College Success: How to Avoid Study Burnout

By Ezra Ekman

We’ve all been there. Midterms are around the corner, you’re cramming instead of sleeping, and you’re surviving on caffeine and junk food. You aren’t sure what to expect from the exam, so you’re doing your best to memorize the textbook until the moment before the test.

But guess what? Cramming doesn’t work. In fact, it’s likely to make you perform worse rather than better. A 2012 study authored by UCLA researchers Andrew J. Fuligni and Virginia W. Huynh suggests it doesn’t matter how much time you study if you’re sacrificing sleep to do it. You simply won’t recall information or function as well the next day. However, there are techniques that do work.

Cheryl Hoke, a Front Range Community College chemistry instructor, has researched study and performance habits of FRCC students. She’s seen students put in time and effort, but many of their techniques are inefficient and sometimes detrimental.

“Cramming creates a recall problem,” said Hoke. “Testing shows that just re-reading the book is no good at all. But looking at the headers and then trying to mentally reconstruct the information about the header without re-reading the material is much more effective.”

Ann Riedl, molecular biologist, biology faculty, and active learning researcher at FRCC, agreed with Hoke. Riedl likened cramming to throwing things in a closet. She said, when you plan your study time, it’s easier to find the knowledge you seek. But if you cram, “everything comes tumbling out” and you’ll have trouble telling which answer is the right one.

Hoke sees the best results with spaced studying (more frequent but smaller chunks, as  described in a previous article) and re-testing. Hoke has observed that students testing the same material without re-reading materials or notes is more effective for long-term recall and retention. Studying the same material repeatedly is not.

“This is called the Retrieval or Testing Effect,” said Hoke. “When you learn a new piece of info, you’re creating a new neural pathway in your brain. At first, this connection is tentative. But if you force your brain to recall that information, such as during a test, it strengthens that neural connection. Finding out what you got wrong is important.”

So, don’t throw away your exams or quizzes. Look at what you missed and challenge yourself. Re-tests don’t have to be formal exams; they could be a verbal quiz or even using flash cards. You can do this right now, and it can help with every exam you take.

When you do study, plan ahead. Here are a few tips:

First, create a distraction-free study space where you won’t be disturbed. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb, and don’t check email or Facebook.

Second, study early. Know when assignments are due, and schedule prep time for them. Put assigned homework and projects on your calendar. Studying early avoids last-minute stress. Hoke says over-scheduling non-school activities leads to a failure to study, so set that time aside.

Third, study often: three one-hour study sessions are better than one three-hour session, because it creates familiarity with your subjects. Read materials, or go over your most recent exam and quiz yourself. Study no longer than an hour at a time, then force yourself to stop, even if you’re doing well. Take at least a 10 to 15-minute break, walking away from your desk if you must. Breaks prevent burnout.

Finally, above all else, don’t cram. Don’t wait until the last minute to study, because it can make it harder to remember the details you’re studying. Study smart, early, and often. Your grades will improve, and you’ll sleep better, too!

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