5 Brain-Based Study Tactics

This article was authored by Saga Briggs.

It’s crunch time, and you’re facing a pile of textbooks and notes with a sinking, familiar feeling: In order to ace a test on all this information, you’re going to have to start from square one and review everything you’ve learned over the unit. And even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll retain it all once you’re sitting in front of that test sheet. Lucky for you, brain scientists have discovered a few new ways to study that not only increase your chance of retention but also introduce a little variety into your study sessions.

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. 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."

3. 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.

4. 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."

5. 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."

Author Bio
Saga Briggs is an Education Writer for Open Colleges, one of Australia's leading education providers. Saga has taught and tutored writing at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Her educational interests include psychology, creativity, and system reform. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, Oregon, USA.