Struggling to study for online courses?
You’re not alone.
COVID-19 has impacted students’ lives, and many of us are struggling to adapt to this new way of learning.
Luckily, I’ve compiled a few tricks for studying during this pandemic, and I’m sharing these tricks with you.
I’ve used these throughout the semester, and noticed some benefits:
Using these science-backed study tricks can help you too - read on for my guide to effective studying during COVID-19.
Seeing as most online classes have lecture recordings, listening to them before bed can be a way to stay off social media so you actually fall asleep before 2am.
It can also help you:
Why listen to these lecture recordings specifically right before bed?
Multiple studies show that sleep (specifically the stage of sleep called rapid eye movement, or REM) helps with memory consolidation (Klinzing et al., 2019; Rasch & Born, 2013).
Recent research also shows that slow-wave sleep (SWS), another stage of sleep, helps with memory consolidation as well - recent memories are reactivated during this stage of sleep, which helps with consolidating the memory (Rasch & Born, 2013).
Improved memory consolidation means that the things you learned while listening to lecture recordings will be stabilized and stored (recorded), in your long-term memory (Schimanski, 2020). You have your medial temporal lobes, which include the hippocampus, to thank for being able to consolidate memory (Schimanski, 2020).
The hippocampus is reactivated during sleep. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that is involved in memory formation. During sleep, hippocampus reactivation is associated with depth of encoding and strength of encoded information, both of which help improve memory (Klinzing et al, 2019).
The hippocampus also has corticosterone receptors, and corticosterone is released when you’re stressed. The more stressed you are, the more corticosterone is released, and this can impair the hippocampus’ ability to encode or retrieve memories (Kim & Yoon, 1998).
This is why it’s important to get at least 7 or 8 hours of sleep to help with both memory and well-being, especially during this time of uncertainty. Getting proper sleep can help reduce stress, which also makes online exams feel more manageable (Altena et al., 2020).
As a bonus, sleep also maintains your immune system, which is all too important during this pandemic (Prather, 2019).
This is a great way to get out of the house while still being productive. Going for a walk or a jog outside while listening to a lecture can also help you focus and pay attention, which helps you encode memories better (Craik & Rose, 2012; Wittig et al., 2018).
Because encoding means that sensory inputs, such as the audio lecture, are converted to a memory that can later be stored in your brain’s long-term memory, proper encoding can help you remember course concepts (Schimanski, 2020).
You can also do some at-home exercises or stretches while listening to lecture, since exercise, no matter the intensity, can help with memory retrieval (Zuniga et al., 2018).
Another perk of going for a walk while listening to lecture is that the places you go can help improve your memory of course material. Becoming familiar with your neighbourhood by walking around it while listening to lecture means certain course concepts can become associated with certain places. Then, when it’s time to take a test, all you’d have to do is visualize your walking route to jog memory of course material. This Method of Loci technique significantly improves memory (McCabe, 2015).
Students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may find this tip especially useful, since this can address their constant need for movement ("5 Ways ADHD Affects Learning in the Classroom", n.d.). ADHD is characterized by impulsivity, restlessness, and disorganization, and taking a walk can reduce these symptoms, helping these students concentrate better (Taylor & Kuo, 2009).
Going for a walk outside and spending time in nature can also make you happier and reduce stress and anxiety (Nisbet & Zelenski, 2011). This helps combat depression and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, both of which impair memory (Kizilbash et al., 2002).
If you don’t have recorded lectures, you can record your own. Recording your own lectures has many benefits:
By recording yourself teaching the course material, you’re ensuring you process the course material at a deeper level. Processing at a deeper level helps with encoding which improves memory retrieval (Craik & Tulving, 1975; Bretzing & Kulhavy, 1979). This means you’ll forget less course material.
Memory retrieval occurs when you access the memories that you have previously stored (Schimanski, 2020). For example, you’re retrieving a memory every time you remember an answer to an exam question. Deeply processing and understanding course material helps with encoding and retrieval, meaning the more you engage with course material, the better you’ll be able to remember it.
Teaching and reviewing the course material also helps with memory since it is repeatedly being brought to mind. Studies have shown that spaced repetitions are more effective for learning and memory, meaning that recording yourself teaching one day and reviewing the recording the next day is a lot more effective than cramming last-minute (Ausubel & Youssef, 1965; Carpenter et al., 2012; Kang, 2016).
