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Study tips

Educators say it over and over again: “Practice makes perfect!”. With this idea, they try to encourage you as a student, to do your homework, practice with one another, look up questions online and all sorts of things. Teachers sometimes assume ‘we all know’ that practicing will lead to mastering the content. But the main question from students is, WHY this is the way it is! 

Active versus passive learning

The first mechanism behind this phenomenon is the simple difference between active versus passive forms of learning and studying. Many students (luckily not teachers!) think that learning is about reading the content of their textbook. Studying for their exam might lead to some highlighting or underlining here and there, forming the impression that they ‘duintop’ into their textbooks.

Highlighting or underlining a text is a myth that has been scientifically proven to be ineffective. In fact, studies show they offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text. This is because they are passive forms of studying. Passive forms entail all forms of studying that not require a student to rephrase, edit, exemplify or apply the given study materials. Active forms, however, entail completely the opposite. They require students to actively ‘reform’ the study materials into content that is their own. By rephrasing, editing, illustrating and applying, students practice their materials. And those active forms of studying will eventually make perfect.

How your brain works

Here is how it works in our brains. Our brains are very complex structures, that are (obviously) essential to learning. Our brain consists of billions of neurons and neurological pathways. These neurons communicate with each other when they see new information.

If you read a text, your neurons communicate this information to the right brain parts, so you will understand a text, and know how to read it further. This process of neural communication runs through the working memory. Our working memory is brain function that helps us ‘do things’ and finish tasks like reading a text. However, the working memory has a limited capacity. This means, all pieces of information that are processed through the working memory, will not stay there forever. However, for an exam, students wish to remember information for a longer period of time. Thus, during studying, we aim to save the study materials in our long-term memory. So how do we get to the point where information will be stored there?

New information is like a forest

If we read a new text, your neurons will communicate this text through their neural pathways. A neural pathway actually works similarly to a path in a forest: If you walk into a new forest, first have to walk there many times and carve paths before it becomes easy to walk. The more you walk and carve, the easier it is to walk around over that path. If new information is presented, a neural path has to get used to this topic

At first, a neural path will be full of trees. By practicing the topic, you slowly ‘chop the trees and create a path’. Practicing makes the topic easier, makes the path stronger, and will eventually store the topic into your long-term memory. When we learn actively, we strengthen our neural paths and send that information to our long-term memory. And that is how practice makes perfect!



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