Study gains: train the brain

For centuries, students have experimented with all sorts of dubious ways to boost their memory. In ancient Greece, classmates wore rosemary in their hair to help them remember. A few decades ago, subliminal techniques surged in popularity; now pupils seek out a caffeine hit when exam pressure ramps up.

The intention remains unchanged but it pays to know which techniques are worth a try and which are best avoided.

Fortunately, today's students have one big advantage over scholars of yore: the science and psychology of memory.

Much of the modern knowledge in this field comes from recent advances in research. And while scientists are still investigating whether brain training can improve memory generally - that is, transfer from one task to another - they already know much about how the basic processes work.

''Generally, when you think about memory, you can think about short-term memory, which is when you try to remember a telephone number,'' says a cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Queensland, Dr Paul Dux.

''It's easy for the first few numbers but it gets harder as the amount of numbers to remember increases. Then there's long-term memory, which is involved when an individual remembers something like the address of the house they grew up in. That's something I'll never forget.''

In other words, short-term memory has a small capacity, holding about four to seven items at a time, whereas long-term memory holds considerably more. In fact, its capacity has proved hard to measure. The challenge for students then is to translate this knowledge into practice.

The key is to understand a few core ideas about how to retain information, says a behavioural neuroscientist from the University of Western Sydney, Dr Gabrielle Weidemann.

A basic principle is that by ''elaborating'' memories, students can remember more information.

''Start with the things you know and add new bits of information into the bits you already know about,'' she says.

''That will help you in elaborating the memory and making connections between the bits of information.''

Active study methods such as rewriting information in your own words, quizzing yourself or trying to teach somebody else are also helpful, as is ''spaced repetition''; that is, leaving intervals between study sessions.

Where and how you study is important, too: pay close attention to the task at hand and eliminate distractions such as television or social media.

The best methods not only encourage students to input information, but also to recall it, Weidemann says.

''The act of retrieving information helps to encode that memory better,'' she says.

Then there's lifestyle. Getting plenty of sleep, healthy eating and exercising can improve long-term memory, in some cases by fostering the birth of new neurons in the brain and reducing stress.

But pills that promise to buzz your brain power probably won't help much.

''We don't have any really good pharmacological interventions for improving memory otherwise we'd be better at treating things like Alzheimer's disease,'' Weidemann says.

And while you're best off trying to understand the material if you need to demonstrate analytical or problem-solving skills, Weidemann believes memory ''tricks'', such as mnemonics, rhymes and acrostics, have their place where students need to remember a list of facts or sets of information.

A Sydney-based memory champion, Chris Lyons, of memory coaching company Gloo, says there's another advantage of such so-called tricks, particularly for students who are struggling at school: confidence.

''We show them that they can improve their results very quickly just by learning a few simple and effective techniques,'' he says.

Educating students about the plasticity of the brain also helps empower students in their learning, says a former teacher, Prue Salter, the director of education consultancy Enhanced Learning Educational Services.

Rather than thinking of memory as a computer that is inherently smart or stupid, they begin to understand memory as a process that can be moulded and improved.

One of the tips Salter suggests to students in her study skills sessions is to make ''brain-friendly'' notes that break reams of information into easy-to-memorise chunks. ''You can't absorb a huge amount in one hit, so when you're making a list, don't make more then seven points,'' she says.

One student who attended a recent workshop of Salter's takes this a step further. Ryan Maguire, 17, of St Augustine's College, Brookvale, says: ''I find once you get your study notes finished and completed, the best thing is to do past papers, get yourself used to those exam-style questions and get used to what you'll be facing under exam conditions.''

Conversely, the read-and-memorise approach, though one of the most popular techniques, is often regarded as one of the least effective.

The brain switches off because the process is ''mind-numbingly boring'', Salter says. ''The biggest mistake most kids make is they get their book and read it over and over,'' she says. ''It's not an active way of studying.''

Last-minute cramming won't help much, either.

''The further ahead you start [studying] the better it's going to be,'' says one of Weidemann's colleagues, Dr Katrina Barker, who lectures in educational psychology. ''If [information] is not accessed or used, then it's forgotten so the more often you come back to that information or apply it then [the more likely] it's going to be entrenched in your long-term memory.''

And while there is plenty of interest among teachers and researchers about individual learning preferences such as visual versus auditory styles, scientists have found little to support such distinctions, Dux says.

Salter says many senior students have trouble bridging the dynamic education they experience in school with the reality of final year 12 exams, which often demand outdated rote-learning skills.

''Our final year 12 assessment system has not caught up with teaching systems,'' she says. ''What happens in classrooms is amazing, then we say here's a pen and write for three hours.''

The principal of John Monash Science School in Victoria, Peter Corkill, says the assessment system is changing to include greater focus on advanced skills such as analysis rather than pure memorisation, but either way true learning has never been about teaching to a test or encouraging children to memorise blocks of meaningless information such as whole English essays or complete maths solutions.

''Some kids do think that's good learning, [but] we'd much rather they focus on having a sound understanding of the principles and their application,'' he says. ''Learning for me implies a sound understanding of core principles and an ability to apply them in a range of situations.

''So if you've learnt something you can apply it but if you've memorised it there's no guarantee you can apply it in any context.''

A senior lecturer in educational psychology, Dr Greg Yates, of the University of South Australia, agrees. ''There is no short cut to memorisation,'' he says. ''There is no magic. There is no secret to having good memory, besides taking time to think and understand what you are learning.

''Basically, you are able to learn when you are physically well, and you have mastered the vocabulary of the subject you are learning. Once you can understand what the words mean, then focus on allowing yourself the simple decency of time.''

The story Study gains: train the brain first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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