Don’t Let Your Brain Interfere With Your Studying

By Will Compton

“For every credit hour you’re enrolled in, you should be spending two or three hours studying outside of the classroom”.

Sheesh, what a nightmarish sentence. Yet, it’s a sentence that most college students have heard before. Speaking from the experience of a junior, I can say with confidence that studying can be cumbersome at any stage of your college career. This is especially true if you have trouble keeping all the information straight in your head. When we’re studying a wealth of information and subjects within close proximity of each other, we tend to experience interference – an incident in which information hinders the recollection of conceptually similar information. There are two types of interference. In proactive interference, previously learned information impedes the retention of new information. In retroactive interference, new information impedes the recall of old information.

Let me help you out with a few tips to avoid this nagging interference.

Ditch Distractions!

Some researchers conducted a study in which some participants were given a single task, while other were given a secondary task to simultaneously complete. It was found that those who were given a secondary task to complete (along with a primary task) experienced greater proactive interference when tested after the fact (1). This is due to the fact that, when studying the given material, they were under the attentional load of a second task. Therefore, the competing materials weren’t distinguished from one another.

What does all this psychological jargon really mean? Well, it means you’re more vulnerable to that pesky proactive interference when your attention is divided. For all you multitaskers, then, the research suggests you should stop! It’s in your best interest to focus on the task at hand when you study; don’t try to study while also completing an assignment, talking with a friend, or watching television. And, of course, maintain focus when you’re testing, as well. When trying to remember information during a test, any competing information must be actively suppressed (1). Don’t let your mind wander!

Split Subjects!

Does the term Noisy Context Hypothesis mean anything to you? It should! The hypothesis states that people are generally able to recall target information, but some extra information is unintentionally remembered, as well. Since there’s some uncertainty regarding which information is the target information, the person casts a wider net (so to speak) to make sure the important information is included. Information studied soon before or after the target information will be included in the net, as will information that is closely related to the target information (2).

This means that both retroactive and proactive interference can be reduced if the subjects you’re studying are significantly different from one another, and if they are not studied back-to-back. So, all you hardcore studiers, don’t study back-to-back for two classes of the same subject. For example, don’t study for two different psychology tests within the same night (not that I’m speaking from experience, of course). Otherwise, you could get the information all mixed up! When you’re doing a lot of studying in a short period of time, be sure to study conceptually different subjects.

A lengthy, intensive study session may do more harm than help.

Quick Quizzes!

We students are so susceptible to information overload! But, if you try to memorize all of it within a single study session, proactive interference will quickly build up. That is, older information will interfere with your remembering the newer information. Testing yourself on certain subjects throughout your studying can help to inhibit this interference (3). Doing intermittent tests helps to, in a way, separate the information within your mind and distinguish materials from each other. More specifically, the information is better encoded in your brain. Then, when you’re taking a test, the net that you send out for information (like we talked about earlier) is a lot smaller (3).

This reduction of interference can’t be achieved by simply studying the materials over and over again. Personally, I test myself during study by using Quizlet. However, I can’t recommend using the tests that are already on there; instead, create your own tests on Quizlet. It’s super easy and quick, and it guarantees that you’re being tested on the information you really need.

Important Information!

Another study was done that looked at the Coherence Principle. This term simply means that people learn better when unnecessary information is removed from a lesson. After all, if a student doesn’t understand how something is related to what they’re supposed to know, the extra information will only interfere with their memory (it certainly won’t help!).  In the study at hand, participants were given a model of a hydraulic braking system; some were given just this, but others were given two additional models that were conceptually related.  The people given only the one model performed much better, because they had no competing information (4).

Extra materials are only helpful if you have a strong understanding of how they’re related to the important material; if you can’t adequately explain their significance, do away with them! We’re already weighed down with information overload; if there is trivial information in a lesson, or unnecessary visuals or models on a professor’s PowerPoint slides, don’t attempt to incorporate them into your studying routine!

