The Neuroscience of Effective Study

Author: Justin Nortey '19

Everyone knows that effective study skills are crucial to a successful college experience, but finding ways to study that work can be difficult. Professor Nancy Michael, the Director of Undergraduate Studies for Neuroscience and Behavior in the College of Science, shares her perspective on the what really works when it comes to studying.

While noting that everyone has preferences that work best for them, Professor Michael says that applying an understanding of synapses and synaptic plasticity may help better inform study habits.

“There are books, in terms of the pedagogical literature that make suggestions, but I always think about it in terms of synapses,” she explains. “One of the major cell types in your brain is called a neuron, and neurons communicate via synapses, which are the junctions between them. To the best of our understanding, anytime you learn something new, you get a new synapse. So there are actual physical changes in the brain that take place with learning.”

“In terms of studying, anything that can reactivate a synapse or strengthen a synaptic connection or broaden the synaptic network upon which you can hang new information, is the way to go about studying.”

Prof. Michael suggests that making a personal connection to the material actually strengthens synapses. “The more you can relate to something, the more likely you are to be able to remember it because that piece of memory is what’s called associative. When I was growing up we went to my grandma’s house for chicken dinners. So the smell of chicken can be completely out of context, but it reminds me of my grandma’s house, and any time I think of my grandma, chicken is always in the background.”

“It’s just because there’s just a strong association or such a strong network of synapses that support the overlap of that information so that some sort of cue associated with one will automatically trigger memories of the other. When you think about studying, you remember things that have emotional salience. So, like anything that’s emotional or can be personal to you it’s because when you see this information, it can be consolidated or synapses can be built on top of it or become a part of this hugely broad network of information that already exists in your brain.”

Integrating new information into a preexisting network and engaging with it is also very helpful. “A lot of times information that falls flat is sort of isolated,” Michael emphasizes. “Often in the sciences we fall into the trap of content.”

“There’s so much that we know, so we present information as a series of facts, and unless there’s a broader cognitive framework,” she continues, “It just remains this thing that we know that doesn’t serve much purpose.”

“If you read a paragraph or a section of a book, ask yourself: How do I summarize that? What are the main points? How would I rewrite that for my professor, or how would I rewrite that for a friend that has no background knowledge. Doing these sorts of things is called active learning, and it activates more synapses. The more you do with the content, the more likely you are to remember it, and the more likely you are to be able to do something functional with it.”

Prof. Michael stresses the importance that sleep plays in the process of retaining information. “Memories are consolidated during sleep. When you’re exhausted, you have a whole bunch of metabolites and gunk floating around in your brain, so your brain is actually working very inefficiently. Every time you sleep, you have to go into slow wave sleep for any sort of memory consolidation to take place. This determines whether you remember something just for the day, or if you remember it for the long term.

“During slow wave sleep, the synapses that were active while learning during the day are reactivated, so that those points of communication in your neural network become stronger and more efficient.”