4 Popular Study Tips That You Ought to Ignore
The worst study tips are the ones that simply aren’t right for you.
Memorising something and repeating it ten times is a bad idea if you don’t respond well to rote learning. Explaining an idea to a friend won’t work if you learn better by writing things in spider diagrams. Sitting quietly at your desk going over notes won’t be effective if you prefer to learn through group study. Whenever you look at study tips, it’s important to take into account the style of studying that’s most effective for you.
These study tips aren’t like that; they’re not things that will work for some learners but not for others. Instead, they’re ideas that you might well have heard recommended, but that have little or no scientific basis, and that might even be detrimental to your work. Here are the 4 study tips we recommend you ignore altogether.
1. Brain Gym
Invented in the late 80s and becoming increasingly prominent in schools across the globe, including the UK, Brain Gym is a series of exercises that are designed to improve academic performance, and claims have been made that the exercises improve concentration, classroom performance, pupil attitude, physical coordination, relationships, self-responsibility and coordination between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. With all of those promises, it’s not surprising that Brain Gym remains very popular. You may well have been instructed in some of the exercises yourself, even if the brand name ‘Brain Gym’ isn’t one you recognise.
The exercises involve things like regulating your breathing, rubbing the hollows under your collarbones while looking from left to right, marching in place while touching your hand to the opposite knee with each step, and pulling your forehead taut briefly with three fingers above each eyebrow. Some are much more complicated than this, involving things like holding your ankle up while pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth, steepling your fingertips and doing a variety of complex breathing exercises.
The problem is that none of the effects that these exercises claim are scientifically verifiable, and the explanations for why they are supposed to work are nonsensical. Take ‘improving coordination between the left and right hemispheres of the brain’ – there’ll be more on left brain/right brain pseudoscience later in this article, but in brief, poor coordination between the left and the right hemispheres of the brain is not a problem that can be solved by rubbing the correct bit of your temple. The claims made for Brain Gym sound scientific, with their discussion of circulation and brain biology, but there’s very little substance to back them up.
It is probably the case that teachers using Brain Gym in the classroom would see some improvement in concentration and general performance, though; it makes sense that standing up, doing something different and moving around a bit when everyone’s getting bored and restless is a sensible thing to do! But if you’re in the middle of studying and concerned you need to take a break to get your brain hemispheres properly aligned, don’t worry about it – stretching your legs and maybe getting some fresh air will do just as well.
2. Any change to your diet that isn’t just eating more healthily
If you follow the changes of dietary advice that appear in the news, you’ll realise there isn’t much consensus on what specific things are good or bad for you. Or at least, there is a consensus, neatly summed up by the famous Michael Pollan quote – “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” – that has changed very little over the years and therefore doesn’t lend itself to newspaper headlines. It’s certainly advisable to eat well when you’re studying so you’re not feeling ill or tired. The same rules that your grandparents learned apply here: eat enough that you won’t feel hungry later, and make sure you get lots of fruit and veg.
But if you read anything about ‘memory-enhancing’ foods or foods that will help you study in some way, suggesting – say – that blueberries are better than kiwi fruit or broccoli helps the brain more than spinach, you should feel free to ignore it. This is, unfortunately, a level of understanding of both nutrition and the brain that we simply don’t have.
The worst example of this is the saga of fish oil in education. It should be said that there’s no harm at all in taking fish oil tablets (or just going for the direct route and eating lots of oily fish). It may help with joint pain or have beneficial effects for skin conditions like psoriasis. What it hasn’t been shown to do is anything to help memory or IQ, which is what it is normally claimed to help. Councils have spent remarkable sums of money providing fish oil tablets to students taking exams, despite the complete lack of proof that it will help them in any way at all (unless their joint pain or psoriasis was distracting them from studying, but that it’s what was argued). It makes sense that this would be the case – after all, there’s no evidence that vegetarians, who don’t eat fish, or people in landlocked countries who might have traditionally had less access to fish, are stupider than their coastal counterparts.
Eating better when you’re studying is generally a good idea, though treats may also help you get through exams. It’s tempting to think there might be study miracles to be found in a tub of cod liver oil, but unfortunately, the evidence is against it.
3. Learning according to your ‘brain dominance’
As discussed above, it’s sensible to figure out what style of studying works best for you. Everyone’s had the experience of trying to do some kind of study activity and nothing’s gone in, and that might well be because you find it easier to learn from a list than a mind map. But here’s a way not to do it.
