5 Ways to study smarter, not harder

General / Lifestyle choices

  6 Minutes
An effective studying strategy can be the difference between exam success and failure. While the looming threat of exams can spark panicked cramming sessions, burning the midnight oil and a “more is more” studying mentality, you may be doing more harm than good.

Does cramming really help you cement more information to memory? The simple answer is no. Cramming may help you remember information in the short term, but it does not help commit the subject matter to long term memory or help you truly understand what you are reading.

The key to studying better is understanding how our brains work.

Before we dive into study tips, let’s take a quick look at the neuroscience behind it. Your brain is made up primarily of neurons. These are cells that send information to each other to help you function. To walk, for example, neurons need to communicate the message “move legs and feet” to other neurons. That message then travels down to your lower body to signal movement. Neurons are responsible for everything you do, from thinking and writing to talking and dancing. Each neuron can be connected with up to 10,000 other neurons, creating very dense spider webs of connections in your brain.

When we learn new things, new connections are forged between neurons, which we call neuroplasticity. When you practise particular behaviours more frequently, these connections grow increasingly stronger. Imagine these paths were trails in a forest. Your first journey is little more than bundu bashing while you break through vegetation to forge a path. The more you return to the same trail, the flatter the terrain becomes, and the easier it is to travel through. The same is true of abandoning the path – the less you travel through it, the more the vegetation grows back and the trail becomes difficult to forge through once again. Similarly in the brain, when we stop practising behaviours, those forged connections between neurons weaken and we can’t recall information as easily. (Some connections, however, can become so strong that those neural pathways never fade – like riding a bicycle or recalling nursery rhymes from your youth.)

So, now we know our ability to retain information depends on the strength of neural connections, how can we use this to study better?

Harness your brain power

Here are five tips based on brain function that have been proven to help you harness your brain power:

Repetition, repetition, repetition

If you remember school teachers drumming this message into you relentlessly, it turns out they did so because it works. Much like you need to bundu bash through the forest a few times before slowly smoothing out a path, we need to activate the connections between neurons many times in order for them to become stronger and more efficient. This doesn’t mean just reading over your notes in the lead up to exams. Do it every day after school to help get the information committed to your long term memory.

Study Tip One: The more frequently you return to the same study material, the better your chances of remembering it.

Retrieval beats observation

Simply reading through your study materials will not prove very helpful in building neural connections and cementing information to your memory. Connections are forged far quicker when we retrieve information rather than reading over it again and again. Retrieval means recalling the information from memory rather than seeing or hearing it, like answering a teacher’s question in class or working through a mathematics problem. This is most difficult in the early stages of learning, but becomes exponentially easier the more you practise it. Retrieving information in this way also requires feedback so you can ensure you are securing the correct information to memory.

Study Tip Two: Use flash cards, past papers and practice tests to cement information to memory.

Bite-size is better

Taking breaks helps you study better. When you create space between study sessions you enhance learning and recall. Instead of studying for two straight hours, for example, try shorter periods of 30 minutes spread out over the day. This practice, known as “spacing the activations of neurons” is beneficial for all studying, but particularly for the retrieval practice mentioned above. Breaks between shorter study sessions allow for important maintenance of neurons, helping them to work better – and to commit more information to memory. During these breaks, reward yourself with a favourite healthy snack and get moving. Stretch or dance to your favourite song to get the blood flowing and increase your energy levels. Knowing there is a reward in the near future is motivation to stick to a study plan. Don’t forget to grab a glass of water during your breaks, your brain loves staying hydrated!

Study Tip Three: Break study sessions into shorter periods and reward yourself for completing them.

Switch between tasks

If time is of the essence and you don’t have the luxury of taking as many breaks as you like, another way of doing this is to switch between tasks. Gymgoers, think of this as super-setting between muscle groups during a workout rather than taking breaks between one consecutive exercise. This could mean alternating between subjects – e.g. English and Maths – or simply swapping between subsections in a subject, like algebra and geometry.

Study Tip Four: Study different topics during one session

Get some sleep

A good night’s sleep between study sessions serves as a bonus retrieval session. While you sleep, your brain reactivates the connections between neurons that you forged during the day’s learning. You get similar benefits from a nap as well.

Study Tip Five: Rest is important! Get a good night’s sleep.
Bonus Tip: Set yourself up for success.

It is important to remember there is no one-size-fits-all solution to studying effectively, but by following our tips and figuring out which methods work well for you, you have a much better chance at acing your next exam.

Make sure you understand the material by clarifying anything you’re not sure of with your teacher before exams roll around. Check that you know exactly which sections you need to study and ensure you have a peaceful place to study without distraction. Write up a study timetable and stick to it. Remember, your brain needs fuel to function correctly, so prioritise eating nutritious meals and staying hydrated.

Consider supplementing your brain power with:

Bio-Strath: Well researched and shown to improve your concentration, memory and endurance, this 100% natural supplement contains 61 of the 100 nutrients your body needs daily to function at its best (think vitamins, amino-acids, building substances, minerals and trace elements). Bio-Strath supplies a powerful nutritional boost to any study regime for those looking to maximise their results – during exam season or throughout the year.

Bio-Strath has helped other students boost their mood, motivation and confidence, helping them approach studies with enthusiasm and determination and unlocking their potential.

A.Vogel VegOmega3: Taking a high-quality Omega 3 supplement is important for maintaining good brain health and increases learning and memory capabilities. A.Vogel VegOmega3 are a source of Omega-3 essential fatty acids, DHA, ALA and EPA to feed the brain cells and help with messaging between cells

A.Vogel Concentration Formula: This tonic aids concentration and contains ingredients that address restlessness, daydreaming and poor memory recall.

A.Vogel Neuroforce Formula: The ingredients in this homoeopathic nerve tonic specifically address nervous tension and exhaustion making it a potent ally for the emotionally roller coaster ride with exam time and tests.

As a wise parent shared before, just do your best, that is good enough!

References and additional reading:

  1. 10 tips on how to study effectively (no date) Victoria University, Australia. Available at: https://www.vu.edu.au/about-vu/news-events/study-space/10-tips-on-how-to-study-effectively (Accessed: 23 April 2024).
  2. 5 tips to study better (based on brain function) (no date) Bio-Strath. Available at: https://bio-strath.co.za/5-tips-to-study-better-based-on-brain-function/ (Accessed: 23 April 2024).
  3. Dighriri IM;Alsubaie AM;Hakami FM;Hamithi DM;Alshekh MM;Khobrani FA;Dalak FE;Hakami AA;Alsueaadi EH;Alsaawi LS;Alshammari SF;Alqahtani AS;Alawi IA;Aljuaid AA;Tawhari MQ; (no date) Effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on Brain Functions: A systematic review, Cureus. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ (Accessed: 23 April 2024).
  4. Lparsons (2023) Top 10 study tips to study like a Harvard student, Harvard Summer School. Available at: https://summer.harvard.edu/blog/top-10-study-tips-to-study-like-a-harvard-student/ (Accessed: 23 April 2024).
  5. Sara (2023) How to study effectively: 12 secrets for Success, Oxford Learning. Available at: https://www.oxfordlearning.com/how-to-study-effectively/ (Accessed: 23 April 2024).