9 scientifically-proven ways your teen can get the most out of study time

Read Karen’s original article on her blog here.

Exam time is upon us and chances are your teen is in the thick of study. Well, here’s some good news – science has found some research-backed ways to get the most out of study time and your teen may just thank you for them. So without further ado, here’s how they can study smarter, supercharge learning and get information stored away so it’s ready when they’re face-to-face with that exam paper.

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1. Get the heart pumping

Exercise changes our blood chemistry and our brain becomes the very happy recipient of important nutritions. It repays the favour by amping up its performance – specifically memory, attention, information processing and problem solving.

Here are a couple of reasons your brain and exercise is one of the great love stories –

  1. Exercise increases the levels of a crucial brain-derived neurotrophic factor, (let’s call it BDNF – it’s much easier to spell). BDNF is important for the growth of brain cells, mood and learning.
  2. Exercise releases a powerful cocktail of important hormones including serotonin (the mood booster), dopamine (for learning and attention) and norepinephrine (for awareness, attention and concentration).

So encourage your teen to try exercising for 20-30 minutes a day. Anything that increases the heart rate will do the trick – running, bike-riding, walking, kicking a ball or turning up the beats and dancing it out. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, strong or graceful. It just has to be active. And you know what? You could even join them.

2. Spread the study out

Yep. You got it. No cramming. It doesn’t work. (One of life’s great pities). The problem with cramming is that the material doesn’t get the opportunity to transfer into long-term memory.

Short-term memory is like the party space in our head – information is there for a good time but not a long time. When information hits long-term memory, it’s committed and there when we need it. The transfer of information from short-term into long-term memory takes time and repeated exposure to the material.

It’s not clear why spacing out study works so much better, but it’s likely that over a few days we forget some of the material, then remember it again when we come back to our books. This increases exposure to the information, which takes it closer to long-term memory.

3. Know what’s to come

We only have a limited amount of mental resources, and during a test we want as much of those available as possible. The thoughts that come with test anxiety steal some of those mental resources for, you know, worrying – leaving fewer available to retrieve important information.

Researchers have found that looking through the whole exam paper before working on it reduces anxiety and improve performance. Remember though, that all the mental resources in the world won’t find the right answers in memory if the answers aren’t put there solidly in the first place!

4. Teach what they’ve learned

Expecting to teach what’s been learned has been shown to be better for learning and memory than expecting only testing. It’s a subtle shift in mindset, but the effect is an important one. Learning material with the intention to teach ensures material is actively understood and stored away, and not passively looked over.

5. Test themselves

Challenging your teen to test themselves will force them to remember information. Every time we remember something, the information becomes a little more enduring. It is more effective than reading the material over and over. Re-reading material might get us thinking we’re familiar with the material, but until we try retrieve that material from memory, we won’t actually know how well we know it or where the gaps in our knowledge are.

Testing themselves might also help take the fire out of test anxiety, in the same way that exposure to any feared object eventually makes that object less frightening.

6. Get some sleep

Sounds simple enough, but it’s not always easy when there’s so much to do. Deep sleep causes physical changes in the brain. When we learn something, our brain cells grow new connections that reach out and connect to other brain cells. This strengthens the pathways in our brains around whatever it is we are learning.

Sleeping after learning encourages memories of the information to be wired into our brains, so it’s less likely to fade. Think of our brains like a tree. Learning causes a branch to grow, but sleep helps it to grow the leaves and other tiny branches that will sustain and strengthen it.

7. Ditch the all-nighters

All-nighters mess with our ability to remember and process information. Pulling an all-nighter can cut our capacity to learn new things by up to 40 percent – and that’s not the only problem. Research has shown that it can take up to four days for our brains to return to normal after we’ve been awake all night.

8. Take a break

For those feeling shackled to all that is study, here is some sweet, sweet news. Taking a short break after every hour of learning is better than working straight through as it improves your ability to focus on a particular task without being distracted.

Research has found that the greatest improvement comes following 15 minutes of moderate activity (jogging, a brisk walk, dribbling a ball). But improvement was also shown following vigorous activity (running, jumping, skipping) or a passive break (such as listening to music or watching funny YouTube clips – because for sure that’s why they were invented). Memory is strongest for the things learned immediately before and after a break so keep those times for the tough stuff.

9. Power pose

Before a test, find somewhere private (or, totally public – up to your teen) and strike a power pose. Think Wonder Woman – hands on hips, legs apart. Superman – tall, shoulders back, chest expanded, arms stretched out in front of them. Or that thing that bosses in the movies do – sitting back the bottom of one leg resting on the thigh of the other, hands behind their head and expanded.

This will reduce cortisol (the stress hormone), and increase testosterone (the dominance hormone). The mind-body connection is a strong one. If they don’t believe they can do it, act like they can – eventually their mind won’t know the difference and will have them believing they can do anything – which they can.

So, if study and your teen are spending a lot of time together, remind them to take breaks, get some pillow time, get active, or dig for comedy gold on YouTube – whatever works for them. Maybe try a bit of everything – not for too long though – the world can’t be brilliant without them.

hey-warriorHey Warrior by Karen Young

Kids can do amazing things with the right information! Understanding why anxiety feels the way it does and where the physical symptoms come from is a powerful step in turning anxiety around. Anxiety explained, kids empowered. Purchase Karen’s book here.

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