The internet is full of tests to establish which half of your brain is dominant. The theory goes that just as you are left or right-handed, you’re also left-brained or right-brained. The left brain is supposed to be logical, analytical and verbal, the centre of maths and science. The right brain is supposed to be creative and emotional, the centre of art and music. Economists are left-brained; poets are right-brained. They think in different ways and therefore learn differently. If you are left-brained, you’ll learn from lectures, appreciate logical ordering, abstract concepts and minimal distractions – effectively, a traditional classroom. If you are right-brained, you’ll want group projects, activities that get to the emotional core of a problem as well as looking at it rationally, and everything will need to involve music and visualisations.
For some people, thinking of learning in these terms can be helpful. Some of us respond better to traditional methods of studying, while others prefer a more relaxed and creative environment. Teaching that allows for both ways of learning can be helpful, which is probably why the idea of the left brain/right brain division has caught on in the world of education.
Unfortunately, the science it’s based on is unreliable at best. While it’s true that the brain is roughly in two halves and those two halves take care of different things, the split between the two isn’t nearly as neat as the above theory would suggest. For instance, when you look at an object, the left hemisphere of the brain usually processes the details, while the right hemisphere processes the shape. This isn’t a metaphor about the right hemisphere of the brain understanding the ‘bigger picture’ while the left hemisphere handles the fine details. It’s literally what happens when you see something, so we can’t extrapolate learning styles from it. It’s also only usually the case because these things vary from person to person, and can even change during a person’s life; if you had an accident that damaged part of your brain, other parts adapt.
Where different things get processed in the brain is only a small part of the problem with left brain/right brain theory. The biggest problem is the idea that one half of the brain is dominant in the same way that people have a dominant hand is simply untrue. There is no such thing as a left-brained or right-brained person. It makes as little sense as asking whether you walk more with your thigh or your ankle; the whole brain is involved in thinking, just as the whole leg is involved in walking, just in different ways. It’s a pity because if you really do learn better in a noisy, creative environment, claiming to be ‘right-brained’ provides a useful justification. But it makes about as much sense as saying it’s because you’re a Pisces.
If you’re studying something that involves a lot of reading – English literature comes immediately to mind, but this applies to most humanities subjects – you probably find yourself wishing you could get through the material faster. The average person reads at 250 words per minute, and the fastest readers in the world reach 4,000 or more words per minute. It seems that if you could increase your reading speed even a little, you’d stand to gain significantly in terms of your studies.
And luckily for you, you might think, there are lots of apps and courses out there to help you read faster. The techniques that they use differ: some aim to prevent subvocalisation (the process by which you sound out each word in your head while reading, which slows you down), while others present words to you in a way that makes it harder to get distracted by the rest of the page – a line or two at a time, for instance. Others will guide you through the sentences with a marker, just as you might have rested your finger on the page to keep track of where you were up to when you were first learning to read. There are some wilder ideas still, such as trying to expand your peripheral vision so that you can take it more of the text in one go. The idea of training people in speed-reading has been around for decades, but the world of e-readers and apps makes it much easier to turn these principles into readily available technology.
The trouble is that for most people, there is a stark trade-off between speed and comprehension – the faster you get, the more you end up skimming the text rather than reading it, and the less you understand. Subvocalisations, for most people, are vital in understanding, and natural speed-readers who read at two or three times the average rate still produce them. If you stop subvocalising, you lose a lot of understanding. That’s fine if you’re searching a text for a particular word or phrase, but not much use if you’re trying to comprehend the whole thing. If it’s particularly dense or academic, it becomes even harder.
There are some genuine techniques for reading faster, but – surprise! – they require a lot of effort rather than just downloading an app. One such technique is expanding your vocabulary. Unknown or obscure words will slow you down when you’re reading, so the wider your vocabulary, the less likely it is that you’ll end up stumbling over caesura or proboscis. There are a variety of techniques for improving your vocabulary, but probably the most straightforward is to read more complex texts so that you get used to these words being used in context; memorising and reciting definitions is effective if you want to be able to recite definitions, but not so much if you want to understand the meaning of the word in the contexts in which it is used. And if all you want to be able to do is skim text and get the gist of it quicker, speed-reading techniques can help; just don’t expect to be able to remember what you’ve read later on.
Which study techniques have you found useful, and which do you think are best ignored? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: dusty books; hopscotch; healthy eating; chess; pile of books; teddy bear reading.