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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Under the microscope: exam study tips

Cramming for tests is not the best option. Spacing out study sessions is far more effective. (SARA SUPRIYATNO / THE STATESMAN)

Every other week Mallory Locklear, a graduate student at Stony Brook University’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, will take a look at Stony Brook-related research and science news.

As final exams are quickly approaching, “Under the Microscope” would like to provide a few research-based study tips to get you through the coming week.

First, get rid of the notion that you are an “auditory” or “visual” learner or that you are more “left” or “right” brained.  Research has found very little evidence to support those ideas. Though individual differences certainly exist, scientists have found that some general studying rules will benefit most people.

One rule which may be pretty obvious but is also likely to be the most abused concerns cramming. Research has repeatedly shown that cramming is not the way to go when preparing for a test.  Spacing your study times out is far more effective but, let’s face it, that is not always an option.

If you do need to cram, some research has found that packing all of your studying into one session is more beneficial if done closer to the time when the material was learned rather than closer to the test.  For example, if you learn material on a Monday for a test taking place ten days later on the Thursday of the following week, cramming would be most effective if done on the Wednesday after the material was first learned, or roughly ten percent of the time between learning and testing.  So, cramming is not totally useless, but its timing is crucial.

Though many people prefer to study with music, studies find that distractions while studying actually hurt test performance and while highlighting material is common practice, research has not found it to be effective.

Another mistake students often make is studying in the same location.  People who switch study locations have been found to perform better on tests than people who study in the same place.  Similarly, switching study material improves retention.  Studying different but related materials in the same study session may help you learn each of the materials better than if each one was studied separately.

Also, separating your material into manageable groups may encourage memory, similar to how important numbers like social security and phone numbers are divided into manageable groups of digits rather than one long string of numbers.

Additionally, research shows that practice tests are often better than rereading the material.  Trying to recall memories serves as a different type of learning than just reading the material alone.

One final study tip is to review the toughest material right before you go to bed, as many scientists believe sleep is key to memory consolidation.

Eating habits are just as important as proper studying habits and can affect testing performance.  High-fiber, slow digesting foods like oatmeal are recommended for the morning of the test, but what you eat the week before is also critical.  One study found that students who ate high fat, low carbohydrate diets the week before a test performed worse than students who incorporated fruits and vegetables into their diet.  The brain needs a lot of energy, and fruits and vegetables provide more than junk food.

Unfortunately, even if you have studied thoroughly and eaten a balanced diet, anxiety can still hurt testing performance.  Taking measures to reduce anxiety beforehand may help to improve testing outcomes.  First, if the testing room is unfamiliar to you, visit it in advance.  Novelty often encourages anxiety, so increasing familiarity may hold off the nerves.  Also, simply writing down your worries can make them less imposing.  Finally, some psychologists have suggested training your brain to be more confident.  Prior to the test, imagine a situation that makes you feel comfortable, confident and capable, whether it be playing baseball or painting a canvas, depending on your talents.  After that, switch to imagining the test taking room.  Over time, the confident feeling of the first memory may become associated with the testing situation, reducing your test day anxiety.

Of course the most important aspect of preparing for a test is sleep.  All-nighters have been linked to lower grades and poor test performance, and lack of sleep actually inhibits the functioning of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with forming and retrieving memories.  One missed night of sleep can impair memory and reasoning for up to four days.  Finally, do not wake up early to study.  This can interrupt the sleep cycle thought to be essential for memory consolidation.

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