Study methods prove to be more effective than all-nighters

Robert Starr

It’s the end of the semester and, though you promised yourself that this time would be different, you’ve let your work slide, and you’re not prepared for the final at all. Without a minute to waste, you’re going to need to spend every second you have studying, maybe even pulling an all-nighter or two.

Unfortunately, that may be one of the worst ways to prepare, according to UT professor Russell Poldrack, who studies memory, learning and how we acquire new skills.

“Getting a good night’s sleep is probably the most important thing,” he said. “It’s a really important way that memories get transformed in the brain.”

In other words, walk into a test feeling like a zombie, and you’ll likely perform like one. Aside from getting a good night’s rest, there are other techniques to keep in mind while studying.

For one, make studying an active process. Rereading the same textbook for the eighth time isn’t going to do a whole lot for you on test day. A 2006 experiment by Henry L. Roediger, III and Jeffrey D. Karpicke confirmed this, suggesting that rereading boosts confidence in the subject matter without significantly increasing mastery of the material. This is a recipe for disaster.

A better way to prepare for the final is to continually test yourself.

“The act of retrieving something from memory is actually one of the most powerful ways to get it to stick in memory,” Poldrack said.

Additionally, Poldrack suggests that your surroundings can make a huge difference as to how well you can recall information. A classic study performed by D.R. Godden and A.D. Baddeley of the University of Stirling placed subjects either on land or in SCUBA suits underwater and asked them to learn a list of words. When tested, the ones who learned the words on land performed better on land and those who learned them underwater performed better underwater. As such, it may be more effective to study in a library or classroom setting that’s similar to where you’ll be tested rather than curled up in bed.

Even something as simple as your mood could make a difference as to how well you remember things. A paper published in American Psychologist by Gordon H. Bower of Stanford collected several experiments testing this idea and the results very strongly suggest that if you’re in a crummy mood when you’re studying, you’re better off waiting until after the test to cheer up.

These are all things to keep in mind to minimize damage, but, ultimately, the most important thing to consider is how you found yourself in this mess to begin with. The nights you spent watching TV or going to parties may have seemed like good ideas at the time, but not in retrospect. And, ultimately, those nights may be what make the difference between the average students and those who excel.

A classic and on-going study by Walter Mischel (currently at Columbia University) involved leaving small children alone in a room with a treat such as a marshmallow. If a given child could avoid eating the marshmallow until a researcher returned to the room, the researcher would reward the child with a second marshmallow. Approximately one-third of the subjects lasted long enough to get the reward, while the rest gave in to temptation.

The amount of time a given child could hold off eating the treat had a long-lasting impact. For instance, those who could wait for the reward ended scoring higher on the SAT more than 10 years later than the other group.

Of course, none of that matters at the tail end of the semester when there’s no time to give in to temptation, but it’s something to keep in mind for the next one.

Poldrack explains, “One very fundamental thing that we know about people is that events in the future get discounted. The impact of something in the future is much smaller than the impact in the present. Even if the prospect of failing a class is a very bad thing, that’s not going to happen until the end of the semester.”

So let this semester be a lesson of what not to do. Don’t just read through the book several times and call it studying — instead, put your brain to work and test yourself constantly. Be mindful of your surroundings as well as your mood and make sure you get plenty of sleep, particularly around midterm and finals time. And while a night of partying may be fun and even deserved every once in a while, remember not to give in to the marshmallow.

At least not too often.