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The Brain : Learning and Memory
CHAPTER 3. FACTORS AFFECTING LEARNING Overstretched students often rely on the time-saving strategy of cramming for exams, but the science says this study technique is highly flawed. Many experiments have shown that ‘spacing’, which involves spreading study sessions apart, leads to far superior results when it comes to long-term retention. In fact, one 2009 study found that spaced learning was more effective than cramming for 90% of participants. Memories fluctuate according to changes in the strength of connections – synapses – between neurons. These can be made stronger or weaker depending on when and how often they are activated, meaning that a memory can be reinforced or forgotten. The more these synapses are activated, the more likely the information will be retained, which explains why revision of previously Is cramming worth it? studied material is preferable to learning it for the first time en masse before an exam. Last-minute cramming usually goes hand-in-hand with stress and a lack of sleep, both of which can hinder learning retention. Sleep is thought to be involved in creating long-term memories by consolidation; deprivation leads to decreased activity in the hippocampus and poorer recall of ‘declarative’ memories, which are about facts and events. In a study of high-school students, UCLA researchers found that sacrificing sleep for extra study time was counterproductive and resulted in increased academic problems the following day. HOW DEVICES AFFECT SLEEP A large body of evidence now shows that the blue light emitted by smartphones, tablets and computers suppresses melatonin production, meaning that using these devices at night can interfere with the body’s natural sleep cycles. Sleep is known to be important for learning – it’s crucial for consolidating long- term memories. Missing out on sleep can also impair attention and short-term memory. The teenage brain is particularly sensitive to the effects of blue light. That’s why experts now recommend that teenagers should avoid late-night use of devices that emit blue light if they want to get enough sleep. THE UPSIDE OF STRESS AND CONFUSION YOU’RE MORE LIKELY to remember something you’ve learned if you have an emotional attachment to it. This happens because the amygdala boosts memory by enhancing attention and perception. It can also help memory retention by triggering the release of stress hormones. QBI researchers have discovered that bad experiences automatically enhance memory formation about places and may serve as a cue to avoiding potential threats. Conversely, too much stress can overwhelm, cause anxiety and impair memory – but research has found that the right amount can optimise alertness and cognitive performance. Surprisingly, even confusion can be beneficial to learning. Research has shown that being confused about new ideas or a situation can spur us to work harder to understand, leading to a deeper grasp and better retention of what we have learned.