The Perfect Score

By: Francesco Yepez-Coello

I can’t tell you how many statuses about the never ending struggle of studying for midterms and finals the night before I see on facebook. It is a battle of epic proportions, akin to that of Crime vs. Justice, Odysseus versus the Cyclops, Rava versus Vatu. But it need not be so dramatic, because I’m here to help.

The biggest problem we face is that we study last minute. Marathon studying sessions are unhelpful because we lose sleep over them, and I discussed how bad not sleeping is for our brains in last week’s post. Moreover, these tend to approach learning the wrong way, because our brains just are not built to cement a ton of information all at once forever. The key to doing winning this fight is understanding how we process information.

The brain can process information in different ways, and in varying depths. The way the brain stores short term memory, or information we just recently received, into long term memory, can be by encoding visualy, auditorily, or semantically. Furthermore, when we first store new knowledge, we employ either shallow, deep, or deepest processing. These refer to what aspects of the stimulus we pay attention to, from shallow, or how many letters a word has, to deepest, or what that new word means in the context of a sentence.

So what does this have to do with studying? It means you should spread your studying to different methods, and over time. Studies show that if information is abosrbed with long periods of time in between rehearsal, then retrieval is overall better than if rehearsed once and has to be recalled shortly thereafter. Rehearsal should not be simple repetition either, it should be meaningful: either somehow relate the material to your personal life, or associate it with similar pieces of information.

This is part of the reason why traditional studymethods areso ineffective, because they only employ one type of processing, or only one type of stimulus is absorbed. Take memorizing vocabulary terms from flashcards. This is literally the worse thing you can do: not only are you not learning the material because you only encode auditorily (you saying the words out loud), but they take so much time of meaningless repetition that takes away from other ways you could be using your time productively.

I recommend that you begin studying the very first day your class covers new material, just not in the traditional way that people use the word ‘study.’ Studying is as simple as reading the chapter the professor will cover in class before the class starts. During class, listen closely to what the professor’s lecture, and ask questions for clarification. When you take notes, don’t just copy down what the powerpoint slide says word for word- feel free to draw pictures or graphs that visually represent the information, or something else that makes you think of what was discussed in class.

There, you already thought about the same few concepts, but in many different ways: you wrote them down, you talked about them out loud, and saw visual representations of it. To really hammer the points home, when you go to retrieve the material later, always try to produce it rather than absorb it again. If your professor offers homework assignments, this is a perfect studying tool. If not, most textbooks have review questions at the end of the chapter you can do a few at a time to make sure you’re fresh. Finally, a night or two before, study with a friend by asking each other questions on the material, only referring to the book or notes if you are completely unarmed to answer.

If you do this, essentially you are studying for the test all the time, just not very hard and not for extended periods at a time. This ensures you never have to stay up and cram the night before. But more importantly, you are absorbing the same material in many different ways, which ensures you achieve true understanding. When the test comes, you should know EXACTLY what your professor is looking for in each question, and agonizing over improving your grade should be a bout long past.


Wood, Justin N. Attention, Perception and Psychophysics 73.2 (Feb 2011): 420-439.

Lewandowski, Stephan. Oberaurer, Klaus. Yang, Lee-Xieng. Ecker, Ullrich K.H. Behavior Research Methods 42.2 (May 2010): 571-85.

Zeithamova, Dagmar; Maddox, W Todd. Memory & Cognition (pre-2011) 35.6 (Sep 2007): 1380-98.