We (we, the world, not we Bell Curves – which is singular anyway but that’s another story) know more now than ever before about the workings of the human mind and memory, thanks to the field of cognitive neuroscience. What does this mean for you, you ask? These advances have very practical applications, especially for students who wish to improve the efficiency of their studying.Proactive and Retroactive Interference:
These are pretty technical terms, but their meanings are fairly simple. Proactive interference is what prevents you from learning or memorizing something, if you try to learn or memorize something else immediately afterwards (and retroactive interference is the reverse- actions before learning interfere with learning as well). You see, memories must be consolidated, meaning that, like Jell-O, they require a little time to settle and firm up. However, if you put whipped cream in the Jell-O bowl before it’s settled, it’s going to turn into a sloppy mess. The same is true for memories; If you study Spanish, and then study Italian immediately afterwards, the two will conflict, and you’ll remember neither very well. (Learn more about proactive and retroactive interference here.)
Don’t do stuff right after you study! When you turn on the TV right after hitting the books, you’re erasing all of your hard-earned memories. Take a little time after you study to do something which doesn’t require much in the way of mental processes, like taking a shower, cooking, or even taking a nap.
When you set aside time to study, make sure you set up that buffer zone. For ACT and GMAT students, this means giving yourself extra time after boning up on grammar rules or mathematical concepts. GRE students and SAT students alike should keep retroactive and proactive interference in mind while learning vocabulary, as well. My favorite candidates for vocabulary time are while you eat breakfast, and right before you go to sleep.
Remember, if your activities before or after studying wipe out what you learned, you just wasted your time. The buffer zone may seem like idle time, but it’s actually an efficient use of it. Study hard, but also study smart!
Good luck and let us know if you have any questions about this or any other related topic, we love to help and to discuss testing, learning and education.