How To Study

Study Tips

I’m often asked how best to study for this course. My suggestions are usually to

  • Review the learning objectives – can you complete those tasks?
  • Answer the study guide questions without resources
  • Make a copy of the problem set and try it again without resources
  • Create your own practice multiple choice questions. These questions should present a problem (i.e. If the cell is at rest at X mV, and neurotransmitter Y is released from a presynaptic neuron, what will happen to the membrane potential?).

The Research

I think it’s also critical for students to understand the educational research behind how we best learn. If you read the literature, you will discover that there are specific techniques that will help you retain and be able to use the material.

  • Test yourself. This one is big. The more you force yourself to try to recall material from memory, the better it will stick. Tasks like re-reading and highlighting actually do not help.
  • Switch up the material. This one tends to frustrate students. People prefer to focus on one topic, learn that sufficiently, and move on to the next topic. But if you actually mix all the material up and have to switch back and forth (called interleaving), you will retain the content better.
  • Generate your own responses. This one is similar to testing yourself. The more you create your response (versus reading and paraphrasing from a source), the more you will retain. Try to do as much from memory as possible.
  • Correct your responses. Getting concepts wrong isn’t a problem. Not correcting those mistakes is. While you study, after you test yourself, check to see if you’re right. If not, figure out what went wrong.
  • Space out your studying. Cramming is bad. Practice a little, take a break. Come back later. See what you can recall. Repeat. Spending 1 hour a day for a week is a much better study tactic than trying to cram for 4 hours right before the exam. Even if you end up getting a good grade on the test, the likelihood that material will stay with you is slim. And that’s the whole reason you’re here! To learn AND remember. To be able to take these lessons and apply them in your career.

See below for research articles on these topics. If you want to learn more, there is a great book called, “Make it Stick” by McDaniel and Brown that reviews loads of research. Or check out a free MOOC on Coursera called, “Learning How to Learn.” These techniques will help you in all of your classes and other learning experiences.

Growth Mindset

“Recent theory developed by Stanford professor Carol Dweck has suggested that most people’s brains can be described as having a fixed or a growth mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset avoids new challenges out of fear of failure, whilst someone with a growth mindset sees new everyday problems as opportunities to be seized and embraced as part of a wider learning experience. Those with a fixed mindset claim that skills and abilities are innate, however Dweck argues that most successful people tend to have a growth mindset and an ongoing desire to learn and develop personally throughout their life.

As we get older it can seem harder and more fruitless to try new things we believe we will not be successful at, however by becoming aware of our resistance to change it is possible train ourselves to overcome this resistance and expose ourselves to new activities.

Instead of avoiding taking up a new hobby or interest you have always been interested in for fear of failure, put yourself out of your comfort zone and give it a go. You will be surprised at how you will develop new ways of thinking through trial and error and how this will improve your resilience and flexibility.”

From: Forbes – The 4 Underlying Principles of Changing Your Brain

Resources

Active LearningWhere’s the evidence that active learning works? Research on the benefits of active learning drove the decision to move away from lectures during class and instead have students complete activities that require active engagement with the content.

Retrieval LearningThe critical importance of retrieval for learning. Test yourself!

A powerful way to improve learning and memory

MetacognitionStrategic resource use for learning. Reflecting on one’s own learning is a powerful tool.

Deliberate Practice – Practice for Knowledge Acquisition

How to practice effectively

Test Anxiety

A recent study examined test anxiety in high school students. They found that a 10-minute writing exercise immediately prior to an exam could help students reframe their stress and had a significant effect on exam scores compared to controls. The writing prompt from the study is below.  

Additionally, techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness exercises, and positive self-talk have also been shown to reduce testing anxiety and may be worth a try. Another study showed that students who practiced relaxation techniques for 15 min daily, and then repeated the relaxation technique prior to the testing situation, had lower testing anxiety. Relaxation techniques in the study included breathing retraining, guided imagery, stretching exercise, listening to music, adult coloring, and aromatherapy using lavender essential oil

Writing Exercise

Copied from Rozek, et al (2019)

As you might expect, taking a test can be a stressful experience. Before starting your exam, we are going to go through a procedure designed to help you perform at your best.

First, please read over some information taken from a scientific journal article. The information is about how our body’s response to stress helps improve performance. While you read, we would like you to think about how these bodily reactions can help your test performance today.

After the reading, you will be asked to answer two questions about what you just read.

This reading is based on Nock’s 2011 study in the Journal of Psychophysiology

Sometimes in important situations, people notice that they have a faster heartbeat, sweaty palms, shortness of breath, butterflies in their stomach, and lots of energy running through their body. People usually think that this means that they are nervous, anxious, or worried. However, these feelings happen for all kinds of reasons, and it does not mean that we need to feel worried or nervous. For example, we feel this same way when we are excited about a surprise, when we are getting ready for a fun sports competition, or when we fall in love. So, feeling a faster heartbeat, for example, doesn’t mean you will perform badly. Having these feelings could actually help you!

This is because when people care about something, such as doing well on a test, our body’s nervous system tells the body to release energy and deliver more oxygen to the brain. This helps you to stay alert and pay attention to the important thing that is going on in your life. Therefore, experiencing a faster heartbeat, heavy breathing, or sweaty palms could actually be a good thing. It is your body’s way of pumping you full of energy and attention! But it all depends on whether you choose to use this energy.

As you are getting ready to take this test, just keep in mind that the feelings and symptoms you may be experiencing are normal. It is just your body’s way of getting you prepared to tackle and deal with something important.

Remember that the increase in energy you are experiencing is helping you, so take advantage of all that extra energy and attention!

Question 1: How do people sometimes feel in important situations?

Question 2: How can the way a person feels in important situations help them do well in those situations?