Sweet Sleep!

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: sleep is important! In fact, it can reduce both retroactive and proactive interference. As you’ve probably learned by now, interference is related to retrieval. Memories which are linked to the same cue compete for recall. To counteract this, sleep stabilizes individual memories; basically, it distinguishes memories from others. This makes them less susceptible to interference from other memories (5). As you can probably imagine, this could really come in handy when preparing for a test. Better yet, not only can sleep reduce interference – it can even eliminate it!

This means a couple of things. First, don’t pull an all-nighter before a test; those hours of sleep are crucial to preventing interference from all the information you’ve had to study. Secondly, this point about sleeping reinforces the suggestion that you not study similar subjects back-to-back. Instead, split up the subjects by a day, with adequate sleep in-between. This will guarantee that all the information is stabilized in your memory, distinct from any other memories you’ll produce from more studying.

Don’t discount the benefits of a good night’s sleep.

No doubt, the idea of studying is still daunting. It’s the most crucial part of doing well in college, and so it will always be a little intimidating. Still, these few tips will help your study sessions to be more worthwhile. Once you happen to reduce (or even eliminate) interference, I think you’ll see that what you study really sticks with you. It will all be worth it once you see those improved test grades!

(1) Kane, M. J., & Engle, R. W. (2000). Working-memory capacity, proactive interference, and divided attention: Limits on long-term memory retrieval. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, And Cognition26(2), 336-358. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.26.2.336

(2) Unsworth, N., Brewer, G. A., & Spillers, G. J. (2013). Focusing the search: proactive and retroactive interference and the dynamics of free recall. Journal Of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory, And Cognition39(6), 1742-1756. doi:10.1037/a0033743

(3) Szpunar, K. K., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger III, H. L. (2008). Testing During Study Insulates Against the Buildup of Proactive Interference. Journal Of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory & Cognition34(6), 1392-1399. doi:10.1037/a0013082

(4) Mayer, R. E., DeLeeuw, K. E., & Ayres, P. (2007). Creating retroactive and proactive interference in multimedia learning. Applied Cognitive Psychology21(6), 795-809.

(5) Abel, M., & Bäuml, K. T. (2014). Sleep can reduce proactive interference. Memory22(4), 332-339. doi:10.1080/09658211.2013.785570



6 Replies to “Don’t Let Your Brain Interfere With Your Studying”

  1. I like how you talk about splitting up subjects when studying for tests. I sometimes wait till a couple days to begin studying for tests and then I end up mixing up the information. I notice when I wait till the last minute to study, I seem to get more distracted and can’t focus on what I am studying. T.V. tends to be my biggest distraction at night because I get bored with studying and begin focusing more on the t.v. than what I really should be studying. Another thing I like that you mentioned is about quick quizzes. I need to create quizzes on Quizlet more because they are very helpful. You are right about the quizzes that are already created are not always very accurate as to what you are learning about. Quizlet is very easy to use and it shows you very quickly what you need to spend more time learning about. Your study tips are well written and helpful with finals approaching soon!

  2. Great post! Perhaps we should start listening to our professors when they tell us that cramming is bad and to put our phones away! Did you find any research supporting the idea of associating specific information with specific stimuli (like music) to avoid interference?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Cory! I didn’t find studies that specifically mentioned benefits of music (or any other such stimuli). However, I did learn that it greatly reduces interference if context during encoding and retrieval are alike. This point was kept general and vague in the literature, but I would assume it could apply to what types of stimuli are present at encoding and retrieval. But, good luck finding a way to listen to music during an exam!

  3. Haha! I’ll do my best to sneak in my music! It’s interesting that context can play such a role in memory. I would think that it merely adds more cues for recall, but I’m sure there’s more to it than that.

    1. Cory and Will–
      See your classmates’ posts about these two topics:
      -music and studying (Marissa)
      -encoding specificity and context-dependent memory (Ashley)

      They hold the answers you both seek 🙂

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