Listening to course material may also help with learning because you’re reviewing on a different medium. Reviewing lecture or textbook notes and transferring concepts from those notes onto an auditory medium can improve your memory because you’re now learning through multiple media (Schweppe et al., 2015).
In fact, semantic memory, which is memory of facts or concepts, is stored in many different areas in the cortex (Schimanski, 2020). For example, think of poutine. What does it look like? What does it taste like?
The visual components of your memory of poutine is stored in the visual cortex. On the other hand, memories of how poutine tastes is stored in the gustatory cortex, which processes how things taste.
This is a way you can study that involves deeper processing than simply reading over lecture slides or notes.
Making flashcards (handmade or digital) during lecture is one way to ensure you pay attention to lecture. When your professor goes over new material, try coming up with some sample questions that may be on the exam. For example, if you know your exam is going to be multiple choice, make your sample questions multiple choice. Same goes for short answer exams. Write down the questions on your flashcards and attempt to answer them after class.
This is better than reading over your notes because testing yourself improves your memory (Roediger et al., 2011). This method of studying also makes use of transfer-appropriate processing, meaning if your study condition is similar to your exam condition, you’re more likely to perform better (Godden & Baddeley, 1975; Veltre et al., 2015).
Better performance due to these sample questions can also be because of retrieval practice (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011). Retrieval practice occurs when you test yourself and attempt to retrieve your memory of a specific course concept instead of simply rereading your notes. Incorporating retrieval practice into your studying by answering your own sample test questions will help you remember course concepts better.
Select a time of the week to go over your flashcards every week, using spaced repetition to help you remember course material instead of cramming for an exam the night before. This spaced repetition method, which consists of studying a bit of each course every day, improves memory (Ausubel & Youssef, 1965; Carpenter et al., 2012; Kang, 2016). It’s related to the forgetting curve, which shows that we tend to forget a lot of what we studied early on, and if we don’t periodically review, almost nothing will be remembered (Ebbinghaus et al., 1913; Schimanski, 2020).
This tip is helpful for students with ADHD. If they’re bored, they may not be able to pay attention, meaning they won’t learn from lecture (Malkovsky et al., 2012). Making flashcards gives these students something to do that challenges them, so they’re not bored during lecture.
Having a designated space where you can be productive can not only help you stay focused, but it can also improve your memory.
This is due to transfer-appropriate processing - the more similar your studying and testing environments are, the better you may perform (Godden & Baddeley, 1975; Veltre et al., 2015).
For students with ADHD, having an optimized study space is crucial. Due to a greater tendency to get distracted (Lineweaver et al., 2012), students with ADHD should have study spaces with minimal distractions. An example would be ensuring a quiet environment and having the desk face away from the window.
The self-reference effect states that you remember things better if you relate it back to yourself or some other aspect of your life (Brédart, 2016; Wu, 2014).
How can you relate this to your studying?
Try making connections from course concepts to your own life.
Here’s an example: imagine you’re learning about habituation, which is when you start getting used to something and stop responding to it. I related this term to my own life to help me remember it - I thought of skytrain noise. My mom told me I shouldn’t get an apartment by a skytrain because it would be loud. I told her that I would get used to the noise and it would stop bothering me because of habituation - I would habituate in my habitat.
One way to ensure you remember something is to make it stand out. The weirder your thoughts are, the more likely you are to remember them (Grabmeier, 2017). For example, to remember that the hippocampus is important for episodic memory formation, you could visualize a hippopotamus watching a TV show episode on campus.
Another unconventional way to be weird is to use humour. Numerous studies show that humour improves memory (Baldassari & Kelley, 2012; Carlson, 2011; Summerfelt et al., 2010).
Making memes related to course material makes studying fun, and you get to process concepts in a new way which helps you remember these concepts better.
The serial position effect states that we remember the first and last item in a list better than the items in the middle of the list (Ebbinghaus et al., 1913). This means that by studying the hardest course concepts first or last, you’ll ensure you remember them better.
Here’s an example of the serial position effect in action.
Which of these study tips do you remember the most? Was it the first or last one listed, or was it one of the ones in the middle?
If it was one of the ones in the middle, perhaps you remember it because you processed it deeply, you related it to yourself or your life, or it was just plain weird so it stuck out in your mind.