Welcome to the start of another school year. (I know, it’s a huge bummer that summer is over. If it helps, we adults feel exactly the same way. Have a cherry popsicle — you’ll feel better.)
Over the next nine months, you’re going to be using your brain to learn stuff. So it would be a good idea to know how your brain really works.
(And to be clear, the goal of all this is NOT so that you can spend more time at your desk. It’s so that you can get your homework finished quickly and then go do something truly important, like go ride your bike around the neighborhood, or catch a bunch of lightning bugs in a jar, while being careful to screw the jar lid on tightly to keep your bedroom from being filled with tons of lightning bugs in the middle of the night, which is freaky and scary and also cool. See? You’re only in the third paragraph and you’ve already learned something!)
Anyway, the thing about your brain is that it’s a little bit like that jar of lightning bugs. It was built by evolution, so it has all these twitchy, surprising features that helped your ancestors not get stepped on by mastodons and avoid falling into quicksand or getting lost in the woods. It was built for survival, not algebra.
So here are five quick hacks for your brain that will help you study better. They’re drawn from a variety of scientific sources, including a terrifically useful and insightful new book called How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens, by Benedict Carey (which is out next week, which inspired me to write this, and which your parents should definitely buy).
Hack #1: Space out your study time.
Let’s say that have a Spanish test on Friday, for which you need to spend about an hour preparing. Should you:
A) study Thursday night for one hour; or
B) study 20 minutes a day on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday?
The answer is: B). And it’s not even close. In fact, studies show you could probably get away with studying only about 10 or 15 minutes a day on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, because spacing out your study time is nearly twice as effective as cramming. It also helps you retain it a lot longer — which comes in handy for that Spanish test next month, and the one after that.
The reasons for this have to do with your brain’s tendency to get way less interested in stuff that gets repeated a lot over a short amount of time (i.e., cramming) and to get way more interested in stuff that it faintly remembers and can connect in different contexts. So, study the same way you snack: frequently, in small portions.
Hack #2: Switch up your study locations. We’re often told that we should stay in one place to learn, but that’s not true. Your brain likes to use settings like a Hollywood director; it uses them in the movies that make up your memory. So if you study and test yourself lots of places, play different kinds of music, wear different clothes, even chew different-flavored gum, your memory will improve.
Hack #3: Mix it up. School is orderly, so we instinctively think our studying schedule should also be orderly — you know, study math for an hour, then English for an hour. This is called “blocked practice,” and it makes perfect sense, except for one small fact: your brain doesn’t like blocked practice. What your brain likes instead is “interleaved practice,” where you study something for 10 minutes, then switch to something else, then come back.
The reasons for this are complicated, but they’re based on the fact that your brain works better when it’s being surprised. When you mix it up, you’re forcing your brain to work harder, and be more efficient.
(This also works in sports and music, by the way. If you want to get better at volleyball serves, mix up the type of serve you practice. And if you want to get better at playing classical music and rock, you should switch between the two all the time. Which could sound kind of awesome.)
Hack #4: Get outside. Your brain was built in the outdoors, so you need to let it get back there regularly. Nobody knows why being outside and walking around helps you get smarter, but it does. Check out this study of third-graders that shows how a 20-minute walk can light up the areas of the brain that filter out distraction and guide focused attention (talk about lightning bugs!)
Hack #5: Throw away your highlighters– instead, make a habit of testing yourself. We all know that school involves some memorization. The usual technique is to read a chapter over and over, highlight important passages, and maybe write notecards — you know the drill. Besides, it’s kind of fun to highlight (and yes, that yellow ink does smell fantastic).
But it turns out that those techniques are not nearly as effective as testing yourself. Here’s how: read a passage once, close the book, and then try to write the main points on a blank piece of paper. Then check yourself and see how many you got right.
In other words, don’t lean back in your chair. Instead, lean forward, and generate ideas. Shake the jar, and make the lightning bugs glow. Make your brain work the way it was designed to work — by reaching, struggling, and reaching again.