have to be small, “something akin to slightly adjusting the size or weight of a baseball bat, tennis racket, or soccer ball in between practice sessions.” Some of Celnik’s ongoing research suggests that changing a practice session too much (e.g. playing badminton in between tennis bouts) does not significantly improve learning.

“If you make the altered task too different, people do not get the gain we observed during reconsolidation,” he says. “The modification between sessions needs to be subtle.”

2. Don’t Text at Night.

A Rutgers University study found that night time instant messaging habits of American teenagers can reduce academic performance.

Distributing surveys to three New Jersey high schools, the researchers found that students who turned off their devices or messaged for less than 30 minutes after lights out performed significantly better academically than those who messaged for more than 30 minutes after lights out.

“Students who texted longer in the dark also slept fewer hours and were sleepier during the day than those who stopped messaging when they went to bed. Texting before lights out did not affect academic performance, the study found.”

3. Study with a view.

New research from the University of Illinois says students perform better on tests if they are “in a room with a view of a green landscape, rather than a windowless room or a room with a view of built space.” Specifically, students with a green view performed better on tests requiring focused attention and recovered better from stress.

“It is the first study to establish a causal relationship between exposure to a green view and students’ performance,” said William Sullivan, head of the landscape architecture department.

Dongying Li, a doctoral student who conducted the research with Sullivan, added: “It’s a significant finding, that if you have a green view outside your window, you’ll do better on tests.” The study found that students’ capacity to pay attention increased 13 percent if they had a green view outside their classroom window.”

4. Use standing desks.

Research from Texas A&M points to the neurocognitive benefits of stand-height desks for students. Ranjana Mehta, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, investigated standing desks’ effect on freshman high school students at the beginning and end of their freshman year.

“Through using an experimental design, Mehta explored the neurocognitive benefits using four computerised tests to assess executive functions. Executive functions are cognitive skills we all use to analyse tasks, break them into steps, and keep them in mind until we get them done. These skills are directly related to the development of many academic skills that allow students to manage their time effectively, memorise facts, understand what they read, solve multi-step problems, and organise their thoughts in writing. Because these functions are largely regulated in the frontal brain regions, a portable brain-imaging device (functional near infrared spectroscopy) was used to examine associated changes in the frontal brain function by placing biosensors on students’ foreheads during testing.

“Test results indicated that continued use of standing desks was associated with significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities. Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed.”

5. Study in groups to improve your decision-making skills.

Young students who participate in group learning “develop better decision-making skills than [students] who study the same curriculum via teacher-led discussions,” according to new research. More than 760 fifth-grade students were involved in a study that “compared the efficacy of collaborative group work with conventional direct instruction at promoting students’ ability to make reasoned decisions and apply those skills in a novel task.”

Students who worked in groups developed better decision-making skills than students who did not.

6. Surround yourself with high performers.

The National Research University Higher School of Economics has found that students tend to perform better when there are high performers among their friends and study groups, as “some people are capable of inspiring others to try harder.”

In choosing friends, the authors write, students do not usually consider academic performance, but over time—often in the middle of the academic year—all members in a peer group tend to perform at about the same level. While they found that most students who surrounded themselves with high-achievers improved their performance over time, the opposite was also true: those who befriended underachievers eventually experienced a drop in grades.

The authors explain it this way: “While underachievers have a stronger influence on their networks, high performers tend to gain popularity and expand their influence over time, particularly by helping other students with their studies.”

7. Don’t skip breakfast.

A Cardiff University study of 5,000 students from the ages of 9 to 11 “demonstrates significant positive associations between breakfast consumption and educational outcomes.” According to the research findings, the odds of an above-average Teacher Assessment score were nearly twice as high for pupils who ate breakfast compared to those who did not.

8. Repeat new information aloud to others.

Researchers out of the University of Montreal found that repeating aloud boosts verbal memory, especially when you do it while addressing another person.

Lead scientists Boucher and Lafleur asked 44 French-speaking university students to read a series of lexemes on a screen. During the task, the participants wore headphones that emitted “white noise” to mask their own voices and eliminate auditory feedback. The subjects were submitted to four experimental conditions: repeating in their head, repeating silently while moving their lips, repeating aloud while looking at the screen, and finally, repeating aloud while addressing someone. After a distraction task, they were asked to identify the lexemes they recalled having said from a list that included lexemes not used in the test.

