Study Tips

“How Handwriting Trains the Brain”

This WSJ article (no paywall) by Gwendolyn Bounds discusses a series of studies analyzing the link between handwriting and learning. Bounds goes far beyond advocating good penmanship (although studies have shown a link between neat handwriting and dramatically higher test scores), as she discusses the different outcomes that demonstrate “how writing by hand engages the brain in learning.” It’s not too often that you come across a (nearly) fool-proof method for improving your academic performance across the board – so put down the iPad and pick up a pen!

Study Tips for Improving Long-Term Memory Retention and Recall

This is a fantastic guide produced by the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Michigan State University. Containing discussions of how memory works, how to understand the neuroscience of learning, and some very straightforward tips about how to improve the efficacy of studying, this article provides a great overview on principles of memory that can help any student in any degree program.

Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition, a study method based on the principle of the “spacing effect,” has been discussed in psychological literature since its accidental discovery in 1885. The spacing effect is how psychologists describe “the phenomenon whereby animals (including humans) more easily remember or learn items when they are studied a few times spaced over a long time span rather than repeatedly studied in a short span of time” (source). Put simply, the spacing effect is science’s way of telling us what we have often heard: cramming is a fairly bad way to learn.

Spaced repetition is best applied in situations where you are required to learn a large volume of details and retain what you have learned over time. There are several methods and tweaks on the general approach to spaced repetition, though one of the more common techniques is known as the Leitner System.

The Leitner System is a method for organizing flashcards by sorting the cards into groups that are not based on subject or content, but rather, how well you understand the material. It works like this: say you have just completed a stack of flashcards for your upcoming exam and are ready to start reviewing the material. Rather than just flipping through a stack of cards, one after another, grab three boxes and label them 1, 2, and 3. Dump all your flashcards in Box 1. Now, start going through the cards for your review.

Here comes the important part: every card that you know, “get right,” or recall, gets moved into Box 2. Every card you “get wrong” stays in Box 1. Continually repeat this process of sorting the cards according to how well you understand and can remember the content on the flashcard. The process works something like this:

Animation shows cars with A-I being sorted into three boxes.

This system works on many levels. First, you are sorting the cards into a system based on how well you know the material. This way, you are effectively doing exam triage: identifying your areas of conceptual strength and weakness so that you can tailor your studying to fit your needs.

Second, as you repeat the process, you can narrow the field of information in your review. The cards that you continue to know and understand will remain in Box 3 and stay there – meaning, you probably don’t have to worry about studying that material as much, if at all.

Third, and most importantly, you can easily track your progress. As time goes on, if those cards aren’t moving out of Box 1, you know that you have some more significant work to do: perhaps going back to your reading, forming a study group, getting a tutor, or asking your instructor for some assistance.

Spaced repetition is a proven method for enhancing our ability to learn, remember, and recall. So try it out – it might just change how you learn forever.