With midterm exams approaching, students are feeling the pressure

By Ceri Turner, ’10

Armed with her iPod, notes and a pencil, freshman Ashley Cameron settles down at her kitchen table for some serious studying. She organizes her notes chronologically— oldest information first— and sets her exhausted mind to work. She has a big history test the next day and she needs to perform well, but she is having difficulty staying on task.

It is 10:30 p.m on Thursday, and Cameron, with school, rowing practice and her regular homework behind her, is finally ready to hit the books. Theoretically.

“I’m taking all the regular freshman classes, plus French and choir…. [as well as] rowing after school until 7. [Then] I have to have dinner and shower… and by then it’s already really late,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to focus on homework when you’re really exhausted.”

With midterms just around the corner, dozens of students are trying to miraculously transform themselves from the grade-A slackers of November into the grade-A students of December. Advice is cheap and all too familiar: clear a quiet work space, stick to a homework schedule, set goals, set boundaries and do not cram. Well, except in emergencies!

“Time is the biggest issue,” Cameron said. “It’s just hard because there’s so many after-school activities, and you just lose time to study. [Studying] ends up being the thing that I cut.”

Yet there are effective approaches to learning, at least for those who are motivated. In recent years, cognitive scientists have shown that a few simple techniques can reliably improve what matters most— how much a student learns from studying.

However, these new notions directly contradict much of the conventional wisdom about good study habits. Psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is incorrect.

Instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention, according to a recent study at Dartmouth College.

According to the counselors at the Academic Skills Center at Dartmouth College, “the brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time.”

In essence, this means that the human brain may correlate the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the west cafeteria, or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the shade of the willow tree in the backyard.

“Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding,” Dartmouth counselors said.

So for Cameron, her history terms are colored by the song lyrics from her iPod.

As an additional tip, the counselors at Dartmouth recommend that students vary the type of material studied in a single sitting, such as alternating between vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language. Studies show it seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time.

“When I study, sometimes I get a little too overwhelmed,” Cameron said. “I choose what I want to study for a half hour and then I move on to another [homework assignment].”

Cameron has the right idea.

“Study in chunks,” Dartmouth counselors said. “20-50 minute time periods followed by a brief break, five-to-10 minutes at most, is the most effective way to study.”

As for cramming, cognitive scientists do not deny that a quality cram session can lead to a better grade on a given exam.

However, according to Dr. Doug Rohrer of the University of South Florida, in a study published in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, “hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase.”

“It holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out,” he said.

Cameron has learned first hand just how quickly that information can be lost.

“I’m a huge procrastinator,” Cameron said. “I just don’t want to study, I cram the night before and then I figure out the hard way that I should have studied more.”

With those techniques, Cameron may run into a problem come exam time. According to Rohrer, with many students, it is not like they cannot remember the crammed material when they begin to review and study for exams. It is like they have never seen it before.

When studying is done carefully and gradually, information stays in the brain for longer than not. Spacing study time improves later recall without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention; an hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend and another session a week from now will have a much bigger payoff in the long run.

These techniques, from alternating study environments to spacing study sessions, will by no means work miracles. Motivation matters. So does impressing friends, making the lacrosse team and finding the nerve to text the cute kid in math class. Balance is key. •