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Brain Academy - Concentration Strategies for Students

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Prof. Aidan Moran, Cognitive Psychology UCD

Concentration Strategies for Students: Practical Tips on Effective Learning

1. Develop a study routine

As far as possible, try to study in the same place at the same time every day. This routine approach has two main advantages. First, it will condition you to associate studying with a particular place and time. In addition, it will reduce the amount of time you would otherwise waste in "settling in" to different study environments.

"Displacement activities" (or self-created distractions) can prevent you from tackling your textbooks. But just because you are rarely in the mood for study does not mean that you cannot become a disciplined and effective learner. By adopting a routine of studying at the same time in the same place every day, you will not only develop a valuable learning habit but also "inoculate" yourself against the host of distractions that surround you.

2. Tidy your study environment

Most people prefer neat to cluttered environments. Therefore, try to keep your desk as a work-place not as a storage place. This will not only reduce the distractions available to you but will also encourage you to return to your study environment regularly.

3. Study regularly and briefly - rather than "cramming" at the last minute

Try to study in blocks of time which do not exceed your concentration span. For example, break up a study session into periods of about 50 minutes each. For each one, write down your specific question at the top of the page and insert relevant information underneath. Then, at the end of the session, put your summary notes aside and spend about 5 minutes trying to recall what you have learned. Ask yourself: "What specifically did I learn from this study session?" This quick review (called "overlearning") will consolidate your memory.

4. Active reading: Write down 2-3 study questions before you open your book/notes

"Studying" involves more than reading: It involves reading with a purpose - to obtain specific answers to specific questions. Questioning promotes your learning in three ways. First, it forces you to think critically about what you have read because you must distinguish between "relevant" and "irrelevant" information (on the basis of whether or not it helps to answer your specific study question).
Second, it improves your memory because the more questions you ask, the easier it is to relate new information to what you already know.
Finally, questioning increases your concentration by focusing your mind on only one target at a time. Therefore, to study effectively, you must specify 2-3 specific questions before you open your books or notes.

5. Use summary sheets - don't photocopy, highlight or underline

As you read, make brief summaries of any information which seems relevant to your 2-3 study questions. This condensed information will help you to prepare essays and exam answers. If possible, avoid such techniques as underlining, transcription or photocopying as they do not condense the material that you wish to learn. You are not thinking effectively unless you are trying to summarise what is most important in any passage of text.

6. Give yourself rewards for work done - not for avoiding work

Most students are experts at rewarding themselves - but for the wrong behaviour! For example, by taking a break before tackling a maths problem, you are learning to avoid the challenge of hard work. So, the trick is to give yourself a reward, but only after successful completion of a given study session. The principle here is that activities which are followed by rewarding consequences tend to become rewarding in themselves.

7. Test yourself under exam-conditions

A good way to improve your memory in exams is to test your ability to recall your summary sheets under simulated exam conditions. Research suggests that successful students test their memories more often than do less successful counterparts.

8. Turn off that background music! It affects your memory not your concentration

Many students study with background music playing because they find it relaxing. But there's a hidden cost to this habit. Research shows that studying with background music on does not affect what goes INTO your mind (concentration) - but it does affect the conditions under which it comes OUT of your mind (memory). In other words, having music playing when you learn something means that your mind will look for that music when you try to recall this information in the exam. So, it's best to study in silence simply because you'll be tested under silent conditions in the exam hall.