It’s that time of the year again. The Bistro is full of group projects late into the night, tutoring slots are being snatched up like never before and Willamette students across campus are experimenting with the range of caffeine they need to ingest to keep themselves studying for just a little bit longer. This can only mean one thing: finals week is on the horizon, and students are using a variety of study strategies — both time-tested and experimental — to prepare.
However, that’s no reason to worry. Psychology classes, especially classes like 370: Topics in Human Memory, show that there are many memory strategies that can make study time more effective. Or, at the very least, more effective than sacrificing one’s mental health on the shrine of finals week. In the book, “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning,” jointly written by a memory expert, a psychology professor and a novelist, three methods are presented that can help you can improve you studying this finals period — backed up with some tips and tricks from students in Human Memory.
This is the technical psychology term for learning things with time in between. In other words, don’t cram for a test! As if powering through all your studying the night before a test wasn’t bad enough, in terms of messing with your sleep schedule and stressing you out, the authors of “Make It Stick” use decades’ worth of evidence to prove that it doesn’t even help you retain that much information, compared to spaced rehearsal. Instead, cramming information at the last minute makes you feel like you’re making progress, but come test time, you might be left scratching your head.
In one study, students who crammed forgot 50 percent of the information they had been able to recall on a test just one day after taking it, while the students who used spaced rehearsal only forgot 13 percent. This means that it’s best to start studying right away and keep a constant pace of studying as you get close to test date, because this gives your brain time to process what it’s learned, and make lasting connections with other material.
Context Dependent Memory
Try to study in situations that are similar to how you’ll take the test. For example, if your classroom has uncomfortable chairs, smells musty and has dim lights, it might actually improve your memory if you study in a place that matches those conditions. This is because your brain will look for cues in the environment when you go to remember what you’ve learned. If the cues match up, you’re likely to pull more information out of your memory than if you were in an uncertain or unfamiliar environment. While it’s not worth going too far out of your way to make sure that where you study matches your classroom or hall exactly, small things, like studying while seated at a desk as opposed to lying down, can make all the difference when you’re under pressure to remember.
Frequent Low Stakes Testing
Even if the word “testing” sends shivers down your spine, it’s important to pay attention to this last tip. One of the main psychological findings of “Make it Stick” is that it isn’t enough just to look at things you want to learn and hope to absorb the information. In fact, the authors mention that the study strategy of “becoming familiar” with material by just looking over it before a test often isn’t effective at all. Instead, they found that testing yourself does two great things for your information retention.
First, it forces you to confront what you don’t know. Say you’re studying Spanish vocabulary and think you’ve got it down. A great way to check to make sure if you really know your stuff is to use flashcards, end of chapter quizzes or even just covering up the part of the page with the translations on it. Once you’ve tested yourself, you can be honest about what you have down and what you needs more work.
Secondly, and maybe counterintuitively, being tested on material is a great way to learn it. It’s the same concept behind “practice how you play.” A powerful example of this in “Make It Stick” is an experiment where a group of people studied a passage of literature for 30 minutes. Half were tested on it immediately, while another were given an additional 30 minutes to study. In a week, the group that was tested outperformed the group that had the extra study time by a wide margin. In short, testing yourself with nothing on the line is great preparation for taking a test with everything on the line.
Of course, all the studies in the world can’t change what you know to be effective. While you should keep these suggestions in mind, don’t stress yourself out any more than you have to. And, if all else fails, you can always follow the advice of Paige Fredenburg (‘19): “Laminate your notes so the tears roll off.”
Happy finals week, Willamette. You’ve got this!