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The Psychology of Studying or 5 Tips to Ace Your Exams

This text explores the neuroscientific aspects of memory consolidation and offers practical tips for effective learning. It highlights key findings: the dynamic nature of memory, storage in the neuronal network, the theatrical play when recalling memories, and the limitless potential of memory. The text introduces strategies for memory enhancement, including creating associations, replicating study conditions, reiterating information at specific intervals, consolidating through various learning modalities, and deducing information from the big picture down to details. The author encourages a proactive and personalised approach to studying, emphasising understanding over rote memorization.
The way that the human brain consolidates long term memory has been the focus of neuroscientific research since the birth of this field of study. The fronting knowledge about this question has led us to understand that:

a) Our memory is dynamic - it does not work as a video tape recorder, but can be changed over time.

b) Our memory is stored in a format of neuronal tangles - the bigger the tangle, the stronger/bigger the memory.

c) When a memory is accessed, our brain puts on a sort of theatrical play that runs the script encoded in a particular memory, putting ourselves almost in the moment of the experience from which the memory was formed.

d) Our memory potential is limitless.

So what? How does this information help us use the best practices to store memories better, access them easier and utilise them to our benefit? How can this understanding of neuronal function of memory help us ace our tests and exams?

Imagine yourself in a classroom. Ten of your classmates are around you shuffling paper, scribbling notes, whispering, clicking their pens; the teacher is squeaking their marker on the whiteboard, monotonously narrating what they are writing to the class; You can smell the bleach from the floors that were cleaned by the janitor just before you started the lesson; you can feel your uniform tight and uncomfortable on you, your ankles feeling exposed as the trousers pulled up when you sat down.

All this experience is around you simultaneously, your brain perceiving and processing it every single millisecond and also making noise (consolidating this experience to memory). At that moment, the part of the brain that is responsible for the visual experience has some neurons in it firing based on what you are seeing, and some not firing (being “silent”) based on what you are not seeing; the part of your brain that is responsible for your auditory experience has some neurons in it firing based on what you are hearing and others not firing based on what you are not hearing; same for the touch (or “kinaesthetic”) experience; same for smell; same for emotional. When all of these components (firing neurons) are working at one moment, they form a “network.” And in order to remember this experience, the network will need to fire exactly the same (or almost).
In order for the brain to remember this network, and for you to remember this experience, the brain forms a “tangle.” When seeing the whiteboard, the neurons that are responsible for experiencing the white colour will make stronger connections with the neurons responsible for seeing the box. When hearing the white noise around you, the neurons that are responsible for experiencing the clicker of a pen will make stronger connections with those that are responsible for hearing the squeaking of the marker. Moreover, the neurons responsible for seeing the whiteboard and hearing the white noise will also strengthen their connections between themselves. When connections between neurons are strengthened, the signal travels between them faster and gets passed on from neurone to neurone easier.

Ok, so you have experienced a moment, a network of neurons fired and the neurons in this network have made stronger connections between themselves. If you want to recall this particular moment, you need to somehow make this network fire again, so that you remember the experience, or bring it back to life. If you simply just look at the colour white, you may remember the whiteboard and all the experience that comes with it, but you can also remember the snow, someone’s teeth or a cloud as you have also seen those things previously, also associated other experiences with them, such as Christmas, bad breath or rain, and thus formed other neuronal networks. How to make sure that you remember what was written on the whiteboard in class and not the snow during Christmas? Well this is why “tangles” are formed. A “tangle” is a specific arrangement of neurons that is connected to a specific network, making sure only their network fires and not the other. These tangles are not found in one place in the brain, but are dispersed all over the place and can actually move around. In order for this “tangle” to set off a specific network, it needs a signal to fire it (or basically, you need to somehow “access” the memory).

If your network is small and insignificant, then it will be harder to access its “tangle;” if your network encompasses exciting experiences and is brought to life more often, then it will be easier to access its “tangle.” How so? Well, how many times have you experienced this moment I described in class? Probably almost every day, for approximately ten years, in almost the same setting. Indeed, because a similar moment has been experienced so many times over and over again, the neuronal network has become strong and easily accessible. However, although it is easy to remember the clicking pens, the whiteboards and the voices of your teachers, how easy is it to remember what your teacher said yesterday, or the day before, or 2 months, 1 week and 3 days ago? Although the neuronal network of your classroom experience has been run over and over again, the small deviations from it (like exactly what the teacher said there and then) have not been embedded to the same strength into the network as the other experiences such as clicking pens, whiteboards, etc… This is because the teacher says the valuable information only once, twice or three times throughout these 10 years, but the rest of the experiences are persistent every day for those same 10 years. It is a shame because you want to remember the valuable information from the teacher and not the clicking of pens. So, instead of this valuable information being a small drop of water in the vast ocean of your classroom experience, it is best for it to have its own tangle, eliciting its own neural network, where this valuable information is central to the memory being recalled, and that any associated experience will undoubtedly ensure you remembering it.

