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How The Brain Learns - Tips On How To Study So You Ace Your Exams

How Brain Learns


It’s very common for students to ace all of  their class assignments but still struggle with exams. This is largely due to the fact that students don’t always know how to study for tests. Unsurprisingly, this is because students are told TO study but are very rarely taught HOW to study.  When I taught high school, I didn’t quite understand why my best students struggled to do well on tests that I thought were not all that difficult. Turns out, while I gave them study guides, I never told them how to use them.

Paramount to studying is an understanding of how the brain learns. It’s a two part cycle, that when understood can revolutionize the way you approach learning.

Part 1: Encoding

The first part is called encoding. Encoding is the process of putting information into the brain. Think of it as the “downloading” process.  Encoding happens in many different ways, including but not limited to listening to a lecture, taking notes, reading a textbook, doing math problems while looking at lecture notes or the textbook, watching a YouTube video on how to study :),  creating a study guide from your notes, making flash cards, and/or doing a lab. I think of encoding as all the different ways in which we can learn new information.

Often when students are “studying” for a test, we tend to only practice encoding methods - rereading their notes, re-listening to a lecture, making a study guide, re-writing notes, highlighting, reviewing math problems they have already done. These activities fall into the category of “reviewing” and are done with the material in front of the student. While it is important to thoroughly review the material to make sure you fully understand it, this is not the best way to verify that you really know the material. If you only practice reviewing material then you might end up with a term call “the illusion of mastery.” This means that while you can recognize and really understand the material, you may not necessarily be able to  pull the information out of your head by memory.

Part 2: Retrieval

The best way to study for any test is to practice part two of the learning process: retrieval. Retrieval is when you practice taking the information you are learning out of your brain and recalling it, without using any reference materials. Practicing retrieval includes activities like summarizing a section of a textbook (either out loud or on paper) without looking at the text, creating questions about what you are learning and then answering them, testing yourself on content of class study guides, completing math problems without looking at notes or problems, writing out verb conjugations over and over again until you have them perfectly memorized, and practicing flash cards until you get them all correct.

The benefit of practicing retrieval is that you will quickly figure out what you do and do not yet know. Once you know what you don’t know, go back to your reference materials and re-encode them into your brain. Then test yourself again until you feel 100% confident that you know it all.

Pro tip: Retrieval works best when you are practicing the material in the way that you will be tested. Sometimes this is tricky because teachers/professors don’t always tell you what kind of test you will be taking before you take it. If you do know, make sure you design your retrieval practice to match your test. For example, if your history test includes short essay questions, you can turn the headers in your textbook into questions and then practice answering the question. For math or chemistry, complete practice problems that were not assigned.

Ways to encode new information

How to practice retrieval

Read an article, book or website

Listen to a lecture, podcast

Watch a video

Make flash cards

Complete a lab

Annotate a book

Summarize what you have read after you have read it

Ask questions and answer them

Test self on study guide

Practice math problems without looking at notes or problems

Write out verb conjugations without looking

To review, the key to acing your tests is to make sure that you spend time learning the new material through various encoding methods (i.e. reading, listening, watching, doing ) and that you test what you have learned by practicing different methods of retrieval. This will help you discern what you know and what you still need to learn.

What's your favorite way to practice retrieval? Leave your advice in the comments section below. 

Lesley MartinLesley Martin has been working in education over the last 20 years. She currently works with students privately as an Academic Success Coach and is the CEO of ClassTracker, a company she founded that creates customized academic planners for middle and high schools and students. Lesley has published two books: Where’s My Stuff: The Ultimate Teen Organizing Guide and Make the Grade: Everything you need to Study Better, Stress Less, and Succeed in School.



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