What Neuroscience Suggests to Better Your Study Habits

February 10, 2020 • by Cason Hunwick

Every student has their own style of studying for exams. Some hold marathon study sessions, others endlessly review their notes.

A drawing of a desk covered in papers and post-it notes, pends and coffee cups

Every student has their own style of studying for exams. Some hold marathon study sessions, others endlessly review their notes. But scientists right here on campus say there are right ways and wrong ways to study, according to neuroscience.

UT Brainstorms, an award-winning outreach program from the Department of Neuroscience, holds free events. In the spring 2020 semester, a talk and open forum centered on the neuroscience of effective studying.

Michael Mauk, professor of neuroscience and Department of Neuroscience chair, spoke at the event on which study habits to avoid, which to adopt and the biggest traps that ensnare studying students. Here are four key takeaways.

1. Watch out for faux confidence from familiarity.

"We have to guard against this sense of familiarity that drives the way most students study," Mauk said, "which is to read their notes over and over again."

Re-reading notes gives a sense of accomplishment, which fools students into thinking they understand the material – a phenomena Mauk calls the "fallacy of familiarity."

"It seems like you're doing really well," Mauk said, "but you're not actually studying in a way that's going to produce long-term performance."

Instead, Mauk recommends that students opt for flash cards that force repeated recollection of information. And rather than read straight through a chapter, pause every ten minutes or every few pages, and write down the key points from what you remember.

Mauk advises students to do the same with lectures. Rather than jot things down while a professor talks and reread these points later, try to recall what the main points were just after the class ends. Even if it's just a few thoughts on the walk to your next lecture, those simple acts of recollection add up and become central to memory.

"It's the act of recalling that signals to our brain, 'No, don't forget this,'" Mauk said.

2. Don't cram.

Some students believe in cramming – long study sessions the night before an exam that involve reviewing as much material as possible. But as it turns out, our brains do not translate last-minute information-packing into exam-acing performances.

"Cramming is fine if you need to remember it for about three hours," Mauk said. "But if you're cramming on Sunday for a test Monday night, forget about it."

Instead of cramming, students should study every night using recall techniques. This is an efficient way to forget less from lectures.

"Let's say you had three lectures today – go home and try to recall as much as you can about each one, and then glance at your notes and see how well you did," Mauk said.

These recall-focused study sessions, done the day of learning material, cut off the process of forgetting. They flatten the forgetting curve, so, rather than lose information over time, your memory is strengthened.

"The effects of this are not subtle," Mauk said. "This habit has a huge effect on how much you remember."

3. Avoid long study sessions.

When it comes to study sessions, quantity has a cutoff.

"Let's say you have three hours to study for a test tomorrow," Mauk said. "If you're really determined and you study all three hours, it turns out that the last two hours and 20 minutes were kind of pointless."

Pointless because the brain can only do so much on a single subject in one sitting. The brain does, however, benefit from novelty. Switching between topics in half-hour chunks can relieve the effects of over-repetition.

"This is what's called interleaving," Mauk said. "Spend 40 minutes on one subject, then take a little break, 40 minutes on the other and take a little break. Then spend 40 minutes on the first one – interleave back and forth."

Or, if a student doesn't interleave, they can study for 40 minutes, take an hour and 40-minute break, and study again for 40 minutes. Either way, it is important to avoid spending an entire 3-hour block on the same material.

"The reality of it is, if you just keep looking at the same thing over and over again, there's a diminishing return beyond about a half hour," Mauk said.

4. Embrace frustration

Frustration can set in once a student practices more challenging study methods like recall-based learning and interleaving between subjects. But if it feels difficult, you are doing it right.

"If you're studying in a way that is effortful and a little frustrating, just trust the process, that's actually a good thing – struggle is good," Mauk said. "If you're studying in a way that's easy, then you're largely wasting your time."

UT Brainstorms

The UT Brainstorms series and its organizers won the College of Natural Sciences' Outreach Excellence Award last year, as an outstanding public education event impacting the community.

Now in its third season, UT Brainstorms events are focused on communicating the latest research that impacts people in their daily lives – a purpose near to the discipline since neuroscience is fundamentally about us.

The next installment of Brainstorms is Saturday, Feb. 15 and will feature speaker Boris Zemelman, an associate neuroscience professor. Titled "The Cyberman Brain: A Conversation About Mind Control," the talk will discuss the history of the subject and cover a groundbreaking, neuron-controlling technology that Zemelman helped invent.

"They're going to hear about this invention – one of the most famous and powerful techniques in neuroscience," Mauk said.

Brainstorms events take place at the Lady Bird Johnson Auditorium and are free and open to the public. More information on dates, location and topics for future events can be found on the UT Brainstorms website.