warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

What's The Best Way To Study?

Rebecca Buddingh |
September 21, 2010 | 5:07 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Creative Commons
Creative Commons

As those dreaded midterms appear on the horizon, many college students are heading back to the library to cram as much information as possible into their overworked brains. 

With so many different methods and techniques to studying, students are often left overwhelmed and unsure about which method will suit their individual needs.

For example, is it better to study in the same location or vary locations? Should students study for the same subject during a particular study session or switch to different subjects periodically? 

Psychologists have sought to answer these questions for decades. And though no conclusive results have been discovered so far, researchers have recently made significant strides in gaining a better understanding of brain activity. 

In a study released this month in the journal Science, psychologists claim that memorization of facts is more effective if brain processes are kept similar (i.e. same study location or method of studying) during each study session. 

The researchers, from USC, University of Texas at Austin, and Beijing Normal University, conducted studies in China where subjects were told to study photographs or words and asked to recognize these items at a later time. The brain activity of the subjects was monitored while they studied.

Based on past studies, the researchers believed that variability in brain patterns would lead to more effective memorization, but were surprised when their results were nearly opposite. 

They found that studying proved more effective when the brain activity was similar with each review. 

“If you precisely reactivate the same pattern each time, then you are going to remember better,” said Gui Xue, one of the authors of the study and a research assistant professor of psychology at USC. 

However, a recent article in the New York Times written by journalist Benedict Carey seems to contradict this new study, saying that varying study environment and methods of study will prove more effective for students trying to memorize facts. 

There are many common studying “myths,” Carey said, such as the benefits of having a specific study location. 

Carey cites a 1978 study claiming that college students who studied vocabulary words in two different rooms did better on a test than those students who studied the same words in just one room. 

Author of the study, Dr. Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist from UCLA, said students can benefit from switching environments. This way, they gain several environmental associations with the material they are studying. 

In addition, he said varying the material being studied in one session leaves a deeper impression on the brain. 

So, which of these studies is correct? Is memorization more effective if the environment is varied or kept the same? 

Xue said that his new study does not necessarily disprove the past studies that point towards variability as the more effective method. 

Studying under the same context each time does not always work, but changing certain variables does not necessarily work either, Xue said.

“These are both possible, and need to be examined in the future,” he said. 

So, how should students study to maximize their retention of the material? 

“Right now we have no answer to that question,” Xue said. 

He said, however, that they are currently working on finding the answer so that someday students will know which method is actually the most effective.

To reach staff reporter Rebecca Buddingh, click here.




Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.