Number one. Associate

Just as with the classroom experience having many associations to it - such as the smell of the floor, the tightness of your uniform, the squeaking of the marker and the clicking of the pens, so should you try to make as many associations with the information that you want to remember. The more associations, the easier will the signal reach the tangle, setting off the network responsible for the experience of learning/understanding that information you wish to retrieve.

What happened in your mind when I asked you to recall your classroom experience? You were there, right? You actually pictured the whiteboard, your uniform, the desks, etc… You didn’t see it in front of you, you didn’t actually hear any clicking of the pens, but somehow, you did? What is going on? When reading about the classroom experience, you accessed the tangle associated with it that caused a chain reaction of that neuronal network associated with the experience to set off, and you brain basically staged a theatrical play of experience: the neurons associated with the whiteboard, the neurons associated with the sound of clicking pens, the neurons associated with the smell of bleach all set off and fired - just as they would if you actually experienced any of that in the very moment. But you didn’t. Fascinating.

Although you are not seeing or smelling or hearing any of that actually, the experience is still somehow very vivid to you. It would be great, of course, if you could recall just as vividly when Henry VIII died, what the process of DNA replication is called and how volcanoes are formed. Once again, you probably would have read about all three as black letters forming sentences on white paper, which is not that exciting: just a drop of water in the vast ocean of memories where you read some sentences in black letters on white paper.
So your tip number one is to create as many possible associations with the information as possible.
How did Henry VIII look like (fat and hairy or muscly and slick), how did he die (at a fierce battle or calmly in his sleep), what were his final words (screams of vengeance or loving sobs), where was he at that moment (outside in the woods or in his royal chambers), what did the air around him smell like (of the fresh forest or of scented candles)? Even if you need to know just when he died, make up the rest of the story, so that all your senses are engaged. Maybe even draw the scene. Make as many associations as possible, involving as many senses as possible, and when you have that film playing in your mind, just as vividly as you sitting in a classroom, you will remember the date of Henry VIII’s death just as easily as the annoying little someone who would not stop clicking his pen.

Number two. Replicate

This is a widely known tip, and rightly so. It is always recommended that you replicate the examination/test conditions when studying/revising.
Primarily, this is a great tip for those who study better in groups, with music, in public spaces or with white noise. Replicating the test conditions is a great way to train your focus in the actual environment that you will be tested in so that your mind is accustomed to the setting. This practice does not only entail replicating the silent conditions of the examinations, but also replicating the method by which you will be tested (eg. trying previous examination papers if your test will be to write answers, or speaking with a friend if you are to sit a speaking test for a language), and other factors such as the architecture of the space you will be sitting your test in, for example.

Why bother this much? For the same purpose of retrieving the memory easier. Say you spent yesterday’s evening with a friend at your home studying history. The same friend comes over today too to mock test you on what you learnt yesterday. Your friend’s face, appearance, tone, and the setting will easily remind you of yesterday’s conversation: you will easily recall your friend’s confused face when you started answering a specific question wrong, and the question that was asked when you took a sip of tea. In real examination conditions, your friend won’t be asking questions - they will be on a piece of paper, in a different order to how your friend asked them, and there will be no confused face to guide you. In order to associate the memory with the conditions you are likely to encounter during your actual examination, it is best to replicate them when you are consolidating a memory. Therefore, every little detail matters: the echo in the hall, the ink that you use, the arrangement of your equipment on the table, everything.

The best manner in which to do this, is simply to study in the room where you know you will sit the examinations, bringing the same materials with you that you would to your exam, learning and testing yourself in the same format as you would expect to be tested in an exam.

Number three. Reiterate

We have already uncovered that the reason you recalled the classroom analogy so easily is because this experience was lived so many times over and that the neuronal network associated with this experience has consolidated so strongly in your mind, as it's been repeated days and days over for many many years. Although amongst this greater experience you would not remember what your teacher told you exactly 2 months, 1 week and 3 days ago, you would more probably remember their catchphrase as that has also been repeated to you many times over. As I said, our memories are dynamic. Some memories may diminish (become harder to access) if they are not repeated over and over again, some may even change. Say you hung out at a cafe with your 3 friends yesterday: John, Josh and Jack. Today you will remember quite clearly how you spent your time. In a week, you will also remember how you, John, Josh and Jack went to the cafe. In a month’s time you say to John, Josh and Jack: ‘do you remember how we were at that cafe a month ago?’ However, Jack has forgotten all about it, he says: ‘I was never there!’ You try to remind him what you did, but he just does not remember it. In another month’s time, you remember that 2 months ago, you, John, Josh and Jack were at a cafe together and that a month ago Jack told you he was never there at the cafe. You bring it up again and Jack, again, tells you that you are being absurd and that he really was never there. Josh who has also forgotten all about the cafe says that Jack probably wasn’t there if he says so. Repeat this process every month and you will start to doubt whether Jack really was there, because

a) You have so many memories of Jack telling you he wasn’t there, compared to one memory of him being there

