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Study Tip #2: You’re studying too much – How to break effectively

After making all Ds her first semester in college, the former girlfriend of a YouTube lecturer vowed to study six hours a night the rest of her freshman year. She followed through and failed everything.

Well, probably not everything. She might have gotten into her choice sorority or scored the winning run for her dorm’s intramural softball team. But she struck out in the primary function of collegiate institutions and wound up on the wrong Dean’s list. But why? Burnout? Exhaustion? Academic overload?

Actually, the long hours she suffered through her daily ordeal had both nothing and everything to do with her bad grades. What she and millions of other stressed-out studiers fail to realize was this: the law of diminishing returns relates directly to the brain’s ability to absorb and process information. Listening to lectures, reading academic text, and studying each require a combination of cognitive processes that differ slightly but relate in their connection to active learning. The amount of active learning a person can handle without stopping has its limits.

Unlike passive entertainment that consumes a person for hours with no intellectual demands, active learning requires willful engagement, a tiring affair indeed. Even the more cerebral films or Netflix series, which challenge viewers to keep up or solve the mystery, don’t come with a test at the end and usually provide enough laughs, excitement, or terror to give the watcher some mental relief.

And this mental relief is precisely what’s lacking for most students who study a lot with no signs that their efforts matter. The old joke, “My brain is full,” may not be so far off. When the mind is tired, it basically refuses to properly process new information. Accordingly, if after 45 minutes of consuming Macroeconomics, the brain gets “full,” studying for 6 hours straight does no good for the last 5 hours and fifteen minutes.

If after 45 minutes of consuming Macroeconomics, the brain gets “full,” studying for 6 hours straight does no good for the last 5 hours and fifteen minutes.

In fact, studying without a break beyond the point that information retention declines may actually harm the ability to study and retain. Strong evidence suggests that a student’s ill feelings when staring at notes after the brain becomes tired reinforces the idea that studying is a nasty waste of time. Pretty soon, even the first 45 minutes prove fruitless as the brain “shuts down” before it gets started. This phenomenon explains why the budding Shakespearean scholar, pouring over Midsummer Night’s Dream for 3 hours without pause, remembers nothing from reading it but practically memorizes the first act upon witnessing a live production. The more pleasant experience leads to better retention.

Taking a break – even for five minutes – can be enough to reinvigorate, giving the brain enough pause to handle a new wave of information. So, studying for six hours or more is possible with the right number of breaks taken at the right time. Figuring out that right time is tricky, an endeavor that takes a little discipline and perhaps solitude. The discipline involves two things: stopping when retention starts dropping and, conversely, not mistaking simple distractions for a necessary stopping point (This second caveat can be particularly difficult for those with severe ADD or ADHD. I will address it in a later article).

For those who already can’t tell themselves to pause, setting an arbitrary break time may be best. Young teens, on average, need a change of pace after 20 minutes. For some, a daze creeps up after only 10, while others can tolerate an hour or more of continuous cognitive activity, no matter how boring. High school students can go a little longer (30 – 45 min), then college students, and so forth. Keep in mind that an ideal time to break varies greatly from one person to another (yes, a few of you can sit down and study for 6 hours with no break and retain everything – but not many) and may vary for the same person under different circumstances, especially time of day and setting.

In any case here is what you should do to find your ideal break time:

1. The next time you need to study, read, take notes on a video, etc., pick a low threshold, maybe 20 minutes as a high school student, then take a 5 minute break, and then go back to work.

2. If you find your mind wandering as you study, lower your continuous study time by five minutes, or increase your break time up to ten minutes. If instead you find that you seem to be retaining things well, continue with the same study time and break time until the end of the session.

3. Continue with this same pattern until your next assessment.

4. Assess your new study pattern and determine if you experienced improvement in your grade, your understanding of the subject/s, your ability to sleep, or other relevant factors.

5. Adjust accordingly. If you see no improvement, you may need to shorten the study time even more. If you see improvement, try lengthening your study time by five minutes between breaks.

6. Continue to adjust your study time as needed over a few weeks or months until you figure out how much time you can study straight through and short your breaks you be (except for those with extreme cases of ADD or ADHD, no less than five minutes).

7. Keep in mind that different activities may require different patterns. Research and paper writing may allow for longer periods of sustained activity than studying for a test. Reading a novel for Honors English may prove different than reading medieval tracts about religious dissension.

One final piece to consider goes against an age-old recommendation to those who struggle with studying and getting their homework done. When making these adjustments you might find it best NOT to have a study buddy. If that person’s threshold is 70 minutes and yours is 25, or vice versa, you may not be able to find your true threshold, and your friend may push you beyond your limits – or vice versa. Furthermore, your brain’s tolerance of scholarly thought fluctuates when interrupted by the distractions of communication.

Ultimately, acknowledging the need for a better study pattern, then finding it with the above steps, can lead you to develop the ability to truly study well over long periods of time and achieve academic success. Who knows, it may take you only 45 minutes to get it all in your head.

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