I get a lot of students asking me for advice on how to change their study habits to fight brain fog*. It’s no easy task and often feels like a lose-lose situation. Pain medication might make you feel sleepy and out of it. Pain itself is distracting and takes up a good portion of your mental effort. Add brain fog to that mix and retaining large quantities of complex information is quite a task.
I’ve shared these tips with an anon ask in the past, but it’s appropriate to include them in my College and Chronic Illness series. Plus, I’ve updated my list. Enjoy!
- Color Coded— Writing the main concepts, theories, formulas, whatever, in a bright color (or multiple colors) helps me recall the content later (especially helpful for those of you who tend to have a photographic memory). Color coding your content with various colored pens works too.
- Highlight, Highlight, Highlight— Even if the entire 12 page section has to be highlighted, do it. This can help you track where you are when you’re reading, while also forcing you to pay attention to exactly what you’re highlighting.
- Write— If you’re a flashcard person, perfect. If not, writing out study content onto sheets of paper (copying notes, concepts, whatever) at least five times can help with retaining information and preventing memory lapses. It’s not particularly easy on the hands, but absolutely worth it if it works for you. If typing the information and then highlighting it after it’s printed, that might be a better alternative if you struggle to write like I do.
- Try Study Groups— if you are in the process of figuring out which study habits work best for you, try getting a group of people together to study. If you don’t have any friends learning the same content, send out a mass email to your class and see who’d like to get together or if study groups have already formed. Great way to meet new people and motivate and help each other get through difficult content.
- Repeat, Vocalize— Repeating terms and study content aloud allows you to hear it, focus on it, and remember it. It’s a great way to study.
- Have someone quiz you— When you get the answer wrong, have the person quizzing you repeat the correct answer to you twice. Then, start from the beginning each time you get wrong. This forces you to go back over all the ones you already got correct (reinforcing them) AND the ones you got wrong. Keep doing this until you get past the one you got wrong. This is hands down the best method I’ve utilized to study and it really works well.
- Acronyms— I think this speaks for itself.
- Method of Loci— Method of what? MOL: a metacognitive technique/mnemonc strategy in learning; based on the idea that you can best remember places that one is familiar with. If one links something worth remembering with a familiar place, the location will act as a clue to help trigger the memory. As LupineLady put it, “you picture a room you know really well, and attach pieces of information to each thing in the room.” You can read more about how to use this technique here.
Time Management— This is probably the most important tip of all. Instead of cramming four chapter’s worth of information into your brain the two days before the exam, start a week (or more ) in advance and take in information slowly. Then, the two days prior to your exam should be reviewing the entire four chapters and focusing on any content you found particularly difficult to retain.
- 10/20, 20/40— Study 20 minutes, then take a 10 minute brain-break OR study 40 minutes, then take a 20 minute brain-break. Break your study periods up into blocks. This gives you brain a break and you avoid the brain drain of studying without breaks for an hour+. Play around with what time increments work best for you.
- The Feynman Technique — a technique that helps you pinpoint exactly what you are struggling to understand or remember about a specific concept and make your study habit(s) more efficient. Simple and so effective. Here’s a PDF file with instructions for those who don’t want a video (the video is not too long & is better).
- Study Stress Free— Okay, maybe stress-free isn’t realistic, but being in the right frame of mind helps. If you cannot force yourself out of bed, if you’re in agony or you know it isn’t going to happen— don’t force it. That said, plan ahead so you don’t end up without the option of not forcing it…avoid cram sessions unless it works for you.
- Prep Your Study Space— Do you like to study with music? Make a playlist. Do you like a candle lit? Snacks? Prep your environment. If you need to take pain medication in order to be able to study, take meds 30 minutes (or however long they take to work) prior to your set study time. Have some ice packs or your heating pad ready.
- Avoid Social Media Distraction— Get off of facebook, twitter, instagram, Reddit, whatever your weakness is. If you know you lack the self control to put these away, use a program that limits your internet access for a period of time. If you know you won’t be able to study if you have access to the internet, use a program that limits your access (google to find ones that work for Mac and PC).
- Create a Physically Comfortable Work Area— Do you have a comfortable desk chair to sit in? Large space to spread your materials out? Curling up in a corner on the floor? Find/create your ideal study work area. When you are less distracted by physical pain (amplified by uncomfortable seating), you’re more likely to focus and have one less thing keeping you from studying.
- Good Eats— Gum, mints, trail mix, fruit, etc. Healthy snacks are a great way to gain some nutritional value. Do not forget to take breaks to eat actual meals. Use dinner and lunch as a study break. Cook a healthy meal, enjoy it, and give your brain some fuel and a rest.
- Stay Hydrated— this is paramount, especially for those of you inhaling massive amounts of caffeine to combat the fatigue (Starbucks espresso shot & 5 hour energy users, I am speaking to you). Drink a LOT of water while you study and don’t drink yourself into a caffeine crash. FYI: two Monster energy drinks have over FOURTEEN soda can’s worth of caffeine. Think about that and then think about your heart rate before you open up another can.
- Utilize Outside Resources— I use Khan Academy to review (and sometimes learn…) course content. I find the interactive step by step videos to be easier than learning a concept from a textbook. KA is totally free and the concepts are explained correctly and quite simply. You can review a video as many times as you want at your own pace. Definitely something to hold onto whether you’re fighting the fog or not, for everything from stats to American History. If you are struggling with a particular concept, go ask your professor, TA, or find free tutoring on campus (it’s there, you just have to find it). Google the concept or find online interactive tools. Another good one for technical concepts (math, formula/calculation work) is Wolfram Alpha, the Computational Knowledge Engine. Find someone who will walk you through the basics and will work with your foggy brain and…
- Don’t Be Embarrassed! Even people without brain fog go to tutoring and need concepts broken down. So what if we need them broken down a little more? So what if we need to re-learn basics again? So what if we forget basic algebra because our brains function in slow-motion? Who cares? Remember that this education is for YOU. YOU are earning your degree and anyone who looks down upon you for going at your own pace is not someone whose opinions you should take to heart anyway! “It does not matter how slow you go, so long as you do not stop.”
These are great tips for students regardless of whether or not one is dealing with brain fog, but for those of us who are struggling to fight the fog, it’s crucial we adapt our study habits to our bodies. I will add to this as I find more study strategies. Feel free to leave your comments, feedback, and/or any suggestions you have for others in the Disqus box!
*Please note that brain fog is not being tired, worn out, or “studied out.” It is cognitive dysfunction as a result of very serious disease(s). Please click & read this follow up to learn how not to use this term and how “fatigue” is defined here on Chronic Curve.
College & Chronic Illness: Surviving Finals Week
College & Chronic Illness: Professor Etiquette
College & Chronic Illness: Chronic Curve’s Study Space