We’ve all been there – it’s the night before a big test, and you’ve barely cracked open a textbook. So you get the coffee brewing and settle in for a night of cramming. But what if there were another way, where you retained the same amount of information but in fewer hours, and with less stress?
With a combination of evidence-based study methods and some lifestyle tweaks, you can increase your brainpower and get mentally-demanding tasks done in no time.
Read on to learn about science-backed techniques to help you study smarter, and the best supplements and lifestyle tips to keep your brain in tip-top shape.
Study Methods to Learn Better and Faster
Active Learning Methods
Research shows that when you study only by reading and listening, you remember less than if you engage with the information. By using active learning techniques like writing, explaining, problem-solving, and analyzing while studying, students improve their critical thinking skills and score higher on tests. https://www.wisconsin.edu/hips-initiative/download/nash_january_2018_focus_group/Kuh,-ODonnell,-Geary-Schneider-(2017)-HIPs-at-Ten.pdf
Maybe you’re studying for a history test and you’re trying to remember key dates in recent American history. Sure, you could read and reread when the Constitution was written, reciting the date over and over in your head.
But you’ll learn the information a lot faster, and retain it for longer if you incorporate active learning techniques into your study regime.
In a 2019 Harvard study, physics students obtained higher grades after working together in small groups to solve problems versus students who passively listened to a lecturer. https://www.pnas.org/content/116/39/19251
Passive learning is:
- Reading and re-reading
- Highlighting or underlying text
- Rote memorization
Active learning is:
- Summarizing what you’ve read
- Writing down the key points in your own words
- Explaining what you’ve learned to someone else
- Drawing diagrams and flowcharts
- Reading the material once then quizzing yourself
Picture mnemonics involves creating visual associations with a word or topic, so that you create stronger memories.
Imagine a paragraph of text. Now think of an image (any image will do). Which one is your mind most drawn to? Probably the image, right?
Research shows that it’s easier to remember an image than it is to remember a block of words. https://www.pnas.org/content/95/5/2703
For example, say you’re a medical student and you need to remember the meaning of “carpals” (the name for the wrist bones). When using picture mnemonics, you could imagine a car full of you and your pals, twirling your wrists in the air.
Tips for creating your own images when studying:
- Make your images as silly as possible. The funnier or wackier the image, the easier it’ll be to recall.
- Add motion to the image, as if it were a movie
- Include lots of details
- Use pictures that elicit positive emotions
So, to use the carpals example again. Perhaps you’d imagine you and your friends wearing ridiculous hats, or singing along loudly to the radio. You could add some movement — maybe you’re all swaying to the music and bobbing your heads. Then add some details — what color clothes are you all wearing?
What song is playing? What does the landscape look like outside? Are you on a road trip? This image should also make you feel good, since you’re having a blast with your friends. All these elements will help you remember the word more easily, and might even make you smile when answering the question, “What is the name for the wrist bones?” during the exam.
You’ll either find that adding more detail helps you remember, or overwhelms you. Try it with a few concepts and find your own sweet spot.
If creating your own images seems like a whole lot of extra work, there’s an app for that. If you’re a medical or nursing student, Picmonic is a visual study tool that uses pictures and stories to help students learn.
A method called spaced repetition helps your brain memorize facts by repeatedly viewing the material at specific intervals over a period of time.
Information overload is real — your brain can only take on so much in a given period of time. While cramming might help you retain enough information for an exam the following day, you likely won’t remember it in the long term. Studies show that your brain learns more quickly and effectively when you space out your studying. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0kp5q19x https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0959475214001042#!##!
One of the most common spaced repetition methods uses flashcards (a piece of paper with a question or other cue on one side and the answer on the other side). Known as the Leitner system, this method groups flashcards according to how well you remember the information on each card. The goal is to spend more time on the cards you don’t know rather than the ones you do.
What you’ll need:
- Flashcards (they can be index cards or cardboard cut up into smaller squares)
- Three boxes, labeled with how often you’ll study each one. For example, Box 1 might be labeled every day; Box 2 every 3 days; and Box 3 every 5 days (you can also use more than three boxes).
How to do it:
Start studying at least one week before your test.
You’ll place all the cards in Box 1. If you answer a card correctly, you put it in the next box, meaning you won’t study that card as often. If you get the answer wrong, the card stays in Box 1. You’re ready for the test when no more cards remain in Box 1.
