With the return of crisp early fall Maine mornings comes the promise of the upcoming school year. For college students around the state, this might mean living away from home for the first time or starting at a university several times the size of their high school.
Over the coming weeks, dorms will be decorated, roommates shuffled and schedules sorted. But college students (or other adult learners) might also want to take a moment to think about the academic challenges they’re likely to face in the coming months. Are all-night study sessions a good strategy? How important is exercise, really? And how much of the brain is used during studying anyway?
It turns out the answer is not exactly straightforward.
“The entire brain is involved in learning, every sensory system stores memories,” Michael Burman, associate professor of psychology at the University of New England, said.
For example, visual memories — those of things we’ve seen — are stored in an optical system while memories of things heard are stored in the auditory system. However, Burman said there are a couple of parts of the brain that neuroscientists have found particularly important for the formation of memories of facts and events, also known as “semantic memories.”
The first is the hippocampus, found deep in the brain and shaped like a seahorse. It is here the brain connects experiences and forms associations.
“It’s this structure that helps to link the different aspects of an experience together, what happened first, then next, what we saw, what we heard, how it felt,” Burman said. “[It] helps us link words with meaning, put concepts together and form all sorts of memories.”
In addition to the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain is the storage center for short term or new information. But, it needs to be fully activated and focused to retain information.
“This is why multitasking hurts so much,” Burman said. “We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. This structure also works like a filter, helping us keep track of what we need to know temporarily and what we need to know for the long term.”
And while it is possible to improve brain function and increase retention of information, Burman said some people might not like what it takes. Why? Because it includes all those pesky reminders a parent might try to impart on their student as they leave them on campus alone for the first time.
“[For example] there’s now quite a bit of literature that shows sleep is super important for learning and memory,” Burman said. “Not only does sleep help us feel alert and ready to learn, it also is a time that the brain uses to store our long-term memories and clear away the old temporary memories.”
Here are a few other ways to improve your chances at retaining information this coming semester.
It turns out, Burman said, aerobic exercise helps the hippocampus form new cells, which can then be incorporated into forming new memories. A study done at the University of British Columbia showed walking 30 to 60 minutes a day beyond what you’d typically do on campus can improve brain function and can increase alertness, required by the brain for fact retention. But the brain also needs exercise. Similar to muscle memory in other areas of the body, the brain operates with a “use it or lose it” system.
“The more we try to learn, the better we get at it,” he said. So don’t wait until the week before finals to crack open those textbooks.
Attach an emotion
Because the hippocampus is the center of connections, it can help if we study and recall the information in the same mental state as when we first learned it or if there is an emotion attached. “Making something funny, scary or exciting, helps the memory get encoded more strongly. The hippocampus forms connections, even if we don’t want it to,” Burman said.
“So, if we study late at night, but try to remember the information in the morning, we’ll have more trouble than we if studied and recalled at the same time of day. Or, if you drink coffee when studying, you should also do it during the test.”
Give the hippocampus a chance
Burman said he knows students are often stressed, but stress kills the vital hippocampus cells and can make it hard to pay attention. So does that alcohol, which can have adverse effects on memory both in the short term and later in life.
Save social media for later
These days, students have access to a world of information at their fingertips. Between watching a presentation in class, they can check email, retweet, make memes, order from Amazon and everything in between. But fight the urge to multitask and focus on the lecture at hand, Burman said.
“I recently saw a study suggesting that using Facebook in class not only hurts the person using Facebook, but also anyone who has visual access to the screen,” he said. “It’s so distracting; we cannot avoid looking [and] since we are terrible at dividing our attention, we really lose out.”
Consider sitting up front
Research findings have been somewhat mixed on the role of where a student sits in their ability to learn. However, a study from the University of Colorado at Boulder showed that sitting at the front of a classroom not only allows a student to hear and see better, but it may also increase their focus since fewer peers would be in their line of vision to cause distraction.
Write, don’t type
Burman said evidence showing that writing notes can be more effective than typing is overwhelming, but neuroscientists aren’t exactly sure why. He has some theories though. For one, we remember things better if they are stored in more than one memory system. Writing is not only visual, it allows the brain to form motor memories. Not to mention, writing is often more difficult for students than typing, which can add an emotional element to the memory. Writing is also slower, and while that may seem like a detriment, Burman argues, it’s a benefit. “It forces us to decide what to write since we cannot write everything,” he said. “This means we have to process the information and put down the important points in our own words [and] this deep thinking is good for memory.”
So put the laptop away and pull out a pen and paper. Your brain — and hopefully your grades at the end of the semester — will thank you.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s September 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.