We all have limited resources of mental energy and time: the key to successful studies is to use these limited resources wisely.
World renowned cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene (2021) identifies 4 key aspects of effective learning: Attention, Active engagement, Feedback, and Consolidation.
Reference: Dehaene, S. (2021). How we learn. Penguin
In order to learn something, you have to pay attention to it, you have to focus fully on the information. Multitasking is a myth. The human brain is designed to focus on one thing at a time. This means you should reduce other stimuli which may distract you – turn off your phone and email. Close irrelevant web pages. Try to be in a physical space which is as calm as possible.
The natural maximum attention span for a human is around 15-20 minutes. If you try to concentrate for longer than this, your mind will inevitably start to wander. However, after a short break your brain regains maximum concentration for a task, so you are ready to start again. Because of this, you should organize your study sessions into hour long periods with short breaks every 20 minutes and a longer break at the end of each hour.
You will not learn by memorizing your teacher’s lecture PowerPoint or by highlighting text in a course book. In order to learn something, you have to actively engage with the new information, you have to “do” something with it. What activities create active engagement? Paraphrasing information, summarizing information, looking for comparisons and contrasts between what you already know and what you are trying to learn, trying to explain concepts to another student – these are always of thinking actively about new material, leading to deep learning.
Making errors and mistakes is an important part of the learning process. Dehaene describes the learning process as the brain making a prediction, noticing that an error creates a discrepancy with reality and then creating a new revised prediction. According to Dehaene these “successive adjustments” are how learning takes place and it shows the importance of corrective feedback to improve future predictions or performance. This means that feedback is the most important tool to help you improve your academic level. Pay careful attention to the written or oral feedback that your teachers give you and use it to modify your future work.
Consolidation means transferring knowledge from your working short term memory to your long-term memory in a stable robust way. Repeated recall of information is the key to this process, meaning regular revision and practice of the material you need to learn in the weeks leading up to an assessment. You should space out your revision sessions for maximum impact: you will learn more effectively if you study for one hour every week for three weeks, rather than a single three-hour session just before an assessment.
It may be surprising, but sleep is also an important part of the consolidation process. Our brains are active while we sleep to consolidate memories and therefore learning. Make sure you are getting sufficient sleep during periods of intense study.