The Study Dude – Optimize Study Breaks, Environments, & More

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to dive into the latest research on study breaks for optimal academic performance.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s Study Dude article takes on part one of the book How We Learn by Benedict Carey.

Change Context
In undergraduate studies, I studied on my couch, day in, day out. I would sit in the same spot and study the same thing for seven hours each day. From five p.m. or earlier up until midnight, I’d tackle the homework of one subject to great length. Was this a good system? In truth, study time bored me stiff. Begrudgingly, I would seat myself on the couch, pull out the books, and learn the same thing over and over again.

I read in another book that the wisest strategy is to relocate to different environments as much as possible. No justification for this advice was provided, so I just accepted it as gospel. That is, until I learned from yet another book that we should have one study environment that we return to on a daily basis. I was now confused. Which study environment is best? With respect to sticking to a single environment, one book said to decorate your work environment, make it an oasis; another book said to have your workspace as plain as possible to prevent distraction.

So, who should I listen to?

Benedict Carey has concrete research that spells out what your ideal study environment should include:
– Environmental cues can attach to memories, giving the memory extra clues for recall. The more environmental cues you have, such as background music, photos on the wall, your pet dog licking your socks as you study, the more opportunities you have for recall, which sounds great, until you remember that those cues probably won’t be wherever you take your exam unless you slip into a fantasy while scrawling your timed essay.
– Switching up your study environments can increase your memory recall during exam time. When people studied words on different backgrounds, they remembered the words more than when just one background was used, according to a study done by Smith (As cited in Carey, 2014).
– So, change up anything and everything your study environment as much as possible. Listen to different music each study session, or go to a different location, or study later some days and earlier other days.
– Even the mood you are in while studying can be used for recall if you experience that mood while taking an exam.

The Value of Testing
When I was in undergraduate studies, other students learned that I was a contender for the graduate program. One such student had exam anxiety. This student insisted that he should have excelled on exams due to his excessive study habits, but his anxiety blocked him from succeeding. When I asked him how he prepared for exams, he said he read the material five to ten times–and that was all: no hard-core memorization, no cue cards, no mind maps… nothing.

His system lacked the memorization that is essential for students to succeed. Unfortunately, many exams test how well we memorize facts rather than what we know long-term. In other words, memorize facts, don’t just read them. So, self-testing, if done right, can be key in getting you that A+ on your next exam.

Benedict Carey discusses how we can implement self-testing to optimize our retention of knowledge come exam time:
– When we take a longer break between stints of studying or memorizing facts, we tend to learn the material better. The act of forgetting fuels learning once we return to the forgotten material: “The easier it is to call a fact to mind, the smaller the increase in learning” (p. 82). So, try to wait until you are on the verge of forgetting before reinforcing that fact.
– However, give yourself a quiz on the material one to two times during the first week after studying the material. Quizzing yourself within the first week means you’ll get a better grade than if you performed the first self- exam more than two weeks later.
– Do active studies: try to recite the material spaced out over intervals; if you can’t recall the material, peek at the textbooks to refresh your mind.
– Gates (as cited in Carey, 2014) found that the ideal ratio of reading versus reciting equalled 40:60: read for the first 40% of your total dedicated study time and then recite the facts (self-test) for 60% of your total dedicated study time.
– Try studying material for a ten-minute period. Then, without looking, try to recall as much as you possibly can. This is self-testing, an excellent way of learning material.
– Give yourself exams. Try to recall items from memory. Self-testing is essential for learning.
– Self-tests are 20 to 30% more effective at bolstering your grades than straight reading.

The Skinny on Breaks
I read so many different views on when and how to take study breaks. For one, my high school math instructor urged me to study for thirty minutes straight and follow-up with a fifteen-minute break. I ended up with a 100% class mark in Math 30 using this system. For another, I learned from an author to study for an hour and take a five-minute break. (This short break just didn’t seem “right” to me. The only thing you can recharge on a five-minute break is the toilet flusher.) For yet another, a different book advised to study for an hour and then switch to a different subject. This view followed the belief that switching subjects provides an adequate substitute for taking time off. I was sceptical. Who’s right?

When I was in graduate studies, I could no longer study for thirty minutes straight with a fifteen-minute break. My time crunched and study demands skyrocketed, so I desperately sought some other system for breaks. As a result, I would study for an hour to an hour-and-a-half and then take a ten to fifteen-minute cat nap. (My intense exercise routine and everyday lack of sleep meant I fell immediately asleep for those ten to fifteen minutes, relying on my timer to wake me up from a deep slumber.) Yet, I didn’t feel like this break system maximized my productivity. I longed for some real advice on how to take breaks.

And now I’ve found some: in Benedict Carey’s book, the latest research on optimal breaks is revealed:
– According to Sio and Ormerod (as cited in Carey), when studying math or similar types of subjects (such as engineering), take breaks that consist of mindless activities, mid-level activities (such as looking at the Web), or, best of all, other homework. Yes, when studying math and spatial problems, you can take breaks that consist of demanding activity such as other schoolwork.
– Alternatively, according to Sio and Ormerod (as cited in Carey), when studying language-related courses, such as English or communications, you would most benefit from taking breaks consisting solely of mindless activity, such as games or TV.
– Sio and Ormerod (as cited in Carey), also determined that students who take longer breaks (20 minutes) can outperform those who take shorter ones (5 minutes).
– Sio and Ormerod (as cited in Carey) also argue that breaks should only be taken once you reach what they call an “impasse”. In other words, take a break when you get stuck.
– Breaks benefit you. Experiment with the timing of your breaks and the break-time activities you do. Don’t feel guilty for indulging in regular breaks. Go have a hot tea, a telephone call with a friend, or splurge a bit and take a hot bath.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Carey, Benedict. (2014). How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why it Happens. New York, NY: Random House.

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