While barricading yourself in the library might be the tried-and-true (or at least tried) method of studying, there is a better way — in fact, there are at least 21 of them. Go forth and fearlessly take on tests with these science-backed study tips to turn AP Misery into AP Mastery.
1. Study when sleepy
Bedtime stories are for kids. Instead of reading the Berenstain Bears, try studying for a few minutes right before hitting the hay.
During sleep, your brain strengthens new memories and puts them into long-term storage, so there’s a good chance you’ll remember whatever you review right before dozing off. (Just try not to bring work into your actual bed, since the distraction can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep.)
2. Space it out
A new learning technique called “spaced repetition” involves breaking up information into small chunks and reviewing them consistently over a long period of time.
Don’t try to memorize the entire periodic table in one sitting. Instead, learn a few rows each day and review each lesson before starting anything new.
3. Create a mnemonic device
Turn the details you need to remember into an easy-to-recite acronym. For example, remember the order of mathematic operations PEMDAS (parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction) with this catchy mnemonic device: Please (P) excuse (E) my (M) dear (D) Aunt (A) Sally (S).
4. Write it down
Put those third-grade penmanship lessons to good use. Research suggests that we store information more securely when we write it by hand than when we type it on a computer keyboard. Start by recopying the most important notes from the semester onto a new sheet of paper.
5. Put yourself to the test
Quizzing yourself may be one of the best ways to prepare for the real deal. Get into the routine of practicing with a cheat sheet (notes) and then without it. Use a stopwatch to simulate the test time limit.
It may seem obvious, but the best strategy is to focus on the hard stuff first so it doesn’t trip you up on the test.
6. Shout it out
The dual action of seeing and hearing information at the same time helps seal it into your memory. So shout those notes out loud! We just can’t guarantee you won’t get thrown out of the library.
7. Come together (right now)
Group work doesn’t fly with everyone, but for those who benefit from a little team effort, a study group is the way to go. Pick a few studious pals and get together every few days to review the material.
Put one person in charge of delegating tasks (snack duty, music selection) and keeping the group on target with its goals.
8. Walk backward
It might sound strange, but a backward walk is like hitting your brain’s rewind button. In one study, people who walked backward were better able to remember a video they’d watched than those who walked forward or stood still.
What is this strange phenom? The study authors call it the “mnemonic time-travel effect.”
9. Switch it up
Don’t stick to one topic. Instead, study a bunch of different material in one sitting. This technique helps prepare you to use the right strategy for finding the solution to a problem.
For example, if you do several division problems in a row, you’ll know when you begin each problem that it’ll require some division. But doing a series of problems that could require multiplication, division, or addition means you have to stop and think about which strategy is best.
10. Treat yo’self!
A healthy holiday cookie, a walk around the block, 5 minutes on Twitter — whatever floats your boat. Knowing there’s a little reward waiting at the end of a few more pages makes it easier to beat procrastination while slogging through a semester’s worth of notes.
11. Drink up
Sorry, not that kind of drink. Instead, hit the local coffee shop for something caffeine-filled, whether your beverage of choice is coffee or tea. Research suggests the amount of caffeine in a cup or two of coffee boosts attention and alertness.
Hate the caffeine jitters? Decaf coffee also wakes up your brain, but without the jolt.
12. Take a time-out
Taking time to plan is one of the most important skills a student can have. Don’t just start the week with the vague goal of studying for a history exam. Instead, break up that goal into smaller tasks.
Pencil it in on the calendar like a regular class. For example, allot 1 to 3 p.m. each day to review 50 years’ worth of info.
13. Work it out
Get leaner and brainier at the same time. Research has shown that just a half hour of aerobic exercise may improve your brain-processing speed and other important mental abilities. Jog some laps around the block or run the stairs a few times and see if you don’t come back sharper.
14. Gimme a break
The KitKat guys said it, and so does science: Taking breaks — say, every 75 to 90 minutes — can boost productivity and improve your ability to focus on a single task. For a real productivity charge, step away from the screen and break a sweat with a midday gym session.
15. Daaaance to the music
As anyone who’s ever relied on the Biebs to make it through an all-night study session knows, music can help you beat stress.
It’s still not clear which type of music is best — classical, country, rock, or hip-hop — so go with your favorite. Give those biology notes a soundtrack and feel at least some stress slide away.
16. Say “om”
Just before staring at a piece of paper for 3 hours, direct your gaze inward for 3 minutes. Research suggests meditation can boost attention span and improve focus. And if you do it often enough, you can keep those intellectual gains well past the college years.
While most studies focus on regular meditation, there’s no harm in trying it out for a few minutes now and then to calm pre-test jitters.
17. Doze off
When there’s a textbook full of equations to memorize, it can be tempting to stay up all night committing them to memory (or trying to). But all-nighters rarely lead to an automatic A. In fact, burning the midnight oil can backfire, leading to more forgetfulness and greater sensitivity to stress.
In the days leading up to a big exam, aim to get those 7 to 9 hours a night. Research has shown that a solid night of sleep improves declarative memory, also known as the ability to remember facts on that big exam.
18. Feel free to inhale
Dusty old library again… or spa day? In one study, catching a whiff of lavender improved participants’ memory test scores after they were exposed to stress. Skip the frantic last-minute review and try a few minutes of aromatherapy instead.
19. Nix the ’net
We’ve all been there, facing the siren call of a friend’s Facebook wall on the eve of a giant exam. If you need a computer to study, try an app that blocks the internet for a short period of time and see how much more you get done.
20. Strike a pose
Deep-breathing yoga both improves attention and eases stress. So dive into that Downward-Facing Dog or bend your bod into a lotus. A few daily sun salutations may be all it takes to stay focused during finals.
21. Learn what works
Some people are early birds, some are night owls. Some prefer to study with a pal, others need complete and total silence. Experiment to find what study method is most effective for you, and then stick with it!