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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 4

How to Be a Better Student




JAMES YANG

A few years ago, after writing a self-help book for young women with binge-eating issues, I played around with the idea of getting a social work or family therapy degree. How wonderful to help people for a living! But the nitty-gritty of going back to school and having to study again scared me to death. I used to be a darned good student—but now? I'm so wiped from earning a living and keeping up with my toddler that my brain feels like Swiss cheese. Still, educators and researchers say that you do not need the carefree mind of a grade-schooler or the late-night stamina of a teenager to be a good student. All you need is the determination to learn something new and the right tools. Read on:

#1 Get visual. Apparently, learning via graphic novels is about to become the next big thing. In a recent study in Business Communication Quarterly, University of Oklahoma professor Jeremy Short found that comic books were better at helping business majors remember things word for word than traditional textbooks. It makes sense, when you think about it. “I can recite lines from movies and literature, but I can't walk around quoting textbooks,” Short says. He used the graphic-novel approach himself to brush up on math when he was getting his Ph.D.: “I bought the Cartoon Guide to Statistics. It was a really interesting book and got me back on track with what I should've already learned.” Such graphic guides exist for just about anything you might want to learn more about—genetics, the environment, the history of the universe. Kaplan even has an SAT vocabulary study guide in comic-book form.

#2 Join a gym. Study after study has confirmed that regular exercise improves cognitive function, memory and even students' grades. Cardiovascular exercise sends more oxygen to the brain in the moment and as you age, and some research suggests the cumulative effect may benefit neuron health. In one particularly fascinating bit of research, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign set up rats' habitats in a variety of ways—some with bright colors and lots of activities and toys, some with lots of different foods and smells, others with a running wheel. In the end, the only factor that mattered to the rats' brainpower was the wheel, and the rats that exercised did better on cognitive tests and had healthier brains than the others.

#3 Share your progress. Recopying my class notes or writing out questions and answers always helped me do better on tests when I was in school. Composing updates about what you are learning and posting on social networks such as Twitter could be the 2013 version of that practice. Researchers at Michigan State University recently found that students who regularly tweet as a part of their classes are more engaged with the course material and get better grades. Part of the improvement may have also come through connecting and talking with other tweeters interested in the same subjects.

#4 Test yourself before you study. Psychologists have known for decades that taking a test helps people retain what they have learned better than if they simply spend more time studying. But recent research has revealed a surprising twist: it works even better if you take the test before you know anything about a subject, so you are all but guaranteed to get the answers wrong. One experiment from 2009, for instance, found that students who tried to answer neurology test questions before reading up on the topic recalled more information a week later than students who were given a list of keywords and topics beforehand and even students who were given the same test questions and told to memorize them. The experts haven't figured out quite yet why this counterintuitive learning trick works, but it appears that trying—and failing—to recall the information is key. If you don't have a practice test handy, use the questions that are often at the end of textbook chapters or turn topic headings into questions by asking yourself what the keywords mean. Take your best guess—when you find out the real answer, you may never forget it.

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