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How to learn better and remember your syllabus

“Drop traditional study techniques and use the brain's natural methods to store information,” says UiA researcher Vivian Kjelland.

Photo of Vivian Kjelland
“Recalling knowledge from your own head is the best way to learn,” says Associate Professor Vivian Kjelland.

“Don't note everything I say, just jot down a few keywords and some short sentences,” says Vivian Kjelland.

Around 40 students have shown up for a biology class. Now, they put down their pens and pencils. No one is typing on their laptops.

Vivian Kjelland is an associate professor, molecular biologist and tick researcher at the University of Agder (UiA). She is also an experienced teacher and has specialised in study techniques. And now, she has written a new book on the subject.

Use your head 

Today, instead of a biology class, the students will receive a one-hour introduction to how they can best learn their syllabus and remember it for exams.

“When you solve problems by searching for answers in the textbook or your own notes, you don't activate the brain enough. You may find the correct answer, but it won't create a lasting memory and won't necessarily help during an exam,” Kjelland says.

The best way to learn 

The researcher actively uses study techniques in her teaching. For instance, she asks students to close their books and notes and talk to each other in pairs and explain to each other what they have just learned.

This helps them to practice recalling knowledge from their own heads. According to Kjelland, this creates stronger memory traces in the brain. She relies on a broad review of recent brain research.

“Recalling or retrieving knowledge from your own head is the best way to learn. Drop memorisation and concentrate while reading the first time. You’ll learn more efficiently and remember better when you regularly practice retrieving what you have learned from memory, without looking in the book,” she says. 

Working memory and long-term memory 

Kjelland says that memory can be divided into two categories: working memory and long-term memory.

Working memory keeps track of what you are thinking about here and now. It is the memory you use when you read, listen and analyse.

Long-term memory stores the information so that you can retrieve it later.

“In order for what you have just read or heard to be stored in long-term memory, the brain must process the information,” says Kjelland.

During this processing, memory tracks are created in the brain. Each time you retrieve knowledge from memory, the memory traces becomes stronger, and the information becomes easier to remember. This way, knowledge is also easier to retrieve during exams.

Three steps in memory formation 

“Simplified, you can say that memory traces are created through three steps: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval,” says Kjelland.

She explains: During encoding, what you read, hear and see is converted into chemical and electrical signals in your brain. This is how a memory trace begins to form.

During consolidation, the memory trace is strengthened. Brain researchers believe that during this stage, the brain processes the new information and connects it to what it has stored before. Researchers have also found that sleep is essential for this process to occur.

During retrieval, the memory trace is strengthened by retrieving the information from memory. You simply think about the information. The more times you retrieve the information, the stronger the memory trace becomes.

Don't be fooled by the easy way out 

“There is a big difference between repeating course material by rereading the syllabus or by retrieving the information from memory,” says Kjelland.

She emphasises that when you let your brain work and retrieve knowledge from memory without looking in the textbook, you create much stronger memory traces in the brain. And then, you'll remember better.

She also warns against being fooled into having a single favourite method of learning.

“Many of us have preferred ways of receiving new information. But research does not support that each of us learns best in one particular way. On the contrary, we can learn more by trying many different ways to learn,” says Kjelland.

Favourite method requires less effort 

She says that we tend to stick to our favourite learning methods because they require less effort.

Our brains love habits and prefers for us to do what feels easy, which is when our brains go into autopilot mode. We think we're learning while we’re actually letting the brain rest.

“Newer research shows that it can be beneficial to use learning methods we don't like as much. This forces us to activate new ways of thinking. It can give us a greater toolbox to draw from for problem-solving and learning,” says Kjelland.

Three tips to help with learning and remembering syllabus:

Think! Use at least half of your study time to let your memory recall what you have learned. This will strengthen the memory traces in your brain. You'll spend less time reading but remember much more.

Take breaks! Take breaks and don't study continuously from morning until night. Your brain needs time to process the information from lectures and reading.

Get moving! Exercise strengthens memory. It improves your concentration, enhances blood circulation, and boosts your mood. And a happy brain learns more easily and remembers better.

Source: Vivian Kjelland, Studer smartere - studieteknikker som faktisk virker! (Study Smarter - Study Techniques That Actually Work!) (2023).

Website: Join the Facebook group ‘Studieteknikk med Vivian Kjelland’ for valuable tips and engaging discussions on effective study techniques and exam preparation.