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The Best Way to Study, According to Science

Are you making the most out of your studying?

With a new school year approaching, students across the country will soon face countless quizzes, tests, and exams. Most students understand that the key to success in school is relentless studying, yet many students fail to study effectively, resulting in wasted time, unnecessary frustration, and lower grades. After all, you can’t spell “studying” without “dying”. Luckily, many scientists have addressed this problem and determined the most effective study strategies. Follow these suggestions to get the most out of your studying!

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Don’t Cram

You might think that staying up all night buried in your textbook will guarantee that you pass that exam the next day, but the research shows differently. Studies have revealed that studying in 20-50 minute increments with 5-10 minutes in between is more effective than cramming. This so-called “distributed learning” benefits your long-term retention rather than your short-term retention. (1) Taking breaks during study sessions also prevent you from becoming distracted while studying. Many students make the mistake of cramming right before a test, only to forget the information the next day. This causes students to have to relearn everything they studied later on, wasting tons of time and energy.

Try Exercising

We all know exercise is essential to a healthy life, but did you know exercise can also help with your studies? When you exercise, you increase the level of brain-deprived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in your brain. BDNF helps counteract brain cell loss and improves memory function. (2) By studying the brain after exercising, studies “have shown that physical activity improves cognitive performance by increasing neuroelectric activity, brain volume, and blood flow in brain networks that mediate attention, learning, and memory” (3). The more often you exercise, the better cognition you will have. However, even a single bout of exercise can significantly improve cognition, so the next time you are having trouble studying, take a break and get active!

Test Your Knowledge

Surprisingly, “Tests enhance later retention more than additional study of the material, even when tests are given without feedback” (4). The more you test yourself on the material you read, the more likely you are to retain that information. You will also feel more relaxed on test day when you have already practiced with questions in the form of a test. To test yourself, write questions or problems on a sheet of paper as you study, and then try to answer the questions after you are done. If you struggle with any questions, practice that topic again and write more questions until you have mastered the topic. Other helpful ways to test yourself include making flashcards and having a willing friend ask you questions.

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Become the Teacher

Some studies have demonstrated that if you plan on teaching something, you are more likely to be able to recall it. (5) If your classmate ever asks you to explain something, do it! It will help you learn the subject as much as it will help them. Or, you can try explaining what you are learning to your siblings, your dog, your stuffed animals . . . as long as you are teaching the material, your brain is also mastering it.

Get Some Sleep

Never underestimate the power of a nice, long nap. While how exactly sleep helps learning and memory remains unknown, scientists have confirmed that as you sleep, new connections are formed in the brain that improve memory. (6) It is best to sleep well after studying to cement the material in your brain, as sleep will strengthen certain  memories, link related memories, and process emotional memories. The longer you spend in deep sleep, the stronger these memories become (7). Ultimately, staying up all night to study for a big test will hurt you more than it will help you, so don’t do it!

I wish you the best of luck in your studies, but if you follow this advice, you won’t need it!


(1) Thalheimer, Will. “Spacing Learning Events Over Time: What the Research Says.” Work-Learning Research, Work-Learning Research, Inc., Feb. 2006, wp.phase-6.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Spacing_Learning_Over_Time__March2009v1_.pdf.

(2) Erickson, Kirk I., et al. “Exercise Training Increases Size of Hippocampus and Improves Memory.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 Feb. 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3041121/.

(3) Ratey, John J., and James E. Loehr. “The Positive Impact of Physical Activity on Cognition during Adulthood: a Review of Underlying Mechanisms, Evidence, and Recommendations .” Walter De Gruyter, 2011.

(4) Roedinger, Henry L., and Jeffrey D. Karpicke. “The Power of Testing Memory: Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Association for Psychological Science, 1 Sept. 2006, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00012.x.

(5) Nestojko, John F., et al. “Expecting to Teach Enhances Learning and Organization of Knowledge in Free Recall of Text Passages.” SpringerLink, Springer, Dordrecht, 21 May 2014, link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13421-014-0416-z.

(6)  Yang, Guang, et al. “Sleep Promotes Branch-Specific Formation of Dendritic Spines after Learning.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 6 June 2014, science.sciencemag.org/content/344/6188/1173.

(7) “Sleep On It.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 13 July 2017, newsinhealth.nih.gov/2013/04/sleep-it.

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