Even if you aren’t the studying kind, here are some helpful tricks
// Evelyn Cranston

A quick glance over your timetable this semester may not look so bad, as post-secondary life requires much less time spent in class than high school does. Some students gawk at the big chunks of uncommitted time and take it as an open invitation to extend their summer holidays. However, for every 80 minute class, students can expect an additional 1-3 hours for studying, reading, or working on a project.

Studying is a time-suck, but it’s easy to view as just a pesky task, easily accomplishable at a later date. Unfortunately, a month and a half of coffee dates, extra sleep, and party nights later, minor assignments and small chapters can balloon into half of a text book to read, and a mad scramble to pull together a 2000 word essay.

The internet, fellow students, and academic professionals offer endless studying techniques and tips, and it’s up to each individual student to find an effective style or routine. Still, there are a few tricks floating around that may have considerable benefits during crunch time. Some tricks are proven to be beneficial, while other techniques may negatively affect academic performance.

Setting is everything

First and foremost, is the setting in which you are studying. Some people find their rooms an ideal environment, while others would find it too tempting to have a nap in. Some prefer the energy of a coffee shop, while others are severely distracted by chatter. It’s up to trial and error, and finding what works best for you.

At home
Create a positive space for yourself! Make sure it’s bright, neat, and organized, and you have everything you need, so you can’t constantly find an excuse to deviate from the main task at hand.

In a group
Group cramming sessions are hit or miss. They’re great if everyone can keep together, someone has natural facilitation skills, and everyone has a similar studying style. But watch out: often, group studying has the tendency to become chaotic, disorganized and frantic, and a studying zone can become staccato with frequent disruptions and distractions.

At school
The second floor in the library is the go-to space for many students during the approaching days of exam period. They’re distraction free, and you’re entitled to tell someone to quiet down if they’re infringing on your quiet study space.

Dietary Supplements

Endorphins are like morphine or heroin, but free. Okay, not quite, but they behave in the brain in a chemically similar fashion to opiates. Endorphins and opiates in the blood act as neurotransmitters, and bind to opiate receptors in our brain, disinhibiting dopamine pathways and making us feel awesome. Endorphins and dopamine are credited with feelings of increased motivation and ability to retain information, and decreasing the sensation of pain and the negative effects of stress. Every student can benefit personally and academically from a negated stress level and best thing about it is that it’s the easiest drug to obtain: just go outside and run as fast as you can, or have [safe] sex. Win-win.

Fish Oil Capsules
Studies done on Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish or sold in capsules, have turned up many interesting results. While there’s still debate, many medical experts suggest that a supplement can improve brain function, mood, and general well-being.
One doctor noted that after six weeks of use, one could expect a substantial improvement in concentration and test scores. Binging on fish the night before an exam probably won’t do much except garner annoyance from your roommates, but adding Omega-rich fish such as salmon to your diet now and taking supplements regularly may help you out down the road.

There was an interesting study done recently at a university in Ireland on the effects of probiotic bacterium (found in probiotic yogurt) on mice. After regular consumption, the specific bacterium used in the study, Lactobacillus, increased the neurological functions in the brain of the mice related to learning and memory. Does eating probiotic yogurt mean you’re going to ace Statistics without studying? Unfortunately, that’s unlikely: clinical studies have yet to be conducted on humans. It is interesting, however, and everyone likes yogurt anyways, so why not give it a shot?


Prescription Drugs
A growing trend among post-secondary students is the illegal use of prescription drugs, specifically medication used to treat the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Structurally similar to amphetamines, they give the user increased focus, attention, motivation and ability to fight off fatigue -- everything a frazzled student would want the night before an exam.

A Capilano University student recalls her experience with a brand of popular “study drugs’’: “I did it on a Friday night, when I had a big research assignment to do. It really, really works to help you focus and it actually made me enjoy what I was doing,” she says.

The effects last 3-4 hours, and linger for a couple hours past the high. She notes, “The only downside is that if you get distracted at all, it's really bad. Like if you're hungry, you'll go and spend so much time making this big gourmet meal, and then realize that’s not what you're supposed to be focusing on.” Because of easy, ready access to prescription drugs, she states, “It’s very popular, especially during exam time.”

However, as with any drug, there’s a potential for a physical or physiological addiction and dependency: people with ADHD are unlikely to become addicted, as the pleasurable side effects are less pronounced, but to a healthy individual, it’s an easily accessible, extremely useful high. As well, study drug abusers can expect all sorts of responses coming from an unhappy, mistreated body and brain, such as nervousness and anxiety (perfect for an exam!), skin itching and rashes, vomiting, paranoia, excessive repetition of routines or habits, and headaches with dizziness.

