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Rethinking Revision: Top Tips to Help You Study Smarter, Not Harder

Exam season is fast approaching, which can be daunting for students and teachers alike. We all remember the days of staring at our notes, trying to will the information into our brains as anxiety mounts. Luckily, at Braintastic! Science, we love learning – and learning about learning. Knowing more about how your brain works can help you study more effectively in far less time, allowing you to revise smarter, not harder!


Did you know that whenever you learn something, it physically changes your brain? Our brains contain a staggering 86 billion neurons, which send messages to each other along neural pathways, powering our brain and allowing us to solve problems, make decisions and understand the world. Every time you experience something new, your brain forms new neural pathways. If you experience the same thing again, those pathways get stronger. Every time you do something, the related neural pathways get stronger until that thing becomes second nature. You’re probably very familiar with this process: it’s learning! [1]


To give an example, imagine you decide to learn how to play the trumpet (if you can already play the trumpet, you’re way ahead of us!). The first time you pick up your instrument, you won’t find it easy. You won’t know how to hold it, or what the keys do. You might not even be able to get a noise out of it! But as you start to try it, new neural pathways begin to form in your brain. Now those pathways are in place, the next time you play it’ll be a little easier. As you practice more and more, your brain, realising that this is something you’re going to be doing frequently, makes those pathways stronger. Every time you play the trumpet, you will get better and better, until you’re a true virtuoso. Congratulations!


This brings us to our first study tip: Practice really does make perfect. Repetition helps your brain retain information, so make sure you go over your exam material regularly.


Now you might be reading this and remembering all those hours you’ve already spent reading the same notes over and over again, with absolutely nothing going in. Practice certainly isn’t making perfect in those instances. So there must be more to learning than repetition...


Tip 2: Think about things in detail. There are lots of ways to do this. Come up with a story about the information (the sillier the better), link the information to things you already know, come up with new, fun examples, or try to solve different kinds of problems with the information.


If our brains processed and committed to memory every single thing we did, they’d get overloaded and wouldn’t be able to function. So instead, we process information in different ways. There are two main types of memory processing: deep processing and shallow processing. Shallow processing is surface-level processing – looking at the vague shape of the words, or scanning the information – and rarely leads to memory retention. Deep processing, on the other hand, involves thinking about the information in more detail. Because our brains are engaged when we do this, we’re more likely to remember that information.

Tip 3: Test yourself. Make up flash cards with questions and one side and answers on the other, or pair up with a friend and test each other [2].


You can combine repetition and deep processing by practicing recall. Whenever you think about something you’ve already learned, you’re practicing remembering that information. Every time you access something from your long-term memory, which is stored in the cortex (the wrinkly outside of your brain), you’re strengthening those recall neural pathways. Once again, the more you practice, the better you get.

Tip 4: Shake up the order of revision. Don’t start at the beginning of your notes every time you revise, otherwise you’re likely to forget a lot of material. Start at a different point every time, to increase the amount that goes in.

While our brains are great at learning, they’re also very good at forgetting. It would be a waste of cognitive energy to remember every single thing that happens – you probably don’t need to know what colour of shirt you were wearing on the 4th May 2021 – so our brains don’t hang onto everything. One of the things that determines what we remember and what we forget is timing. We’re most likely to remember the first thing and last thing we encounter, while all the stuff in the middle can get lost. This is called primacy and recency effect.


Tip 5: Space out your revision sessions. The best time to revise something is just at the point that you start to forget it. Go over something 24 hours after you first learn, then three days later, then a week, then a month.


If you sit down and try to cram everything into your brain in a fourteen-hour study marathon the day before the exam, not only will you have a terrible day, you’ll also find it difficult to remember everything. Your brain needs time to sort through memories and send them to the cortex, then practice recalling that information. Research suggests that studying for ten minutes a day over six days is twice as effective as studying for one hour-long block. So starting your revision earlier can cut down the time you have to spend looking at your notes!


Tip 6: Use anchors. This can be anything – the environment you learn in, the music you listen to, any mental cues. Our brains streamline the process of memorising things by “chunking” information together by category or timeline, which means that remembering one thing can trigger a chain reaction of related memories. Studies with professional divers found that, after being asked to memorise a list of words while underwater, they found it much easier to recall those words underwater than they did on land [3].


Tip 7: Stress can be good – in small doses. When you get stressed, your brain produces a hormone called cortisol, which is related to the fight-or-flight response. In mild quantities, cortisol can make you feel awake and focused, improving your ability to revise effectively [4]. Too much stress, though, can affect your mental health, which brings us to our final tip:


Tip 8: Look after yourself! A healthy, happy, well-rested brain has far more capacity to learn and remember things than a tired, burned-out brain. Taking breaks is vital, as it gives your brain a chance to sort through the things you’ve learned. Eating a well-balanced diet, exercising, doing things you enjoy and getting enough sleep will also help look after your brain and make sure it's fully powered to study as effectively as it can.


Want to learn more? Invite us to your school!

Our show, Mastering Memory, dives into the processes of learning and memory through a series of interactive tests, games and puzzles for the whole audience, sharing our top tips to maximise your revising efficiency.




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