Aerial view of a large library containing laptops and books

Studying

After decades of searching for an easy way to learn tough material, I have to say that studying is hard. Sometimes it’s pleasurable, too, but it takes an effort to master a new concept or store new information—to make significant changes in your mind. However, there is good recent research on how not to waste the effort.

First, though, why not take an easy way?

There’s a large market for cognitive enhancers, or smart drugs, that offer the chance to raise one’s intelligence. One of the early ones was modafinil (Provigil® in the U.S.). Nowadays as many as 20 percent of the students at some universities* use Provigil®, Adderall®, and other so-called smart drugs to enhance their study and test performance. Interestingly, smarter young people are more likely to experiment, maybe out of curiosity.

The profit potential for cognitive enhancers seems impressive, and there’s an industry devoted to so-called smart drugs such as centrophenoxine.   

But most of the drugs on the over-the-counter market have effects that are not specific to memory or intelligence. These are the ones you hear advertised on late-night TV or screamer ads on radio. They may resemble a cup of coffee in simply increasing overall alertness, when they have any effect at all.  Yet there are true nootropic drugs that do specifically boost memory. Examples appear to include the previously-mentioned modafinil and the ampakines developed in Gary Lynch’s lab. Their use may become common, but for now it’s a good idea to greet each new candidate with some skepticism–even modafinil. For one thing, all psychoactive drugs have multiple effects, and some of the preparations are not what students expect

There are drugs that help memory (sometimes with dangerous side effects) and others that just pretend to do so. There is a long list of drugs that impair memory as a side effect. Some drugs have a nonspecific effect in helping or hurting memory; that is, they affect accessory processes like alertness or attention that in turn support memory performance.

There are no drugs that I know of that offer a permanent, benign enhancement of memory. If memory were a specific tissue, like a patch of skin, improvement might be more readily sought. Or if there were a small number of genes specifically devoted to memory, they might be made to express themselves or (if bad) be replaced. That’s not the case. Instead memory is not well localized or even a single process. A drug that delays dementia may not sustain prolonged attention in healthy young people.

I haven’t mentioned the herbals, like Rhodiola roseaWithania somniferacumin and cilantro and more. As supplements, they aren’t even regulated by the FDA. That means you don’t really know what you’re getting.

So we study, and the best advice doesn’t come from guesswork. It doesn’t come readily from neuroscience, either. Contrary to every topic discussed so far, behavioral neuroscience is not the best path to a deeper understanding of study skills, despite the rising popularity of neuroeducation.

The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations must be well known by now. For anyone tempted to spend a long time building a foundation in neuroscience, let me say (facetiously) that I’ve studied neuroscience so that you don’t have to. The reason for bringing up the psychology of study skills is to illustrate when we need neuroscience and when we don’t. If you plan on becoming knowledgeable about how to study, you will not want to add on years of study to master the concepts of neuroscience, and the result is that you will have trouble spotting specious arguments that link superficial neuroscience to innovations in studying.

There is a great deal of research on learning in the brain. Eric Kandel won the Nobel prize for his work on synaptic changes in learning in Aplysia californica. Hypotheses predicting how learning will occur in the human brain have abounded for over a century. But learning is a complex bundle of processes comprising all sorts of events, from habituation to composing double dactyls. The gap between synaptic strengthening and humorous verse is too large to make sense of just yet. Only vacuous generalizations are possible.;

Direct attacks on better study techniques are possible. We can benefit from discrediting neuroeducation from a biological standpoint and from putting new study methods into practice using psychological research.

*That’s a general figure for universities in the U.S. Perhaps it’s higher in the United Kingdom, perhaps lower in Switzerland.

Man studies using a book.

BIO: Chemistry can help you cook an egg and a knowledge of neuroscience can make you a better surgeon, but brain expertise won’t make you a better student or teacher. There have been many attempts to match stories about the brain to stories about learning, but the outcomes that I’ve seen make the point that there are biological constraints on learning and a rosy outlook for progress, without tying specific neural mechanisms of learning to specific examples of learning, except in a kind of neophrenological way.

The motive to invigorate learning with techniques that appeal to brain mechanisms is laudable but premature. The shortcomings of the neuroeducation movement include relying on broad generalizations about the brain, a lack of evidence to undergird arguments, and the propagation of myths about the brain that still seem current among the would-be neuroeducators.

PSYCHO: On the other hand, behavioral research on learning has turned up a number of helpful suggestions to improve studying. Steven Chew has offered a manifesto for improving learning and a number of helpful videos in support of both studying, accompanied by his commentary, and teaching.

It’s my impression that psychologists have begun publishing a great deal of useful advice lately about spaced practice, interleaving, memory retrieval, active approaches to studying, the testing effect, the perils of trying to multitask, and many other topics germane to studying in informal, easy-to-read capsule form. Some of this has come out in books that refute my long-held conviction that books on teaching are the only emetic that is administered through the eyes.

SOCIAL: Just as the use of study groups in class is a divisive topic for faculty, a student’s participation in circles of friends for studying seems to appeal to some and not to others. I have not run across guides to study better with other people.

That said, I know that students in traditional classes in law school, medical school, and graduate school rely on their peers to give them an idea of whether they are learning enough of the right stuff and to reduce their anxiety. But social support for studying is still difficult to summarize for online, distributed or self-paced, and other forms of education that are becoming dominant.

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