You were locked up to work for hours and yet you did not manage to memorize your course well… Your brain probably lacks training or you don’t have the right reflexes. Neuroscience can help you become more efficient! We’ll tell you how to do it in five points.
Many students, especially in the first year of graduate school, have difficulties because they do not have good working methods. Hence the importance of learning to learn. This is the credo of Isabelle Le Brun, a lecturer at the University of Grenoble-Alpes. This neuroscience specialist relies on brain function to develop learning tools.
1-Get enough sleep and eat balanced
Do you think sleeping is not good for you to work well ? Error! Sleep is essential for your brain to function properly. By nature, there are small and large sleepers. But, on average, we need 8 hours of sleep a day. Ideally, you should go to bed at 11 p.m., or at least before midnight, in order to benefit from a sufficient number of cycles. If the beginning of the night ensures physical rest through slow and deep sleep, in subsequent cycles, REM sleep takes on a greater place. This is when the brain reorganizes information and memorizes it. A phase not to be overlooked!
Sleeping well and eating well is a bit like putting the right fuel in a car!
Similarly, healthy and balanced food has a significant physiological impact. This helps to feed the cells of our body that are constantly renewing themselves, including those of the brain. Sleeping well and eating well, “it’s a bit like putting the right fuel in a car!” smiles Isabelle Le Brun.
2-Set concrete goals in small sequences
We really only do one thing at a time. Sharing your attention between different tasks means giving less attention to each task. To be effective, Isabelle Le Brun recommends eliminating “distractors”: your smartphone that vibrates with each new SMS, your computer screen that flashes when new windows open… Music, on the other hand, is not necessarily to be banned, provided that there are no words in a known language.
In essence, the idea is to focus your attention on clear, concrete and relatively short-lived objectives: to know a definition, to identify the key concepts of a chapter, to know how to redo a pattern… To do this, rather than working for 3 hours in a row, it’s better to cut your working time into “mini-missions” of 20, 30 or 45 minutes, interspersed with small breaks – during which you can check your SMS!
This method has a double advantage: it allows you to be active in your learning, but also to estimate the time it takes you to complete this or that exercise. Useful on the day of the partials! It also helps to see how you move forward in your memorization or revisions. You can make this progress concrete, by moving Post-it notes to your desktop or by barring items from a list as you go. In any case, do not hesitate to take stock: it is always satisfying to realize that we now know this concept or that we have finished a series of exercises. These small intellectual rewards make the effort gratifying!
Acquiring new knowledge requires good fundamentals. The more knowledge you have, the easier it is to learn and the more you practice, the easier it becomes to learn. This is the case with mental calculation as well as gymnastic figures. To make this mechanism understand, Isabelle Le Brun uses a metaphor: “When you walk in a field, the grass lies down under your steps. If you pass several times in the same place, the trace becomes more marked, it widens, and eventually no longer disappears. The path is easier and you go faster.”
This image reflects the functioning of memory, which relies on a network of neurons that communicate with each other. The more you repeat an action, the more you reuse the same connections. This strengthens them and performing the initial task requires less attention: you have created automatisms. You can then focus on new, more complex practices.
Don’t hesitate to vary the formats, methods, places and situations in which you work.
4-Train to rebuild information
You may have noticed that listening to or reading a course is not enough. To be sure that you understand and memorize it, you have to be able to reconstruct the information. That’s what you’re asked to do on the exam, but you might as well have trained before! Doing exercises, rephrasing the definition of a concept or explaining a phenomenon to someone are all ways to restore knowledge in different forms. There are also apps to design flash cards on smartphones or tablets. You can also make them with paper: these small question cards (on the front) — answer (back) are a good memorization tool.
“Don’t hesitate to vary the formats, methods, but also the places and situations in which you work”, insists Isabelle Le Brun: this prevents your memory from unconsciously depending on the context in which you learned something. You will then be able to respond on the day of the exam, but also later. The knowledge you gain during your studies will be useful to you far beyond that!
5-Grouping concepts together to memorize them
There are many ways to make memorization easier. The so-called “empan 7±2” is based on the fact that, on average, we easily remember 7 items, plus or minus 2 depending on the abilities (and training) of each.
A scientifically proven technique is to aggregate information to increase the storage capacity of our memory. For example, it is a matter of learning double-digit numbers rather than numbers alone: holding 14 and 27 monopolizes half as much memory as list 1, 4, 2 and 7. In the same way, instead of fencing yourself to learn 35 irregular English verbs at once in alphabetical order, gather them according to their theme or phonetics, and you’ll just have to focus on 5 lists of 7 verbs each. If this method works, why not?
Other methods and tricks
Isabelle Le Brun is the author, with Pascal Lafourcade, senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Grenoble-Alpes, of the book “How to practice learning” (De Boeck, 2015). The book reviews the themes of memorization, attention, emotions and mental representations, alternating theoretical explanations and small practical exercises. A way to understand how the brain works and make it work, but also to show that learning is not a long, boring and lonely activity.