b) You now have more people saying that Jack wasn’t there

c) A lot of time has passed for you to vividly remember what actually happened

Well, the same thing can happen when studying. Let’s say you are learning about how to find triangle angles using tangents in maths. You learnt all week about it, have done some homework, even looked over it in more detail with a tutor, found yourself confident enough in the topic, and thought that you would now rather crack on with learning something that you are struggling with and remaining confident that you will remember all about tangents when it comes up again since you understood it so very well this week. Well, in a month’s time, you may apply tangents to find an area of a circle. You learn a completely new practice, but using the same principles you were confident in before. Now you have two different memories, of two different practices associated with the same principle. When examinations come in a years time you may have either:

a) Forgotten how to find angles of a triangle using tangents because so much time has passed or

b) Gotten confused when to use the equation for finding an angle in a triangle and which to use when finding an area of a circle
In order to avoid falling victim to these tricks our minds play on us, it is widely recommended practice to repeat consolidated information from time to time. Extensive research has been done in this field and the specific timeframes for the best chances of consolidating a memory have been established.
In order to maintain clear and easily accessible memorisation, Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist in the late 19th century recommended that learnt information is revisited first 3 days after initial consolidation, then 10 days after the fact, then again after 30 days and finally 60 days after initial memorisation. This timeframe is a very useful method of planning your study calendar.

Number four. Consolidate

The manner in which you consolidate new information has proven to be the key principle to hacking your chances of acing your tests and examinations, as seen with previous examples. Beyond associating information, and rehashing it often, you need to also consider how you best interpret information.
In the classroom, we are all taught and assessed in pretty much the same format - reading and writing. Interestingly, however, our minds are not all standardised to prefer this method of learning and assessment. It has been known for many decades now that some are better cognitively engaged when presented with information visually, others phonetically, even kinaesthetically. In 1992, Neil D. Fleming and Colleen Mills published these 4 modalities of learning.

The visual approach delivers information using maps, diagrams, charts, graphs, flow charts, and all the symbolic arrows, circles, hierarchies, and other devices that people use to represent what could have been presented in words. The aural approach refers to those who learn best from lectures, group discussions, radio, email, using mobile phones, speaking and talking things through. The Read/Write mode emphasises text-based input and output – reading and writing in all its forms but especially manuals, reports, essays, and assignments. The kinaesthetic form of learning includes demonstrations, simulations, and videos of “real” things, as well as case studies, practice, and applications.

Therefore, to get an advantage of consolidating information better, you need to do a little self-exploring to figure out which of these methodologies of learning may be more appealing to you. This will unlock your potential in making notes better, whether you would prefer to chart mind maps of the topics you are learning, or listen to recordings of classes or podcasts, or visit a museum where you can interact with real-life examples of what you are studying.

Number five. Deduce

Saving the best until last, this is my favourite and personally suggested approach to studying. When I was at school, knowledge was mainly delivered to me from bottom up. We would first learn about the details of something before assembling them all into a process that we would be tested on. For example, in biology, we would learn how atoms interact, then how certain molecules interact, how amino acids form into proteins, which proteins do what work in a cell and only then we would come onto why all that mattered when applied to DNA replication. During assessment, we would be tested in an opposite manner - how is this or that function of this or that protein involved in DNA replication. I found this method of learning vs assessment quite challenging.

So, I would usually start from the end of the textbook chapter. Although, I would have already learnt about all the processes before assembling them into the big picture, I would just disregard all the learnt information from a moment and try to start with the big picture and zoom in. I would take the fact that DNA replication occurs during the splitting of the cell and then just continuously go down the route of “how?” and “why?”.

Why does the DNA need to be replicated when the cell splits? So that information can be copied over and two cells can start functioning like their parent cell. Ok, so DNA replication will require exactly the same information to be kept in the original DNA and the new DNA. How does this need to happen? Well, the cell cannot make new DNA from scratch as it would not know what the right code is, so it may need the original DNA to copy from first. Etc….
Going down this route, from the big picture down to the details is of course very primitive, and will surely have you making many mistakes; but that is exactly the point.
If you look at a problem as a child, or just a completely unknowing novice, then you can start to go about the problem logically, trying to figure out for yourself what would seem to be the logical details of this or that process. This is an easier approach as you do not have to get lost in the names of the processes or the technicalities of each detail, you can just think about unravelling the problem in basic and abstract components. Then, you open up your notes from class and the textbook and you cross reference how you thought the process worked to how it actually works. Some things you will get right and you will go ‘ah! ok, this is exactly what I thought and it’s called “x,” and some things you will get wrong: ‘ah, ok, so there is actually another step here’ or ‘oh, ok so it does this differently, I didn’t know it could be like that, that’s interesting!’ Either way, whether you get it right or wrong, you are much more likely to consolidate information, because you are either approving yourself or teaching yourself, both more stimulating practices than a teacher telling you ‘learn this! It can be no other way’ and you just have to memorise words instead of understanding the big picture. Moreover, this approach is sure to not only prepare you for a test, but will ensure that you actually gain an understanding in this or that topic.

I think it was Elon Musk who said this applicable statement that ‘if you know the recipe for making bread, you will make the same bread over and over again; but, if you know about how yeast interacts with flour and with oil and how different temperatures incite different levels of fermentation, then you will be able to make different kinds of bread, better and tastier.’

This is the Psychology of studying, and best of luck in your assessments to come!