For a quicker option, there are flashcard apps that make use of spaced repetition. AnkiApp allows you to download from a library of over 80 million pre-made flashcards. Bonus: it’s free! Brainscape is another option, and for $5 a month you can upload images and sounds to your flashcards, which the app says deepens learning.
Lifestyle Tips and Supplements
While study methods certainly help, it’s equally important to keep your brain strong in order to perform at your best. Here are some ways to upgrade your brain:
Going for that 3-mile run not only releases feel-good endorphins and keeps your heart healthy — it also improves memory and boosts brain power.
In a 2014 study, aerobic exercise – in this case walking briskly for one hour twice a week – increased the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that governs learning and memory. Resistance training with free weights and using strength equipment did not have the same effect. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4508129/
Although most studies have looked at the effects of walking, any type of aerobic exercise will do, such as running, swimming, or dancing.
Eating a diet rich in anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense food is one of the best ways to keep your mind sharp and memory strong.
Your brain is made up of nearly 60 percent fat, and essential fatty acids (EFAs) — particularly omega-3 fatty acids — play an important role in maintaining a healthy brain. Older adults (aged 50 to 70 years) saw a significant improvement in memory after taking 2,200 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per day. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26890759/ In a study of younger, healthy adults, omega-3 supplements increased reaction time and enhanced memory. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0046832
Load up on fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and anchovies. For vegetarians, chia seeds and hemp seeds are great sources of ALA, the plant-based omega-3.
Polyphenols — plant compounds rich in antioxidants — have been shown to boost learning and memory and protect your brain from aging. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20955649/ To get the maximum benefits, ensure your plate contains a variety of different colored fruits and vegetables. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20955649/
Choline is a nutrient that can increase your attention span and help you learn more quickly and effectively. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252552/ Choline is essential during pregnancy, helping to develop the memory center in a growing baby’s brain. A study of rat pups showed that choline supplements led to lifelong memory enhancement. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11023003/
Good sources of choline include eggs, organ meats, fish, soybeans, and cruciferous vegetables. Adults need between 425 mg and 550 mg per day. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-HealthProfessional/Meditation
Meditation is a tried-and-true practice for calming the nervous system and lowering stress. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24395196/ It can be especially beneficial for the brain – studies shows that regular meditation can protect against age-related mental decline, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01551/full, improve focus https://www.pnas.org/content/108/50/20254.short, and increase the thickness of the hippocampus, the learning and memory center of the brain. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/
If you’re a beginner, you can start by simply closing your eyes and breathing deeply in and out, while focusing your attention on your breath. Or you might prefer to use a meditation app, like Calm or Headspace. These apps offer a variety of guided meditations, including ones specifically designed to improve mental focus.
You may have heard about nootropics, the buzzed-about supplements that increase mental performance. While you can’t rely on a pill to ace a science test, these supplements can help build up your brain resiliency over time, sharpening your thinking and enhancing memory:
- Vitamin B-12: Low levels of vitamin B-12 have been linked to poor memory and learning ability. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26912492/ B-12 is most abundant in animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs. When supplementing, take 2.4 mcg of B-12 daily.
- Bacopa monnieri: This herb has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, and research shows it could boost memory by helping brain cells communicate more effectively. LINK TO BACOPA ARTICLE
- Omega-3 fatty acids: We’ve touched on the importance of omega-3s for brain health, and supplementing with fish oil is a great way to ensure you’re getting enough of these powerful fats. Take 1,000-2,000 mg of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) — the omega-3s from animal sources — a day.
- Ginkgo Biloba: Native to China, ginkgo biloba is a herb that studies show may enhance memory https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21802920/ and increase blood flow to the brain. Aim for 120 – 240 mg per day.
Different supplements work for different people. Take this quiz to find out which supplements vibe with your brain.
It’s almost impossible to pay attention and retain information when you’re running on little sleep. Getting enough hours of quality, restorative sleep is crucial for optimal brain function. Sleep deprivation leads to a decrease in reaction time, memory, attention, and thinking skills. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19742409/Your goal is to get enough deep sleep, or slow wave sleep, a night. That’s when your body washes out waste and toxic proteins from the brain, allowing you to wake up feeling refreshed and alert. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/373
Generally, adults need 7 hours or more of sleep a night https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html, while children and teenagers require more.