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Study smarter so you can Netflix longer

Grab your cup of coffee and notebook. The College of Liberal Arts is here to help you learn about the relationship between memory and studying. This might be your best semester yet.

By Hannah LeGare ’19

It’s the beginning of a new semester and decade, which means New Year’s resolutions, including a popular resolution amongst students — to get better grades this semester. We sat down with Steven Smith of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, to gain an understanding of how the brain, memory, and studying are interrelated. He gave us great tips to help students get better grades through studying. Grab your cup of coffee and take notes!


What is your specific area of research?

My general area of research is Cognitive Psychology, the scientific study of the mind. Within the field of cognitive psychology, I have focused my research on human memory, and creative thinking. My work has examined both basic mechanisms of cognition, such as blocked and recovered memories, and mental blocks in creative cognition, as well as applied research, such as eyewitness memory, and creative conceptual design.

What made you interested in this area?

I have always wanted to be a scientist, and when I learned that the human mind could be studied scientifically, I was hooked. I love doing research in a scientific field that is, historically speaking, very new, relative to other sciences such as chemistry or physics, because there are many opportunities to make original discoveries in a younger science. To me, the potential of the mind is the most fascinating and valuable resource humans can have.

How does your area of research and scholarship fit into the Dept. of Psychological and Brain Sciences?

My area of psychology, Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience, is one of the five major areas in the department, the others being Social Psychology, Clinical Psychology, Behavioral and Cellular Neuroscience, and Industrial/Organizational Psychology.

Why is it important to study?

Understanding how the mind and brain function is important for many reasons. It can help our understanding of mental disorders, stereotypes and prejudice, creative thinking, learning and comprehension, language, human-computer interaction, and essentially, any and all things that involve people.

How does memory work?

This needs to be a very long answer — take my class! — but here, I will highlight two important facts that we know about memory. One fact is how memory DOES NOT work; it does not function like a video camera, where we record experiences and play them back. Memory is far more complex and powerful than a video recorder, yet, paradoxically, it is not as reliable as a recorder. The second fact is that there are several different types that everyone has, such as a brief and limited short-term memory, a memory for individual experiences in our lives, memory for facts and meanings, a type of memory that works unconsciously, and an emotional memory system.

What is the function/relationship between the brain, memory, learning, and studying?

In the world of artificial devices, we have the hardware (e.g., computers, smart phones) and software (e.g., the apps used on those devices). In the human world, we have something like hardware (the brain), and software (cognition or thought, the activity going on in the brain). Understanding memory, learning, and studying require an understanding both of the brain, and how it processes information.

What are study tips you suggest to your students?

Some of the most important tips about studying effectively can be boiled down to a few major principles.

  1. Study for the test you will take. If, for example, you have an essay exam, practice writing essays, and if it is multiple-choice, practice with multiple-choice questions.
  2. Understanding your material is by far the best way to remember it.
  3. Test yourself often. You learn as much or more from practice tests as you do from re-reading material.
  4. Spread out your studying sessions in time, spacing them apart, rather than cramming.
  5. Teach your material to someone else. If you understand it well enough to teach it to someone else, that you will have mastery over that knowledge.

How does sleep (quality/amount) affect memory?

Sufficient sleep is critically important for memory for two reasons. One reason is that sleep is necessary to make memories more long-lasting, more immune to forgetting, through a process known as “consolidation.” The second reason is that your brain, like the muscles of your body, needs sufficient sleep to perform at its best. A good night’s sleep is essential for fine-tuned thinking, reasoning, learning, and remembering that are necessary for success in school.