Ask someone for tips on proper study skills, and you’re likely going to get an answer that ranges from “study in a quiet, sealed room” to “drink a sip of water each time you need to remember a fact.” But from folksy suggestions to ideas based in actual science, study skills are just about how well you train your brain to absorb information. The New York Times reports that scientists have determined a few simple techniques that can enable a student to absorb more information.

Many of these new findings contradict commonly-accepted study habits. One might think that focusing on a particular subject for intense, long stretches makes the most sense. Or putting yourself in a closed room with no distractions enables the best mental retention. Not so, say cognitive scientists. Alternating rooms helps a person remember more information. Studying several “distinct but related” concepts in one sitting helps a person retain more information than just focusing on one single subject.

Retaining information is all in how the brain operates. As the NY Times reports, In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room.” When a person is studying, the brain is making unconscious associations with its surroundings. And if there is more variety in which to “unconsciously associate” with, the mind will have a greater “neural scaffolding” to retain information. Studies have confirmed that students who consider multiple sets of information at a time can score twice as well as students who focus on one set of information.

Nate Kornell is a psychologist at Williams College who has studied how the brain absorbs information. As he told the NY Times, “What seems to be happening in this case is that the brain is picking up deeper patterns when seeing assortments of paintings; it’s picking up what’s similar and what’s different about them.” The brain is actually processing 400 billion bits of information every second. But we are only consciously aware of 2000 bits of information every second. The rest of the information concerns the body -- “I’m hungry”— and environment “Where do I need to be?” Of course, one can also ponder what else the brain perceiving that is not being perceived.

Finally, if a person crams for a test, he or she is much more likely to completely forget the information over the long term. At the same time, cognitive scientists see testing as a “powerful tool for learning” instead of just an assessment of how well someone has learned. Ultimately, it seems that the harder it is for a student to learn something, the more likely he or she is to remember it later.

For further reading:

Experts rethink good study habits
Researchers consider the sometimes misguided beliefs on learning styles and how the brain works.