Studying Effectively, Part 3: Memory and Tests

This is the third and last part of my summary of Coursera’s Learning to Learn class. The first part tackled strategies on learning new subjects by chunking small bits of information, and the second part contained my notes on procrastination.

Now there’s been quite a gap between my previous post and this, but it isn’t due to procrastination! On the contrary, I had my quitting time: I was on vacation! I did try to study while I was away, but my brain wouldn’t cooperate, so I simply relaxed. And now I’m back at work, refreshed and energized!

In this post, we talk about some strategies to help us recall what we’ve studied (e.g. spaced repetition, interleaving), as well as some preventable pitfalls that assure us we’re learning when we’re not. In the end, we conclude with testing tips and how to apply everything that we have learned in real life.

On learning and memory

There are two types of memory: working memory, usually focused on the task at hand, and long-term memory, which acts as a repository. Working memory can be freed by writing down things, which also helps convert it for long-term storage. Working memory can also be helped by actively creating memorable associations for what you’re learning in real time, like while listening to a lecture or reading a book.

Long-term memory, on the other hand, is best accomplished by spaced repetition. Even creating metaphors, analogies, acronyms, or personal associations to make something memorable is likely to fade unless it is repeatedly wired into the brain.

But when and how often should one repeat a fact or concept before it can be remembered? This is where spaced repetition comes in, and this is why flash card programs such as Brainscape and Anki are useful in studying. Repeating over a shorter period daily but repeatedly for a long time has been shown to be more effective than studying a topic for hours in one day. (Again, this is why cramming doesn’t work!)

Mixing up topics to study and study strategies, called interleaving, also confers additional advantages in learning. For example, doing practice questions and active reading are two different strategies that strengthen cognitive recall. As for interleaving topics, doing so enables you to derive and conceptual and contextual differences between or among several ideas.

Reviewing learning material before sleeping is also a good idea. Sleep, as we know, gets rids of brain toxins and has been shown to help consolidate ideas, boosting memory and enhancing understanding.

Accessibility to long-term memory can be aided by creating a mind palace. Because humans have the ability for visual and spatial recognition, it can be helpful to visualize a space that you are familiar with, attach an image (actual or associated) to concepts (or things) you want to remember, and place them accordingly. If you can and/or prefer, you can also engage the other senses (e.g. auditory). Although this makes for a longer learning time at the outset, retrieval is quicker and easier.

Another fact that I’ve learned is that new neurons are created in the hippocampus, which is the seat of memory, in mice that were placed in an enriched environment and exercised. We’re certainly not mice, but it’s a no-brainer that we do better in an environment conducive to learning. So prep your best study environment, enrich it with likeminded colleagues who can also help finetune your knowledge and understanding, and make sure to take the time to engage in physical exercise.

Finally, long-term memory is boosted with every attempt of recall, be it through teaching someone else, testing yourself, or reviewing it again. Reconsolidation is happening with each recall; retrieving knowledge by itself improves learning.

Do not fret if you do not think you are smart enough. (I know for sure I think like this and put myself down.) Perseverance is key. Learning is not straightforward, and sometimes it is possible to feel like you’re sliding downhill instead of advancing. This can happen when the brain is restructuring itself, so be patient, and keep pushing forward!

Beware the fool

We can get pretty good at convincing ourselves that we’re actually studying but we’re not, or that spending time with our books and in class means that we’re learning, when we really are not exerting any effort at all. Hence, passive reading is not studying unless we do it repeatedly and after some period of time has passed, similar to spaced repetition.

Highlighting blocks of text is not useful either and is a lazy way to comfort ourselves as though we are doing something. Now, scanning the text and selecting only the main ideas to highlight is better, as are notes on the side margins of your textbook.

Also be aware when you are procrastinating. This will allow you to intervene immediately before it becomes a habit again and eradicates your already established good study routines.

Test taking

Ultimately, in schools everywhere, how much we’ve learned is evaluated through an exam: be it written, oral, or practical. While there is a debate on the usefulness of tests, it is no secret that this practice, when questions are appropriately selected, still improve and encourage learning.

The best way to take a test is to have prepared well beforehand, obviously.

Upon receiving the exam, it is wise to look over the sections quickly and see which ones are more difficult and which ones are easy. Taking stock of questions will allow you to budget your time better. (I personally don’t think this is doable for computer-administered exams.)

Tackle the more difficult problems first, and then, if you get stuck, ease your way through the simpler questions. This will activate your diffuse mode of thinking that usually will lead you to being able to answer the more difficult questions.

Take the anxiety and fear out of exams by doing deep breathing exercises and by changing your mindset from nervous to excited, in that you are eager to do well on this test. Reminding yourself too that there are very few bad things that can happen with failing a test should ease some of the pressure.

Remember to check your answers! An interesting fact I’ve learned is that the left side of the brain is more for definitive decision making and the right side helps with checkpoints. When writing an exam and you are in hyperfocused mode, it may be that it’s only the left side of your brain working. Activate your right hemisphere to enable you to see if you may have missed tricky questions.

Applying it in real life

You may ask me now: okay, this long list of things to do is well and good, but where should I start?

Based on where I need it for, I will begin by making a list of all my study materials, so I know what to cover, after which I will create a rough schedule and timeline of when to tackle these material. Interspersed with these different learning strategies of reading, looking at microscope slides, watching instructional videos, and grossing specimens, I will also be doing review questions on my Anki deck. As of this writing, I am not too worried about repetition, as I will be rotating through the same subspecialties over the next few years.

For now, I am not worried with not knowing everything all at once and having all the puzzle pieces in place, as I am certain that as long as I keep up with my studies, my level of expertise will naturally grow.

How about you? Do you have other study tips/hacks that you’d like to share?


Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash.

See also

Dr. Jade Marie Tomaszewski is a pathologist-in-training at McGill University, where she also did her degree in MSc Pathology. She obtained her medical degree (MD) from the University of the Philippines, after completing a BSc in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. In her (little) spare time, she enjoys spending time with family, curling up with a book and a large mug of tea, and trying out new recipes in the kitchen. You can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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