The researchers found a significant difference when the exercise was performed aloud in the presence of someone else, even though the participants had heard nothing. Repeating in one’s head without gesturing was the least effective way to recall information. “The simple fact of articulating without making a sound creates a sensorimotor link that increases our ability to remember, but if it is related to the functionality of speech, we remember even more,” Boucher said. “The results of our research confirm the importance of motor sensory experiences in memory retention and help to better define sensory episodes associated with verbal expression.”

9. Aim for mastery, not relative performance.

Researchers at Nagoya University in Japan have found that mastery-approached goals (i.e. developing your own competence) enhance memory for newly learned material, whereas performance-approach goals (i.e. comparing yourself to others) only create tenuous connections in memory.

Three experiments were conducted “using a retrieval-practice paradigm with different stimuli, where participants’ achievement goals were manipulated through brief written instructions.” The results showed that retrieval-induced forgetting was “not statistically significant in the mastery-approach goal condition, whereas it was statistically significant in the performance-approach goal condition.”

The authors conclude: “These results suggest that mastery-approach goals eliminate retrieval-induced forgetting, but performance-approach goals do not, demonstrating that motivation factors can influence inhibition and forgetting.”

10. Learn by doing, as often as possible.

Students who “physically experience” scientific concepts grasp them more deeply and perform better on science tests, according to a new UChicago-led study. Brain scans showed that students who learned by doing had activation in sensory and motor-related parts of the brain when they later recalled concepts such as angular momentum and torque. The researchers noted that “activation of these brain areas was associated with better quiz performance by college physics students who participated in the research.”

11. Take naps when you can.

Research from the University of Geneva shows that memories associated with a reward are “preferentially reinforced by sleep.” Even a short nap after a period of learning makes a difference.

“Rewards may act as a kind of tag, sealing information in the brain during learning,” says lead researcher Dr Kinga Igloi. “During sleep, that information is favourably consolidated over information associated with a low reward and is transferred to areas of the brain associated with long-term memory.”

For the study, thirty-one healthy volunteers were randomly assigned to either a sleep group or a “wake” group and participants’ brains were scanned while they were trained to remember pairs of pictures. Eight series of pictures were shown and volunteers were told that remembering pairs in four of them would elicit a higher reward. Following a 90-minute break of either sleep or rest, they were tested on their memory for the pairs and asked to rate how confident they were about giving a correct answer. Participants were also asked to take part in a surprise test of exactly the same nature three months later.

The findings were as follows: “Both groups’ performance was better for highly rewarded picture pairs, but the sleep group performed better overall. Strikingly, during the surprise test three months later participants who had slept after learning were selectively better for the highly rewarded pairs. The people who slept were also more confident of achieving a correct answer during the memory tests, even after three months.”

The MRI scans revealed that the sleep group experienced greater activity of the hippocampus, a small area of the brain critical for forming memories.

“We already knew that sleep helps strengthens memories, but we now also know that it helps us select and retain those that have a rewarding value,” says Igloi. “It makes adaptive sense that the consolidation of memory should work to prioritise information that is critical to our success and survival.”

12. Ask for more autonomy.

University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers have found that students perform better when they are expected to forge their own learning experiences.

In the context of a science course, using a framework that asks students to compare their experimental data to other students’ data or to simplified models, think critically, and then rework the science—on their own—results in more learning.

“In a traditional lab, a student conducts an experiment as instructed and writes it up, often chalking up discrepancies or issues to human error or lousy equipment—then they move on to the next concept,” says researcher Natasha Holmes, who oversaw the revamped lab at UBC and is lead author of a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study measuring its impact.

“Our framework designs the class more like a research program where scientists have to make decisions about data and uncertainty. It’s more about ingraining the iterative scientific process than any single result.”

According to the study, students using this “iterative” approach to experimentation were 12 times more likely to propose or carry out improvements to their data or methods than a control-group in a traditional version of the lab. They were also four times more likely to identify and explain a limitation of an underlying scientific model using their data.

“The exciting thing is that giving the students the guided autonomy to decide how to follow up on a result ingrains critical thinking long term,” says UBC physicist Doug Bonn. “The improvements persisted when the students were no longer prompted to take the iterative approach, and even as they moved into a more traditional lab course the following year.”

13. Hold “learning celebrations.”

A Baylor sociologist who reshaped “test day” in his class—transforming it with balloons, streamers, treats, and music—found that students in “learning celebrations” scored higher than students who took standard-style exams in previous semesters.

“Assessment is too important for students to dread,” said Kevin Dougherty, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, in the essay “Reframing Test Day,” published in Teaching/Learning Matters. “My goal is to create an ambience for assessment that enhances learning and joy.”

