Mad Scientist’s Apprentice: Sticky Data

In honor of my physics exam today, here are ten  eleven helpful tips and tricks to study by. As I am a non-traditional student – read that as: Old and sludgy-brained – I have learned some things by experience that I have been able to pass on to classmates, and now to you.

  1. Don’t procrastinate: cramming does not actually help you retain material. Very few people in this world have an eidetic memory, where they can see something once and remember it.
  2. Frequent repetition: Looking at the material daily, even for a brief time, will make the memory stronger than once, right before the exam.
  3. Kinetic learning: work the problems. I use a big whiteboard on my office wall to make the process of working through equations feel real, and I can step back and try to visualize how they need to flow – or where I screwed up.
  4. Group Study: and I mean study, not making out or getting falling-down drunk. Especially if you are all working on the same problem, having someone to look at your paper and say ‘hey, you added the wrong columns, there’ is really helpful.
  5. Don’t memorize: yes, sometimes that is what you must do, and for those occasions, flashcards. But most of the time it is so much better to learn why something works that way, focusing on the foundation knowledge of what fuels the Krebs cycle, for instance. This allows you to work out problems rather than cold-memorizing static answers.
  6. Make it sticky: personally, I’m not fond of mnemonics. But I know they work for a lot of people. I prefer to attach my trivial data to more data, or to jokes. Laughter is a great way to make data sticky*.
  7. Get some rest: don’t stay up until 2 am, crash for three hours, and go to the exam hopped up on energy drinks and, um, protein bars (yes, yes, they are an essential part of college life, but…)
  8. Eat well: have a full breakfast, not a cup of yogurt. Protein, fats, all these goodies fuel your brain, and you’re going to be working out, just mental rather than physical. Ever wonder why you feel like you’ve been beaten with a stick when you walk out of an exam? It’s still a stressful event, prepare your body for it.
  9. Stop studying: right before the test, give yourself a break. Don’t cram up until the professor asks for clear desks. If it’s possible, get outside and get some fresh air. Listen to a song. Take deep breaths.
  10. Don’t Quit: all too often, I’ve lost a few points on a test by getting to the end, getting up, handing it in and walking out. Instead, I’ve learned to force myself to put my pencil down, take a deep breath, and go over the test again from beginning to end. Especially on a scantron form, missing one question early on can throw off the whole exam.
  11. Don’t second-guess yourself: if it looked right to begin with, go for it.

*Sticky Data is the stuff you remember. Keep in mind your brain is bombarded with data every single second. Just the skin alone sends input of hot/cold, there’s a draft, and then the stomach chimes in with ‘feed me’ and the professor is droning on and it’s a miracle you remember your own name, really. But if you can think of your brain as a sieve, it’s very efficient at sorting through the data you need, and the stuff you don’t need. You don’t need to know the room you are in is a comfortable temperature. But if it suddenly becomes very cold, you’ll notice. The trick to memory is making the data you need sticky, so it catches in that sieve long enough to access it later. One way to do this is by accessing that memory often, like how to spell sieve. I spell it often enough in this paragraph and maybe next time I need it, I’ll remember to spell it with the i before the e. Other ways to make data sticky are to set it to music, or to make it funny. Or both!