Stop pulling all-nighters for good
“Guess I’ll just have to pull another all-nighter,” was a phrase I said all-too-often during my studies. It seemed that whenever a test was coming up there was never enough time to prepare earlier. At the same time, I wanted to get the best grade possible. So, there was no option but to burn the midnight oil...yet again.
Although studying for tests like this probably was at least better than not studying at all, it’s unlikely that any of what I crammed made it in to my long-term memory. For that I would have needed to have repeated exposure to the content over time. With the limited exposure my brain had to the material, it never made the connections necessary to remember all of this content long-term.
If you’re a member of the late-night cramming club, wouldn’t it be better to study throughout the semester to avoid having all this stress at the end – and in the process actually remember what you learned long-term? For many students this may seem like an unattainable goal, but it’s achievable by making a few easy changes.
The following three tips for studying are based on a lecture called Study Less Study Smart given by Dr. Marty Lobdell, former Psychology professor at Pierce College:
1. Take breaks to keep your brain fresh
Staying completely focused the whole night without breaks is impossible. After a certain amount of time, your mind will start to wander and you’ll notice that although you’ve read your lecture notes three times, you can barely recall what’s in them.
To avoid just spinning your wheels like this, break up your studying time into blocks of 25 - 30 minutes. Once this time has passed, give yourself a five minute break and do something fun or relaxing. If you have Citavi open while you’re studying, you can install the Tomato Timer add-on to remind yourself to take breaks.
In addition to short breaks, your brain also needs deep sleep to process information – something you won’t have if you stay up the entire night before your test. The REM sleep you’re missing out on is crucial for the brain to process new information and store it long-term.
Instead of all-nighters, try to study a little bit every day. If possible, plan study sessions for two to three hours for right after you get back from your classes. Then at night you can enjoy your free time and give your brain another chance to relax.
2. Create a studying environment
Do you often study in bed?
That’s not the best place to learn, since that’s where you sleep.
Your study space should ideally be separate from spaces for other activities. You should work to create an environment that’s designed to support you in your learning. This space should be quiet, and it should be somewhere you won’t be disturbed.
To shift into studying mode, it can also be helpful to start each session with a ritual. For example, you can turn on a certain lamp that from now on you will only use when studying. If you’re working on your computer, start a program that you never use for personal tasks, such as your reference management program. Avoid distraction by not bringing your smartphone into your learning environment.
If you start losing concentration after a while or if your study session is over, shut off the light or close your software program. Because now it’s time for a break (see tip #1).
Your study space doesn’t have to be boring. For example, if the prospect of studying in a hammock makes you happy, try it out! You’re then likely to start each study session in at least a slightly better mood.
3. Study actively
For most people it’s not helpful to keep reading or reciting the same text over and over again. Only after you’ve understood a concept can you retain it. A good method to test whether you’ve understood something you’ve read is to check if you can explain it in your own words. This helps you connect new information with information you’ve previously learned.
While you can use this method when studying for a test, the best time is directly after a class. If you have time, take a look at the notes you took and then try to re-formulate them and paraphrase the main ideas in your own words. This way you can avoid trying to having to make sense out of your notes the night before your test.
Your reference management program can also help. Add every textbook or handout from your classes as a new reference. You can then use categories, folders, tags, keywords, or groups to designate the class they’re from. Then, write a summary of the main content and add it to the reference as a note.
Citavi offers you many different ways to add information about your sources in addition to notes. Create a summary by using the summary knowledge item. Save central facts that you really need to learn by heart as direct quotations. Also make sure to write any helpful mnemonic devices here in the core statement field. If you can create a funny or strange association, you’re more likely to remember otherwise dry facts, such as years or names.
Using groups you can denote which content you already know (Group: “Mastered”) and the content you need to learn or review (Group: “Needs work”). In this way you can use your reference management program the same way you would if you were writing everything out on flash cards. The different piles you would use correspond to the groups.
If you prefer to study without a computer, you can also print your notes as a study guide and then bring them with you to your studying hammock.
When you use your reference management program in this way you slowly build up a catalog of what you know, and you can find what you already studied more easily. Why’s that? When you re-formulate concepts in your own words, it’s much easier to remember them than if you’re trying to remember a convoluted sentence from a textbook. Just use your reference management program’s search feature and you’re sure to find the information you’re looking for.
For some people, writing notes isn’t the most helpful way to retain information. If you’re one of them, another good method is to teach another person what you learned. For example, you could call your sister and tell her what you learned in class over the last two weeks.
If you apply all of these three tips throughout the semester, you’ll go into all of your tests much more relaxed – and you’ll never have to pull another all-nighter again.
What tips do you have for studying for a test? Do you also use your reference management program to study? Share your strategies with us on Facebook!
For Further Watching:
Lobdell, Marty: Study Less Study Smart. YouTube. Available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlU-zDU6aQ0, last accessed on May 22, 2019.
About Jana Behrendt
Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.