Nan Austin

The brain’s guide to studying, a student’s tips on acing it

Ceres High senior Eva Borden relaxes between studying and a raft of extracurricular activities in dance, church and student leadership.
Ceres High senior Eva Borden relaxes between studying and a raft of extracurricular activities in dance, church and student leadership. Eva Borden

The brain, it turns out, is a soft, lumpy and fairly squishy 3-pound lump with definite opinions on how it likes to study. With testing time and finals on the horizon, students might get some use out of knowing their cerebral partner’s predilections.

But before turning to the science behind stoking study payoff, I asked a high-performing, doing-it-all teen to connect how efficient studying works in the real world (see brain science tip 5).

Ceres High senior Eva Borden – Class of 2017 president, dance teacher at Footnotes Dance Studio, youth club president at the Greek Orthodox Church in Modesto – is one of the top students and teachers we reached out to while compiling the Education Summit tab that will plop on doorsteps Sunday.

The section includes the program for the free “Innovate, Educate, Celebrate” event at the Gallo Center for the Arts at 6 p.m. Feb. 8, put on by The Modesto Bee and Stanislaus Community Foundation. Reserve a free seat at

Borden’s advice for fellow student studiers:

1. Manage your time. Don’t allow yourself to drown in assignments, essays and homework. Plan ahead and know what works for you and your daily routine.

2. Learn how to balance your time in a way that still allows you to enjoy everything high school has to offer. Join clubs, go to school events, and spend time with your friends and family; they will relieve the stress and pressure you may face in the classroom.

3. Most importantly, have a clear image of what you are working toward and do not stop until you reach it. All the hard work will be worth it when you reach the end.

Now the brain’s perspective, through the lens of two professors studying how we create and retain knowledge. Megan Smith of Rhode Island College and Yana Weinstein of the University of Massachusetts Lowell celebrate the one-year anniversary of their Twitter feed, @AceThatTest, and website,, in a blog post from Jan. 26.

“We are also both deeply passionate about education, and want the science of learning to have a positive impact on education in any way that it can,” they wrote.

In service to that end, The Learning Scientists list six key strategies to get the brain in gear.

1. Space out studying over time. The iconic all-nighter does not work nearly as well as a daily review – no surprise there. But this tip includes leaving time between the lecture and reviewing class notes. Let it sink in. Also, refer back to previous class notes while reviewing. That now and later shifting better cements the information.

2. Practice without materials. Staring at the same textbook passage or same page of notes is less efficient than writing a summary without notes and checking for mistakes afterward. Retrieving information from memory works different brain muscles.

3. Elaborate. In this context, the idea is to expand the lesson, making connections between what was taught before, how it applies to real life scenarios and asking questions on what else is interesting about the topic. Think study group with curious people and a pizza break.

4. Switch between topics. Interleaving is the buzz word, the idea that variety is the spice of studying as well as life. Linking theories learned in one class to topics covered in another make both easier to remember and better understood. But even shifting between math and history homework helps.

5. Use specific examples to grasp abstract ideas. The Common Core focus on tying lessons to real-life scenarios aims to do this – theory is great, but the light bulbs go on when we get how that actually works. (See Borden tips for studying above).

6. Combine words and visuals: Photos, videos, cartoons and graphs all draw the eye and spring to mind when trying to remember. It is the key advantage of online texts, which tend to be highly visual. But words can paint pictures, too.

In the Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling used amusing details to make her characters concrete and unforgettable. Instead of saying Harry’s uncle was a grumpy guy, she reintroduces him in the second book like this: “ ‘Do I look stupid?’ snarled Uncle Vernon, a bit of fried egg dangling from his bushy mustache.” Mental snapshot: click.

So, brains tickled pink. Study life in order. Time to grab those A’s and amaze a few teachers.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin