Learning About the Brain and the Effect on College Students’ Study Strategies

March 25, 2016 No comments exist

Deborah Brown
Department of Professional and Secondary Education
West Chester University

Smiling female students with textbooks and laptops are preparing for examination at home

My recent presentation at the Lilly Conference for Evidence-Based Teaching in Newport Beach (2015) addressed how our knowledge of brain functioning impacts college students’ study strategies. Over the years, I have taught thousands of students whose parents worried about their academic success as they transition to college. Ironically, my presentation was just at the time that my son was preparing to head to college – it was my turn to worry.

As we mentor university students to develop strategies to empower their academic success, I’d like to share six research-based tips, and five general tips based on my 30 plus years as a university professor.

In recent years, I became interested in conducting research on how to take the content of my educational psychology course and link it more effectively to issues relevant to the lives of my college students. It occurred to me that one way to do this was to have my students keep track of how the use of brain-based learning principles and study strategies affected their experience as a college student. Participants in my study included sixty-eight pre-service teachers enrolled in my educational psychology course; the majority of these pre-service teachers were freshmen and the rest sophomores. The participants kept a journal in which they selected at least one brain-based principle or concept covered in the course and reported on the effects of applying the principle or concept during the semester. Based on an analysis of the participants’ journal entries, several categories of self-reported changes occurred after learning about the brain and related study strategies. One of these categories included strategies based in the study of attention, encoding, and memory. Another major category of change concerned strategies for promoting neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells) that comprised increasing exercise, getting adequate sleep, and eating a balanced diet (Brown, 2015). Tips useful to share with students related to these categories, especially those new to the university setting like my son, follow:

  1.   Study Over Time: Use a distributed practice approach when studying for a test (Willingham, 2008-2009). In other words, don’t cram. They’ve all heard the latter, but what does that really mean?  In practice, one tip is to encourage new students to pretend they are on a pop quiz schedule. Yes, I said pop quiz. For example, encourage them to think of maybe a Tuesday/Thursday class in this way. Pretend that after taking lecture notes and completing the corresponding reading for Tuesday and by Thursday’s class they schedule themselves to come prepared to take a pop quiz on the material. This approach forces the students to review course material frequently – using distributed practice.
  2.   Use Elaborative Note-taking Techniques: While reading course-related materials, use a method for keeping track of important points that forces you to be mentally active (Willingham, 2008-2009). An ineffective method is frequent highlighting because it does not actively engage the mind to process what is most significant and why. Elaborative note-taking, in which key points are noted along with an elaboration of related examples as well as comments about why the material is important or perhaps how the material relates to what is covered in class or to the overall chapter or to a set of questions or objectives is a far better way to go.
  3.   Self-Assess: When studying for a test, always self-assess (Willingham, 2008-2009). When my son reads this, he’ll either chuckle or roll his eyes. It was one of my frequent admonitions to him throughout high school. What I mean is that students write their own prospective test questions and then answer them. The closer the format of the question is to the format of the actual test, the better. When preparing for essay tests, practice writing essay questions. For multiple-choice tests, write multiple-choice practice questions. Students can also seek out others’ test questions either on-line or in study guides for practice. Challenge students to create learning partners or small groups to exchange their test questions.
  4.   Exercise: Develop an exercise routine, even if it only involves talking walks. Research indicates that exercise promotes neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells (Jensen, 2008).  It is even more helpful, according to the findings of my study, if the routine entails jogging, calisthenics, or yoga.  Try exercising before a difficult class or study session.  It should help to wake up your brain, improve your ability to concentrate, and even improve your mood.
  5.  Eat Well: Research shows that good nutrition helps promote the growth of new brain cells (Jensen, 2008). Have a good breakfast before going off to a morning class. Remember that protein, whether it’s from nuts, eggs, or yogurt, helps keep the brain alert. So does glucose from fruit.
  6.  Get Enough Sleep: Adequate sleep aids in the learning process. According to the findings from my study, getting enough sleep also helps you pay better attention in class and can improve mood (Brown, 2015)

As I reflect on my experience as both a student and a professor, these additional five tips come to mind that I frequently use with my students (and hope that my son will use).

  1.  Know and Use the Syllabus: Advise students to study the details of each syllabus as if their lives depended on it, especially the policies concerning absences and due dates for assignments and tests. Encourage them to keep a planner or calendar where they can jot down due dates. It is ironic that even in a time when many professors will post the course syllabus on some sort of online forum (e.g., Blackboard), fewer students of mine seem to grasp the details of the syllabus than when I first started teaching at the university level, more than 30 years ago. For some students, it may be helpful to print pertinent pages of the syllabus so that they can post a physical copy of important dates in a place they routinely look. Urge students to study all of the resources and links professors may provide electronically as they are accountable for the content of these.
  2.  Attend Class and Assume Nothing: Encourage students to go to class and ask plenty of questions of their professors. Urge students to assume nothing. Most faculty welcome questions about either the course content or the procedures for completing assignments or the content covered in exams. Students need to be in class, though, to ask them.  Many professors have attendance policies, and as my oldest found out in her first year of college, these can be grade killers.
  3.  Communicate with Your Instructor: Urge students to communicate with their professors via e-mail or other electronic means concerning questions or upcoming absences. Advocate that students communicate with their professors by consulting them during office hours; this is the purpose of office hours. I welcome the occasional student who comes to my office hours. I remember who has come in for help too.
  4. Find a Class Study-Buddy:  Encourage students to find a study-buddy from class. This does not diminish the need to study individually. However, the students can compare notes and even quiz each other. (See number 3 above.)
  5.  Use Campus Services: Advocate that students utilize campus services such as the writing center, tutors, and the university counseling center. After all, they pay for them. Advise students to work ahead of schedule on assignments so that they have plenty of time to make maximum use of this support.

Many graduating seniors, like my son, have had very little instruction in how to study.  Add to this, the stress involved in moving to a new place and making new friends.  I’m really hoping my son’s professors and mentors read this!

References & Resources

Brown, Deborah.  (2015). The effect of learning about the brain on college students’ study strategies and perceptions of effective teaching. Conference Proceedings of the Lilly Conference on Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning, 13-16.

Jensen, Eric.  (February 2008).  A fresh look at brain-based learning.  Phi Delta Kappan, 89(6), 408-417.

Office of Graduate Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Teaching students to take better notes: Notes on Notetaking. Retrieved from: http://www.unl.edu/gradstudies/current/teaching/notetaking

Willingham, Daniel.  (Winter 2008-2009).  What will help a student’s memory?  American Educator.  17-25.

1 This blog is based in part on a presentation made at the 2015 Lilly Conference in Newport Beach,CA.

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