The most pervasive medical practice for nearly 2 millennia--bloodletting--was also one of most erroneous of practices. Baring a very limited amount of disease, bloodletting will only make things worse.
Imagine going to your doctor with a throat infection and she decides to slice open a vein and drain a liter of blood from you as treatment. Better yet, why stop at just a liter? Why not drain 3.75 liters to clear out your infected humors? More than just a fanciful tale, this was the state of medicine for 2,000 years! From the Greeks until the 1800s, doctors were putting leeches on patients for headache cures and bloodletting for fevers.
From our contemporary vantage point, this practice seems ludicrous. But we are lucky. Science has shown that blood usually needs to stay in the body when people are sick, that illnesses are caused by tiny foreign organisms, and that effective treatments involve strengthening and using the body’s natural defenses. But the first United States president, George Washington, didn’t think so. He actually did have 3.75 liters of blood drained in a 10 hour period to cure a throat infection. He died shortly after.
But this article is not about medical history; it’s about structuring study time. So, what’s the connection? There are pervasive ideas and traditions about how to study, which are as flawed, dated, and hokey as bloodletting. The purpose of this article is to bring modern science and research to bear on our minds and how we learn, so that we can liberate ourselves from outdated, parochial traditions.
1. Schedule breaks
Every hour of study should contain a five to ten minute break. That means you stop studying and do something else, like principle seven. The brain is built for detecting and dealing with change, not focusing on algebra problems for five hours. So, give the brain what it wants–change your point of focus. Further, research shows that if you don’t take breaks, you may actually hinder your ability to learn and perform well. Your mind needs breaks to be focused and ready to learn.
2. Vary the content
Don’t sit and read the chapter of a book over and over and over again. Instead, read the chapter, read your notes, read your classmates’ notes, watch a Kahn Academy video on the topic, write about the concept, read the Wikipedia article, make and study flashcards, and explain what you are studying to your friends and family. These various modalities will force your brain to create new pathways and use multiple modules related to what you are learning. Thus, your mind has more traction on the material, making it easier to remember the information later.
3. Vary your study location
Don’t study in the same place. Study in the library, a cafe, in your room, and at school. I recommend finding 4 – 6 locations that you cycle through. When your brain is habituated to a sensory perception, or to a place, it registers that sense as unimportant and effectively eliminates it from perception (for example, people are not constantly aware of their clothes touching their skin). If you are studying, you don’t want your mind on cruise control, eliminating perceptions it deems as irrelevant.
4. Distractions help
A quiet location free of distractions for studying is not necessarily going to benefit learning. The brain was built to identify change, so turn on some music and give it a changing environment. Don’t underestimate its power to deal with complexity and still be able to focus. The background noise of a coffee shop is just another input that your mind will process while studying. Again, these multiple levels of stimulus give what you are studying something more to grab onto in the brain. If you can’t get to a cafe, here is a traveling coffee shop you can use.
5. Test yourself
No other four letter word in academia is more reviled than “test”. But research points to the beneficial nature of tests. With testing, you force yourself to recall information, which in and of itself, builds stronger connections to that information, making it easier to remember and recall later. So not only are tests useful for assessing skills, but also they are a beneficial way to gain and recall knowledge. So, take practice tests, test yourself on math facts, and have your peers test you on vocabulary. You will form a deeper, more permanent pathway to that information.
6. Study the same thing over the course of multiple days
One study session is not going to cut it. In order to reinforce and cement new concepts and knowledge, students need to see it multiple times. Space out study session over the course of a couple of days. Instead of one long power session, schedule short focused bursts of studying. The act of returning to material, hopefully in a new location, will again deepen the initial pathways formed in the brain, making those concepts easier to remember.
7. Move around
Sitting not only will make it hard to study and focus for longer periods of time, but it will also take years off your life. According to research, sitting for three hours or more a day can take two years off your life. Every hour, you should get up, walk around, stretch, do yoga, or do some push ups to ensure a longer life and increased attention.