Students are initially skeptical, he said, and “often slip into the familiar language of quizzes and tests.” But “members of our teaching team, myself, and two graduate teaching assistants gently remind them that no such activities occur in our course.”

In previous research, Dougherty found that students who used a Facebook group as part of a large sociology class did better on course assignments and felt a stronger sense of belonging. Both studies have implications for the challenge of teaching large classes, a matter of growing concern for higher education.

With Learning Celebrations, Dougherty noted that the mean percentage on exams in three previous semesters, with standard tests, was 84.65; the mean percentage on three semesters of the celebrations was 86.48.

Students consistently did better on Learning Celebrations, with statistically significant differences, Dougherty said.

“Learning Celebrations shift the emphasis of assessment from grading to learning,” Dougherty said. “When students care about a subject and care about classmates, the potential for deep, lasting learning increases.”

14. Pretend you’re going to teach someone else what you’re learning.

John Nestojko, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology in Arts & Sciences at WUSTL, found that, compared to learners expecting a test, learners expecting to teach “recalled more material correctly, they organised their recall more effectively and they had better memory for especially important information.”

His study, published recently in the journal Memory & Cognition, is based on a series of reading-and-recall experiments in which one group of students is told they will be tested on a selection of written material, and another group is led to believe they are preparing to teach the passage to another student. In actuality, all participants were tested, and no one actually engaged in teaching.

The point is that simply telling learners that they will later teach another student changes their mindset enough so that they engage in more effective approaches to learning than do their peers who simply expect a test.

“The immediate implication is that the mindset of the student before and during learning can have a significant impact on learning, and that positively altering a student’s mindset can be effectively achieved through rather simple instructions,” Nestojko said.

Study participants who expected to teach produced more complete and better-organised free recall of the passage and, in general, correctly answered more questions about the passage than did participants expecting a test, particularly questions covering main points.

“When teachers prepare to teach, they tend to seek out key points and organise information into a coherent structure,” Nestojko said. “Our results suggest that students also turn to these types of effective learning strategies when they expect to teach.”

15. Resist the midnight munchies.

Researchers from the Semel Institute in the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have provided the first evidence that taking regular meals at the wrong time of day has far-reaching effects for learning and memory.

“Since many people find themselves working or playing during times when they’d normally be asleep, it is important to know that this could dull some of the functions of the brain,” says first author Dawn Loh from the UCLA Laboratory of Circadian and Sleep Medicine.

The current study shows that some learned behaviours are more affected than others. For example, the team tested the ability of mice to recognise a novel object. The researchers found that “mice regularly fed during their sleep-time were significantly less able to recall the object” and that “long-term memory was also dramatically reduced, demonstrated during a fear conditioning experiment.”


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

15 Responses

  1. James says:

    Great ideas…Some are true blues (don’t skip breakfast or learning by doing.) But I loved the one about texting and resisting the munches!
    Keep it up!


  2. Fay Nielsen says:

    I will share this with my students!

  3. Muhammad Saeed Shafi says:

    Excellent analysis & advice to learners! Well done Saga.

  4. Minna says:

    Thanks for this article! I’d like to learn more about the research under #8, “Repeat new information aloud to others,” but the link isn’t working. Can you direct me to the study? Thanks!

  5. Irwin says:

    Hi Saga
    Thank you for another eye opening article. Love the one on pretending to teach. By the way what do you mean by pretending?
    Tefl teacher

    • Saga Briggs says:

      Hi Irwin, thank you for reading! “Imagine” might be a better word than “pretend.” When you approach learning with the expectation of relaying the information to another person—whether or not you actually end up doing so—you force your mind to sort of step back and frame that information in clearer way. I’ve noticed this myself when it comes to events as well: if you’re aware of the “story” (beginning, middle, end) of an experience as it’s happening, that makes it easier to tell to someone else later.

  6. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the sharing! But where is No. 9?

  7. Dan Schroeder says:

    Thank you for the very helpful information. Tactic number 9 seems to be missing. Is there one more tactic that should be included? Right now there are only 14. Just thought you’d want to know. Thanks again!

  8. Saga Briggs says:

    Thanks, Sarah and Dan, number 9 has been added!

  9. Andoni says:

    I’ve been doing some research about educational neuroscience (http://www.slideshare.net/andonisanz/educational-neuroscience-by-andonisanz), and reading your article’s been refreshing and inspiring.
    Thank you very much.

  10. Amani says:

    Thanks, Saga
    I learned a lot, especially the one for teaching.

Leave a Reply