Successfully preparing for the SAT or ACT, or just about any test for that matter, requires integrating a wide variety of information. Not only do you have to master concepts in multiple disciplines—from fractional algebra to the correct use of punctuation—your best score will come when you can match these concepts with an array of test-taking techniques. Over the years, test prep professionals have compiled every tip, trick, equation, fact, and technique you need to get the best score possible—but remembering them is a whole ‘nother ball-game.
Raise your academic game with these five proven methods for enhancing learning, maximizing retention, and integrating skills:
1. Take Notes by Hand
In class or a tutoring session, you might feel like you understand everything coming out of your teacher’s mouth. But the fact is, no matter how much sense a technique might make in the moment, your ability to apply what you’ve learned days, weeks, or months later is probably less than you think. A few years ago, researchers at UCLA and Princeton published results indicating that taking longhand notes is one of the best ways to bring in new information. Engaging with pencil on paper forces you to process information and reframe it in your own words, much more so than simply listening or even typing notes on a keyboard.
2. Get your Brain Sleep
In a busy world, most of us don’t get all forty of our winks. But what many of us don’t consider is the impact that rest can have on our cognitive ability. Not only does a good night sleep give us the energy we need to perform well—it is actually a key part of the memory formation process.
A recent study in Psychological Science compared the word retention ability of two groups. The first learned a list of 16 words in the morning and tried to remember them in the evening. The second group learned their 16 words in the evening and were asked to recall them the following morning. The second group—those who studied, slept, and then performed—remembered, on average, 2.5 more words than those who tried to learn and recall in the same day.
3. Teach the Material to Someone Else
It seems that the more you change up how you process the information you’re trying to learn, the more likely you are to understand and remember it. One proven technique is to prepare and execute a lesson plan related to the material you want to learn. Whether you actually teach the material to someone else or simply practice it in the mirror might not matter too much, what’s important is that you seek out key points, organize information in a coherent structure, and find different methods to clearly convey concepts—just like your teacher does.
4. Reward yourself
Whether you eat a piece of chocolate, watch a kitten video, or (for larger accomplishments) treat yourself to your favorite activity, rewarding yourself for your hard work is not only fair, and fun, it can actually help you engage more deeply in the material you’re studying. There are complex reasons why this can help (involving something called the dopaminergic system) but it suffices to say (as in this article from Scientific Learning) that even small rewards act as a kind of “save button” for the brain.
5. Prioritize Diet, Exercise, and Hydration
A healthy lifestyle means a healthy brain and a healthy brain is better at learning, that seems obvious. But let’s get into some specifics.
- In terms of diet, research has shown that the consumption of Omega 3 fatty acids is critical to memory formation and cognitive function (contained in many kinds of seafood and nuts, but also often supplemented in certain foods like eggs.)
- Exercise is important too and, in fact, a study in Current Biology indicates that a session of vigorous exercise four hours after a learning task significantly boosts retention, particularly in the consolidation of weak memories. Why does it work best four hours later? This is not quite clear, but the numbers don’t lie.
- Finally, hydration. Most of us know that keeping hydrated is important for general well-being, but what we might not know is how critical water is to optimal brain function. There are complex physiological reasons for this, but the takeaway is that by the time you feel actually thirsty, you are already experiencing a 10% cognitive decline, whether you know it or not.
Brad Kelly, as the president of TestOwl Tutors, delivers Chariot Learning Test Prep Programs to the Detroit Metro region.