Learning How to Study
Boston, Gabriella, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Byline: Gabriella Boston
Early December marks the final weeks of holiday shopping for many of us, but for area students, this time of year has a different, more serious implication: It's final exam time.
While many holiday shoppers may be able to cram all their purchasing into one day, few students can say the same about preparing for finals.
To prepare effectively, most students have to plan their study schedule over a longer period of time, take good notes and repeat information multiple times, say academic counselors at universities in the District and Northern Virginia.
"The main issue is time management," says Mary Lee Vance, director of Academic Support and Advising Services at George Mason University in Fairfax City. "I think people need to be taught and shown how to use their time more effectively."
At American University, Kathy Schwartz, director of the Academic Support Center, gives students a blank five-week schedule that can be used to designate study time. One column is devoted to "goals," and in this column, students can define what study goals they have for a specific day or week.
If you study consistently and have time to review the material over and over again, chances are you can achieve a more thorough knowledge that is more likely to stick in the long run, Ms. Schwartz says. It's called "overlearning."
Overlearning often means, in part, that the student has time to step away from the material, get perspective on it and ask himself or herself, "What do I really know?" Ms. Schwartz says.
"That's when you can go in and be confident during the exam. . . . It's a deep level of learning," says Ms. Schwartz, whose office also helps students with special needs, such as students with attention deficit disorder.
Sometimes, however, incremental studying is impossible because a student has waited until the last minute to open his or her notebook. If a student comes in two days before the exam and is in a total panic about final exams, an academic counselor helps him or her define a realistic goal and decide what to focus on during the short time available.
"If you have two days, you have to make some careful choices as to what you need to learn," Ms. Schwartz says. "We encourage students to try to predict what's going to be on the test."
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While educators and academic counselors make recommendations - which often work - to students who want to improve their study skills, scientists are still working on unveiling the keys to learning.
"We are just now beginning to understand how new learning takes place . . . but we don't have a formula for how we learn more or better," says Alfredo Kirkwood, assistant professor of neuroscience at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
"We know there may be a relation between learning and rehearsing, but there is no formula to explain it," Mr. Kirkwood says. "We know there may be a relation between REM sleep and learning, but we don't have a formula for how it works."
REM stands for rapid eye movement. During REM sleep, brain activity is intense, and the brain's state is similar to its state when awake. It's marked by bursts of rapid eye movement and intense dreaming. It is possible that some of the brain's activity at this time affects learning.
Because there are so few hard facts about learning, academic counselors encourage students to find their own way and figure out how they function best. "Memory techniques are so individual. What works for one person may not work as well for someone else," Ms. Schwartz says. "The basic principle for students is [to] use whatever has worked in the past."
Some people need to take frequent breaks to clear their minds; others cram for a few days and do well on the exam. A third group has to plan in detail what and where they are going to study in order to get the best results. …