The most ubiquitous, and potentially the most harmful, drug on campus is sold right in the cafeteria. Coffee, the most widely-consumed psychoactive stimulant, boldly crosses the blood-brain barrier and attacks our central nervous system in less than an hour after consumption. As you study, your neurons are firing are a breakneck speed, producing and leaving adenosine in the wake. Your nervous system will, with the help of special receptors, monitor adenosine levels, the chemical that makes you sleep.
Caffeine is chemically similar to adenosine, so the receptors accept it. However, rather than activating the signal to rest, caffeine’s structure blocks the receptors from doing their work. Naturally occurring stimulants, such as dopamine, are now free to run amok inside your brain. Caffeine isn’t the same as an amphetamine or an “upper”, but rather is a temporary relief from fatigue. It will wake you up in the morning, but will do nothing to revive your natural energy levels.

A caffeine high lasts a different amount of time for everyone, but typically half of the caffeine is completely purged from the body in about 5 or 6 hours. When we deprive ourselves of coffee, the excess adenosine that’s been built up can rush in and cause a crash. A physical addiction to caffeine is all too easy to acquire, and it wreaks havoc on our brains and digestive systems, but it may be a necessary evil during exam time.

General advice and universal tricks
It will come as no surprise to most to learn that studies have shown first- and second-year college students get less sleep than their bodies require. What may come as a surprise, though, is how drastic the effects of an accumulated sleep debt can be. The short term effects of inadequate sleep sound familiar to everyone: decreased concentration and impaired memory.

As poor sleep habits become routine, doctoral student Adam Knowlden states, “[Lack of sleep] affects the whole process. Students aren't able to learn, they're not able to remember, it's harder to concentrate, and it affects mood. They're working their way through college and they're not maximizing their learning potential.” When cramming for an exam, get some sleep. The memory consolidation that happens during sleep will actually benefit you for the test later.

Switching it up
If you find you’re getting so tired of studying that you can no longer retain anything, find some way to break the monotony. Have a shower, do some quick calisthenics, stretch while reading, change locations: any change in your environment and immediate surroundings will help you regain focus!

Writing it Down
When it comes down to exam time, extreme anxiety can set in. No matter how much you’ve studied and prepared, doubts and worries can disrupt focus and increase the likelihood of poor exam performance.

Dr. Sian Beilock, principal investigator at the University of Chicago Human Performance Lab came about some interesting study results regarding test anxiety: before students started a high stakes, high pressure test, half sat quietly in anticipation while the other half were given the opportunity to write about their emotions in that moment. The students who did the writing exercise improved their scores from a previous low-stress test by 5%, while the students who sat quietly found their marks to drop 12% from the first test.

To control the experiment, ensuring it wasn’t the simple act of writing versus the writing of emotions, they had one group of students write about an arbitrary topic. The students writing about an unrelated topic also earned lower grades in the high-pressure test. These results are significant for people who worry and fret before an exam: according to this study, you can boost your grade by writing about all your negative feelings, stresses, and worries for ten minutes prior to an exam.

Get Outside
One of the most detrimental study habits a student can develop is a tendency to lock the doors, shut the blinds, and spend the day working away. Richard Ryan, a professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester, states, "Nature is fuel for the soul. Often when we feel depleted, we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.”

Some studies note that 90 per cent of people feel more energized and motivated after time spent outdoors. During frantic study time, one may be inclined to think that they just don’t have enough time for a walk in the woods, but these studies show that being outside in nature for just 20 minutes a day was enough to positively impact mood and behaviour. When school work feels overwhelming, a short walk in the secondary-growth forests surrounding our campus and a few big breaths of fresh autumn air can make a world of difference.

Do The Obvious

All and all, there are two golden rules for studying, and they also happen to be fairly basic. The first is to start studying/writing/researching well in advance. Everyone knows this, and hardly anyone does it, but it stands as the easiest way to bump your grades up and avoid stress. The second is to remind yourself of your motivation to do well in the course. If you’re taking art or music, remember your inspiration; if you’re preparing for a math exam, remember that you’ll never find a more honest conversation than you will with numbers; if you just need some more credits, consider your future. It will make a huge difference in your enjoyment and results of studying if you feel impassioned and motivated about what you're reading. These two simple rules are easy to make into habits, are likely to forever change your student life as you know it.

// Evelyn Cranston

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