How to Study Effectively, According to Science

Tests are an unfortunate – but regular – part of a student’s life. You’ll encounter them starting at a pretty young age, and all the way up until the end of your college experience (whether that’s a bachelor’s, master’s, PhD or some other degree).

The most important part of test-taking is making sure you study efficiently and effectively. You don’t want to waste your time studying in an unproductive, or worse, counter-productive, way.

However, according to Daily Mail, teachers at Queen Anne’s School – an all-girls day and boarding school in Reading, England – “have been working hard with neuroscientists at universities across the UK to come up with a scientifically-backed solution” of how to study. This resulted in the BrainCanDo revision guide, which has “practical and effective study strategies that are rooted in the latest neuroscientific evidence,” the Daily Mail article said.

Human brain on a blue background. Active parts of the brain.

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Now, while this guide was probably created with the UK advanced level qualification exams (or A-levels) – a subject-based qualification that then guides the student into college, more studying, training or work – in mind, students around the globe can apply these tips towards their own tests.

Here are a bunch of tips that Ben Stephenson, the director of sixth form (the UK equivalent to the last two to three years of high school, for students ages 16 to 18/19, when they’re preparing for their A-levels) at Queen Anne’s School, and a former sports psychologist, shared with Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph.


Be mindful of the type of studying you’re doing

This covers a wide range of ideas about studying. As Stephenson told the Daily Mail, “‘There is no correlation between the amount of time you revise and the results you get…What we’ve found is it’s actually the type of revision you are doing’.”

This includes not waiting until the last minute to study – even though putting it off and procrastinating may be appealing. Instead, the best course of action is to test yourself on the material several days in advance, and then continue to do so up until the day of the exam.

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A good way to test your memory of the information is to¬†“[n]ote down the key points on a topic and then put the piece of paper away and see how many you can recall,” the Daily Mail article said.

Study different information over the course of the day

This is especially relevant if you have multiple tests on different topics (finals, anyone?), or you have one test on a variety of subjects (sounds like the SAT). In this case, make sure you don’t devote one day to studying one section, and then finally switch to a new topic the next day.

Not only will you be sick of the subject by evening (if learning a lot about it hasn’t already done that), but you need to allow time to forget the information you’ve learned and studied. You need to study it, move on to a different subject, and then come back to the first one and see how much you remember. Yes, it may be frustrating, but having to remember a bunch of information that you didn’t just study, is key for test preparation.

A student preps for the New SAT at a Kaplan Test Prep center. Those hoping to attend US colleges will take a new version of the standardized test in March 2016.

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Stephenson advises learning in groupings of time. “‘That means maybe doing biology in the morning, followed by English annotations, then testing yourself on biology modules after lunch’,” he told the Daily Mail.


Exercise in the evening

Young girl doing fitness outdoors at night.

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There are two reasons for this. Not only does exercising after dinner helps with concentration and exam results, but you can exercise instead of studying late at night, the latter of which actually may do the opposite, hurting your concentration abilities and lead to worse test scores.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Stephenson recommends you stop studying by 9 P.M. – which, admittedly, does sound early. However, instead, “‘go for a family walk or jog after dinner’,” Stephenson said.


Get a good amount of sleep

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Having slept a sufficient amount before going into a test is key. Not only will that ensure you stay awake during the test, but it’ll also help make sure that your brain is sharp and functioning well while recalling all the test material.

Usually, the accepted advice is to maintain a consistent sleep schedule; however, in this case, Stephenson suggests sleeping in a little later the morning of (if you can), or at least going to sleep a little earlier the night before.


Eat a healthy breakfast

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Taking care of yourself and healthily fueling your body after you get out of bed is important too. Make sure you eat a complete and smart breakfast to prepare for the exam ahead.

According to the Daily Mail, have something “with plenty of fibre and slow releasing energy, like porridge topped with chopped bananas.”


Don’t study on the day of the test

It’s not uncommon to see students studying on the bus ride to school, or sitting in their seats and frantically flipping through their notes minutes before their test. However, as tempting as it might be to try and cram a little more information into your brain the morning of, or right before, the test, don’t do it.

School Bus: Male High School Student Studies On Bus

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According to the Daily Mail article, Stephenson said, “‘Do very little revision, if anything, on the day of the exam. If you do anything then just look at essay plans or key notes’.”


Tell your parents how to help you prepare

You want to make sure that your parents aren’t adding to your stress – you probably are already stressing yourself out enough. One way they can help with that is not asking a lot of practice questions the morning of, even though they might want to. This ties into the ‘not studying the morning of the test’ idea.

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Instead, tell them to wish you well for the test. According to what Stephenson told Daily Mail, parents should “‘[w]ish the[ir] children luck, tell them how proud you are of them, [and] let them know you are proud of their best efforts’.”


Stay positive

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Besides reminding yourself to study hard and just do the best you can, another part of this is avoiding negative and bragging students. Don’t let your classmates bring you down by telling you how hard the test will be, and don’t let them make you doubt yourself by telling you how much they studied.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Stephenson also advises that parents avoid other parents who are boasting as well. “‘Otherwise the temptation is to go home and tell your already nervous child that so-and-so spends every night revising, which just increases their stress further’,” Stephenson said.


Create a mental mascot

Stephenson told the Daily Telegraph that “‘[a] lot of American high schools have animal mascots, often linked to a sports team, and studies show it helps with nerves during exam time’.”

The UCLA Bruin riles up the alumni crowd, at the first annual UCLA Day.

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Thus, you can create a personal mascot for yourself. Then, if you need it, you can imagine it being with you in the exam room – and that can make you feel more positive and calmer.

Stephenson advised really putting in the time to flesh out your mascot. “[T]hink about what [your] mascot looks like and sounds like, and…then imagine [your] mascot is with [you] in the exam hall’.”


Smell a lemon – or have another strong memory trigger

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One piece of (possibly) weird advice that Stephenson had was to connect a trigger smell (like a lemon), object or sensation with a positive mood. Then, using that trigger, you can call upon those good emotions when you’re stressed during the test.

“A student can condition their brain to work its best during exams, just as an athlete can condition their body ahead of a race,” the Daily Mail explained. As such, you can get yourself to associate something with positivity, by doing the following.

Over the course of multiple weeks (and if that’s not possible, do it for as many days as possible) before the test, smell a lemon while doing an activity that you enjoy. That will send a signal to connect the two – the smell of the lemon and the fun activity – to the hippocampus, which helps with emotion and memory. Thus, this then associates the lemon smell with a happy feeling.

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Additionally, for that same period of time, you want to spend at least five minutes a day practicing – that means smelling a lemon and recalling the positive feeling. By doing that, you should be well-conditioned by the day of the test.

So, when exam day comes, you can calm your nerves before and during the test by smelling a lemon-scented item (it’s less weird than taking out a lemon and smelling that). That will remind you of something that makes you happy, thus brightening your mood in a stressful situation.

As mentioned, you can also use a trigger object (something small and not distracting is best) or trigger sensation (the Daily Mail article mentions massaging your ears) to do the same thing. You just have to make sure you practice associating it in the same way.

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