A Guide to Hacking Your Brain So It Can Remember Anything
"Cramming the night before a test is impossible if you're really trying to learn.
This question originally appeared on Quora: What is the most effective way to study a huge amount of information for one test? Answer by Jonathan Davidson, author of The College Success Cheat Sheet.
Don’t despair. If you do the right things, you’ll be ready to crush any exam.
In order to pull this off, you’ll need to:
- Learn and implement the best study techniques.
- Study every day in a strategic manner.
- Optimize your diet, sleep, and exercise habits.
There are a couple of study techniques that you should understand. They are the spacing effect and surveying.
The spacing effect
The easiest way to absorb information is to use the spacing effect, a study technique that researchers have called “one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning.”
Basically, when you learn new things, your brain stores that information in neurons. It then connects those neurons to existing neurons that contain information you already know, forming a network of associations.
The problem is that your brain can only grow this neural network of associates so strong in one sitting. That bears repeating—it is physically impossible for your brain to grow neural pathways strong enough in one day for perfect retention. That’s why if you force yourself to study the same information many times in one or two days, also known as cramming, you’ll have a hard time remembering it even though you studied for hours.
Researchers have learned that it’s much more efficient to expose your brain to new information and then wait at least a day before reviewing that same information. This gives your brain time to cement the connections it has already built, which means it will be ready and physically able to build those connections stronger at the second exposure.
For example, if you have an exam coming up in a week, it’s much better to review your notes only once a day for those seven days than 30 times in one or two days. Even though you’ll have studied several times less, you’ll do better because you worked with the way your brain naturally stores information.
The second study technique is called surveying.
By using the spacing effect and surveying, you’ll be able to review all the information dozens of times. These multiple spaced exposures will be key in helping you memorize everything you need to know.
Surveying is a technique to help you condense all the information into something more manageable. I’m assuming that you’re taking classes while learning all this information, but if you’re not, just apply this to your textbooks.
- Read your assigned chapters and other readings the day before class.
- Highlight only the critical information in your textbook or other readings that isn’t already bolded, italicized, put in a box, or otherwise emphasized. Also, do not highlight anything that’s in the topic sentence of each paragraph (usually the first sentence of each paragraph that contains the main idea of that paragraph).
- Go to the lecture and take concise notes by hand. Make sure to keep these notes handy so that you can review them at the same time you review your chapters.
- From now on, when you re-read your chapters, only read titles, topic sentences, any text that was emphasized by the author, and any information that you highlighted. Finish by reading the chapter summaries since they neatly tie up all the ideas expressed throughout the chapter.
- Most of the key ideas in a reading are in the titles, topic sentences, emphasized text, and whatever you highlighted. For instance, a topic sentence usually contains the main idea of a paragraph, and the rest of the sentences only elaborate on and explain that main idea. So, if you have already read the chapter in its entirety, you should have an idea of what’s in that paragraph, and by reading only the first sentence in each paragraph, you’ll be reminded of what else is in the paragraph.
- By doing this, a chapter that would take you an hour to read may now take you only five to 10 minutes, allowing you to review it regularly, getting those multiple spaced exposures that are so critical to memorization.
- Also, review your lecture notes once per day alongside your assigned readings. Since you wrote concise notes by hand, these shouldn’t take long to read, and the spaced exposures will ensure that you memorize them thoroughly before an exam.
This read through will give your mind a complete first exposure to everything you’ll need to know.
Now your attention must turn to getting your spaced exposures, allowing your mind to see the same information again and again, but with at least a day of space in between each exposure so that your brain can cement the neural networks and be ready to strengthen them.
Having taken several finance classes, I know how difficult it can be to remember all the formulas and functions you’ll need to learn.
By reading and reviewing the textbook, going to class, and doing your homework, you’ll be learning how to do these, but you’ll still need to tap into the power of the spacing effect in order to really memorize them. That means getting many spaced exposures to all the formulas and complete instructions for how to solve them.
My recommendation is to create a notebook in which you write your own instructions for how to solve every formula and equation you need to know, followed by a couple of examples. Then, as you’re reviewing your chapters with the surveying method, also take the time to read through these instructions and look at the examples.
By completely reading through this notebook every few days for the next few months, the spacing effect will help you memorize all the instructions. Then, when you’re in your test, it will be like an open-book exam, because all the instructions will be right there in your memory.
After a couple of months of spaced exposures to all the textbook pages, lecture notes, and reading your notebook of instructions for how to solve formulas, begin testing yourself every couple of weeks. Choose several example problems from your homework, create a test, and see how you do.
If you aren’t doing well, then you need more spaced exposures. If you’re doing well, make sure you keep getting your spaced exposures so that the information will truly be cemented.
Optimize your lifestyle
There are several things you can tweak in your daily routine that will dramatically increase your ability to memorize information.
Studies have shown that students who go to bed at or before 10pm average as much as a letter grade higher than students who go to bed at midnight or later.
There are a bunch of theories as to why this works (optimized melatonin production being my favorite), but you don’t need to get into the weeds to make this work for you. Just make it a point to be asleep by 10pm every night and try to get as close to eight hours of sleep as possible.
This is absolutely critical for your academic performance. Not only will it optimize memory storage, but being well rested means you’ll have better focus when you’re studying.
Tons of studies also show a strong correlation between daily, vigorous exercise and academic performance. Make sure you sweat every day. Alternate between jogging, cycling, power walking, or other aerobic exercises one day and strength training the next. You don’t have to kill yourself, but make sure you’re getting a good workout.
The American Journal of Medicine once published a study that showed how even one high-fat meal (chicken nuggets) could reduce blood oxygen content by as much as 20% and cause blood to stop flowing completely in the smallest capillaries. You don’t want your body all gunked up by crappy processed foods. Eat only whole, unprocessed foods. Eat lots of whole grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fruits. Drink only water.
Remember, multiple spaced exposures is the key. Use surveying to cut down on your reading time without missing important ideas. Create a detailed notebook about how to solve all your equations and formulas. Review everything in full as many times as you can before the test. Test yourself at two week intervals. Always sleep well, eat well, and exercise daily.
By doing all these things, you should be able to do well.