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Davis, California

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Column: How to study


Finals week is nearly here. There shall be too much caffeine. There shall be too little sleep. There shall be ramen and writing papers all night. There shall be the Scantron 2000.

Sharpen your No. 2 pencils, steel your minds and prepare to run the gauntlet. Normal working hours do not apply anymore, if they did at all before.

We will remember what we’ve learned, or learn to remember all of it the night before the exam. Whether we’re cramming or not, memorization is an inescapable ritual of finals week.

To be fair, UC Davis is not based on rote learning. Professors do not prioritize mindless memorization over a deeper understanding of material. Some repetitious drilling is necessary, but many teachers do well by requiring us to think critically about our subjects.

Nonetheless, we will memorize if we want that framed diploma, and the job that might come with it.

So, some information on how to memorize your way to an A:

Don’t find one quiet place to study. Find several. A study by UCLA’s Robert A. Bjork, detailed in an article by The New York Times, found that studying in two distinct locations is better than studying in one.

This is because our minds are constantly searching for ancillary associations for our memories. We may be focusing on reading Plato for a political science final, but we’ll also remember the smell of the dank corner of the library, the hum of the fluorescent lights.

Moving outside to the courtyard, with the fresh air and sunlight, to study tectonic plates for geology class will make those memories, and their associations, distinct. Thus, recall during the test will be much easier.

Next, remember that rehearsing the test is the best way to prepare. Studies done by researchers at the University of Purdue found that retrieval practice is the best way to retain information.

Students who took a memory test after reading did better than students that were made to study the material repeatedly, or draw elaborate concept maps to describe what they were taking in.

The tested students understood the material more fully, scoring higher when questions required them to make inferences about the text. They also remembered the information longer than their counterparts.

We shouldn’t spend too much time re-reading textbooks or scrolling through lecture slides. Instead, make flash cards, or devise some other way to directly test your recall ability. Practicing the art of remembering is essential to doing well on a test, no matter how well we feel we know the material just by reading.

Also, stop highlighting, stop underlining. A study published by the Association for Psychological Science found that these are among the least effective tools in test preparation.

The analysis shows there is no measurable benefit to highlighting. We might as well save the ink and just read the text. Similarly, researchers say summarizing the main points of material is time that could be spent more efficiently in other ways.

Covering a variety of material within one study session, like interspersing different types of math problems, aids recall and comprehension. According to a study done by the University of South Florida, this is superior to blocked studying. As they put it, instead of “aaabbbccc,” think “abcbcacab.” In this way, we can compare and contrast the things we learn more directly, giving them a more distinct place in our mind.

Also, committing to shorter study sessions, over longer intervals of time, aids recall. In other words, we should study smaller amounts of material each week, rather than cramming it in during a bleary-eyed all-nighter.

If you are anticipating an all-nighter, know that sleep is crucial in forming memory. There likely will be a point where sleeping will be more helpful than studying.

Finally, stimulants like Adderall should be treated warily. They offer inhuman focus and energy, but with serious risks attached. These medications are a class 2 controlled substance, the same as cocaine. Taking them irresponsibly can lead to dependency, needing higher and higher levels to remain functional. Anxiety, depression and sleeplessness are several other side effects. Taking Adderall may be self-defeating in the long run.

With that, may your pencils be unerring, and your papers and projects impervious to red ink. Best of luck everyone.

SEAN LENEHAN thanks you for reading this quarter. He can be reached at splenehan@ucdavis.edu.



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