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Science Explains: Making the most of your brain

For most of us, term three means one thing – exams are looming. I say most of us, because I sat my exams term last term and feel suitably relaxed, but I promise I won’t gloat anymore. However, the truth of the matter is, whether you have approaching exams or imminent essay deadlines, you won’t be able to get through the coming weeks without at least a little bit of learning. But are there any fool-proof ways to maximise our revision prowess?

Before we can answer this question, we need to look into the fundamental processes involved in learning. While often it seems that information from lectures simply goes in one ear and out of the other, take my word for it – something is actually going on inside that brain of yours! In fact, every time we learn something, our brain adapts, creating new synapses to allow us to process the latest information.

Our brain’s ability to change throughout our lives is known as neuroplasticity. While neuroplasticity is prevalent over our entire lives, every time we learn or memorise something, it is also seen when brain injuries strike, in order to recompense for any lost functions. You can thank neuroplasticity every time you remember a completely useless fact, as well as when a key point from your textbook finally ‘clicks’ in your brain.

While often it seems that information from lectures simply goes in one ear and out of the other, take my word for it – something is actually going on inside that brain of yours

For example, when learning another language, plasticity can be observed. It appears that the left inferior parietal cortex is larger in the brains of bilinguals in comparison to monolinguals. Research has also suggested that plasticity can have an even greater role to play in exam season. In 2006, Draganski et al. discovered that the brains of students revising for their final exams showed learning-induced changes in regions of the parietal cortex and the posterior hippocampus. Luckily for them, these regions of the brain are associated with learning and memory retrieval.

So, when you learn something, such as a formula or fact, new neural connections are made. These synapses are strengthened by repetition, just as connections in the brain that aren’t repeated eventually deteriorate. However, it’s worth noting that just as neuroplasticity can help us learn useful things, it can also help us to pick up bad habits, making it important to be aware of what we are learning.

These synapses are strengthened by repetition, just as connections in the brain that aren’t repeated eventually deteriorate

Because we now know our brain function is constantly changing, especially during times of extreme learning, it follows that we can try to and maximise our ability to learn. All it takes is a little bit of dedication and a lot of practice. But saying that, if you’ve made it all the way to term three, this shouldn’t be too much trouble!

The mains ways to improve neuroplasticity are to prepare well, set clear aims and goals, and then train that brain! First off, make sure you’re in the right state of mind to learn – find the space that you work best (even if you’re crazy enough to feel at home on Floor 5 of the library). Then, try to relax as much as possible, within reason of course. If you’re understandably finding it hard to destress in exam season, SciTech also has some handy tips to beat your hormones and calm down a little.

All it takes is a little bit of dedication and a lot of practice

And now, you’re ready to get to work! Brain training can involve the repetition of many different activities, from learning a new language, completing puzzles or riddles, or when it comes to revision, tasks such as making mind-maps or revision cards. Basically, all you need is a little discipline. After all, the brain is a muscle, and consequently, its function improves with regular exercise.

But unfortunately, we all know that having a successful day in the library is much easier said than done. We don’t only need to know how we learn, but how we learn best, and this varies greatly from brain to brain and person to person. While there are plenty of Buzzfeed-esque quizzes to help you find out what sort of learner you are, the brain is still a bit of a grey area (pun intended). Often it’s simply a bit of trial and error that will help you land upon your optimum way to revise. Some of us form new connections best when writing notes, others when watching documentaries or repeating key points out loud.

While there are plenty of Buzzfeed-esque quizzes to help you find out what sort of learner you are, the brain is still a bit of a grey area (pun intended)

However, there may be a silver-lining to all of this. In 2007 researchers discovered that simply making sure students knew about neuroplasticity and the fact our ability to process information is ever-changing, led to an improvement in grades and confidence. So, there you have it, reading this article might have just given you the mental boost you needed.

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