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It’s study season and you’re holed up in the library for hours with a pile of books and an even bigger pile of energy drinks. Turns out, you’re wasting your time.

Photo by Marta Kierkus

When you’re faced with three months’ worth of knowledge condensed into a three-hour exam, the sole determinant of success is what you remember when the clock starts. 

When things go wrong, you’ll have spent hours poring over course content only to have it all go to waste when it matters most. You’ll blank on a question, or remember an answer when it’s too late. It’s something most if not all of us have experienced, and it’s sure to leave you frustrated and full of regret. 

The importance of memory is obvious. What’s less obvious is understanding how memory works. 

Students pack and cram as much into their brains as possible, sometimes even minutes before an exam starts, in the hopes that it will stick. But memory, like any other muscle, requires sustained work and an investment of time in order to be able to masterfully apply concepts and ideas.

In fact, the way our memory works has a lot to do with how university classes are structured.

Muscle memory

“In theory, the idea is that you have a class that lasts for a semester and you’re supposed to learn things progressively through the semester that will slowly build up a body of knowledge of abilities,” says Claude Messier, a leading brain researcher and professor at the University of Ottawa. 

But this long and deliberate process doesn’t seem to work in practice, as the majority of students end up in heavy study bouts right before exams. Messier says this lack of application and work throughout the semester can end up being problematic for students because the brain is very much like a muscle.

“Did it ever occur to you that you could go to the gym and look at people who are working out and that would be sufficient for your muscles to grow? If you go to class … do you think you can sit and look at the professor, or look at people studying, and that will create changes in the brain?” he asks.

“If it doesn’t get involved and doesn’t do the lifting then nothing much will happen.”

The physical changes in the brain required to cement certain memories need the appropriate amount of energy and rest time. Cramming at the last minute isn’t helpful because it doesn’t allow for a deep review of the concepts. 

According to Messier, cram sessions are the equivalent of someone weight training for a week in the middle of a semester and again at the end of a semester. It might work momentarily, but it doesn’t create lasting results. 

“This is an important analogy,” he says, “because it corresponds exactly with how the brain works.” 

Encoding, storage, and retrieval

Luckily, if you haven’t been applying this strategy throughout the semester, it’s not too late. A strategic approach to memory and adequate rest can help compensate for lost time and fast-approaching deadlines. There are some simple strategies that can make a real difference in memory performance.

Patrick Davidson, the director of the U of O’s neuropsychology lab, has researched memory and emphasized that although it can sometimes be elusive, it comes down to three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval.

“Memory is tough and learning is tough because you have to not only commit information to memory—encoding is how we talk about that—but you also have to store the information and the storage has to be faithful to the original,” said Davidson. 

“Things can’t change or be distorted when they are being stored. And then retrieval, you have to bring that information back right when you need it: writing the exam.”

These three stages are all necessary in order to construct a sound memory that can be accessed when needed. But this process is prone to error, and each stage of the process presents its own opportunities for failure.

Overall health and well-being is a key factor that can’t be overlooked when trying to improve memory performance. Maintaining good sleep and diet, and minimizing stress during the exam period, are all simple things that will aid in the accumulation and maintenance of memory. 

Make It Stick, a book published this year by prominent cognitive psychologists Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel, covers some of the fundamentals required for successful memory and learning. Many widespread preconceived notions about how to study have no scientific backing in regards to their usefulness. 

Common misconceptions about studying

Re-reading notes and textbooks over and over again may be the preferred strategy for millions of students, but research indicates that this is one of the least productive methods of studying. 

As the book’s authors state: “The hours immersed in re-reading can seem like due diligence, but the amount of study time is no measure of mastery.” 

It’s a concept that’s fairly simple to understand, if only because you’ve heard it in other words so many times before: quality over quantity. Why then do so many people believe that going over notes and texts is an effective method for learning?

It comes down primarily to how it makes us feel. While effective learning requires hard effort, simply glossing over words still makes us feel more familiar with the material. But this doesn’t really translate into tangible knowledge. This is especially true when you need to reorganize concepts on a test.

“When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary,” the authors state.

Another trap that many people fall into is studying one subject or concept continuously for a prolonged period of time. It’s much more effective to distribute your study time between different subjects, interweaving them on the same day, switching between one and the other. This will help cement and distinguish the different concepts in your mind. 

According to Make It Stick, “Retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application in later settings.” 

One of the most effective strategies to use is self-testing. Although it might seem tedious and unproductive, it’s actually considered one of the most powerful ways to remember information. 

“You get multiple advantages,” says Davidson. “You are re-exposed to the material, you become more comfortable with the testing process so you’re minimizing stress, and you get to know what you know versus what you don’t know and avoid being overconfident or under-confident.”

Self-test 

Sylvain Gagnon, a professor of psychology at the U of O, says there’s a lot of self-deception associated with studying, and self-testing is crucial to stopping that.

“We are not good at determining how well we will be doing in an exam because we often think of the total score,” says Gagnon. “It’s projecting yourself on something that’s global that you can’t really assess yourself on.”

Instead, Gagnon suggests students try to break down sections of notes and specific items that might be tested, and ask themselves how comfortable they are with that material. This allows for a more appropriate understanding of any gaps in knowledge one might have.

“You become much more realistic,” he says. “Develop questions, answer questions, test yourself. This is time investment, this is being strategic.”

Other means of effectively encoding information are to understand the underlying meaning of the concepts and then relate them to yourself. This grounds the memory within a stronger network of connections that will make it easier to remember. 

“If you think deeply, thoroughly based on the meaning, the memory is going to get created. You don’t need to force it in,” says Gagnon. “Integrate yourself into the notes, ask questions, think about how this could apply to your life … enrich it in a way so that you can recapture the information based on yourself.” 

These elaborate means of remembering are difficult and they don’t come intuitively. They require an active role on the part of the student and they push someone to be creative in the way they tackle the material.

“It takes time. It takes more time than reading through your notes, but you become an active thinker and the way you would be encoding would be different,” says Gagnon.

Learning how to effectively memorize and tackle information quickly has benefits beyond exam success—it can set you up to know how to keep growing as an individual.

“Not only do you want to have built a knowledge base, but you want to build the ability to build a knowledge base, which is much more important,” says Messier. 

“A lot of knowledge will have changed in 10 years, but your ability to acquire knowledge and organize it within your brain … this training will be useful all through your life.”