• Seven ways to get your BSA
    (Binding study advice)

    This is how you study

    Studying is a precise science. Here are seven scientifically proven tips that can help you to breeze through your exams and get your BSA.

Let me guess: you probably go to sleep quite late, most likely after 12 a.m. And if no one kicks you out of bed, you also wake up pretty late, perhaps after 12 p.m. That makes sense because between the ages of 16 and 21, your biological clock is the most out of sync with ‘normal’ people (read: the instructors that want you to show up on time in the lecture hall). This is why many high schoolers and university students walk around with a kind of permanent jetlag.

      That’s not great, not to mention the fact that sleep deprivation (yes, even an hour) makes you hungrier and can cause you to eat more carbohydrates and fat, increases your chances of having a traffic accident, makes you emotionally unstable and interferes with the functioning of around 700 genes which could put you at risk of physical problems.

      Getting enough sleep is essential to being able to study effectively. While you sleep, you form long-term memories and improve your concentration. If you sleep around seven to eight hours a night, you are able to learn more in less time, according to RUG sleep researcher Thomas Kantermann.

 But what about the biological clock? You can reset it, says Kantermann, or at least adjust it. You can do that by exposing yourself to bright light as soon as you get up in the morning. This activates your brain. In other words, open your curtains or go outside.

 In the evening, you should do exactly the opposite. Light some candles or dim the lights. It’s also extremely important to avoid computers, tablets and telephones. The energy-rich blue light from these devices keeps you awake and does not allow your body to produce enough of the sleep hormone melatonin, which prevents you from becoming sleepy.

If you really can’t avoid working behind the screen in the evening, download the free programme F. Lux. It’s a background application which allows the colour of your computer display to adapt to its surroundings, thus providing dimmed light in the evening. Production of melatonin has a better chance to work, and therefore you sleep better. 


Bright light not only wakes you up. It also makes you more alert and better able to concentrate.

      Around fifteen years ago, scientists discovered that your retina isn’t only used for perception. It also contains so-called melanopsin, which contains ganglion cells. When these detect light, they activate the parts of the brain which control alertness and cognition. In other words, they make you sharper and make it easier to concentrate. 

      You can put your melanopsin cells to work yourself by looking for energy-rich light while you are studying, says chronobiologist Marijke Gordijn. Choose a well-lit area next to a window (the cheap option) or use an energy lamp (the slightly more expensive option). But keep in mind that some bright light sources give off unhealthy rays, such as the midday sun. But the more light there is, the more active your brain is.

      The exact amount of light you need and whether its effect lessens after a period of time is not yet known. But it is certainly a fact that it works. Educational expert Peter Sleegers from the University of Twente carried out research about it in primary schools. The concentration of children rose by 18 per cent when the teacher in the classroom turned on special energy-rich lamps. How great the effect on adults is is not yet clear, but there is no doubt about whether or not it works. But Gordijn begs you not to do it in the evening (see tip 1).

Have you ever drunk energy drinks while studying or snacked on a Mars bar because you felt tired? You probably noticed that you got a little boost, but after that was over, you just felt extra tired. So, don’t do it. 

      That dip arises because energy drinks and chocolate are full of simple sugars which have a high glycemic response. Your blood sugar rises quickly and that makes you more alert, but as soon as the glucose is gone, your blood sugar takes a dive and you become sluggish. What’s more, due to the quick response of insulin, many sugars are stored which can affect your weight. 

      It is a better idea to eat foods with complex carbohydrates, such as whole wheat bread or pasta, vegetables and fruit, according to diet expert Roel Vonk from the RUG. These carbohydrates are gradually broken down, allowing your body to work on the same amount of fuel without having dips. In short: bring sandwiches and an apple to the canteen.

      And don’t forget breakfast. It ensures that your short-term memory functions better. Furthermore, it keeps you from hanging around the canteen where you could be tempted by a candy bar, which would just start the vicious cycle all over again.
There is a reason why the university has so many coffee machines in the canteens. Caffeine not only keeps you awake, it also improves your ability to concentrate. And that’s pretty handy if you’re hitting the books or need to be able to follow a lecture.

      That is because caffeine is pretty similar to the neurotransmitter adenosine, a substance that connects to the neurons in the brain and causes you to feel relaxed or sleepy. Caffeine takes the place of adenosine, thus keeping the sleepiness at bay.

      It doesn’t do any damage, says RUG psychologist Monicque Lorist. But you definitely notice when you’ve drunk too much coffee, which can make you feel nervous or shaky.

      It is also not very clever to smoke when drinking coffee: this causes the caffeine to break down rapidly. What is clever is to listen to upbeat, lively music while drinking coffee. Those who listen to upbeat music experience the world in a more positive way, which is also helpful if you’re studying. It emerged from a recent study by the Lorist group that caffeine actually intensifies that effect.

    • In other words, take notes with a pen and paper, not on your laptop. Yes, that could mean that you end up with a sore wrist. But it really is worth the trouble. Why?

      Hand-written notes stick in your head longer, according to a study by Princeton University published in Psychological Science. This is because you type quicker than you can write and you end up typing what the teacher literally says, whereas when you write with pen and paper, you are forced to summarise and use key words. Writing makes you reflect on the subject material during the lecture.

      But there’s more to it than that. Laptops in the lecture hall also mean that you are more likely to go on Facebook or play games. Students also multitask, and that means that they perform worse, which can mean at the end of the day that students are less satisfied with the education they are receiving.

      With that in mind, RUG film history instructors Julian Hanich and Annelies van Noortwijk banned laptops and cell phones during their lectures last year. How did that go over? ‘Students are more focused and participate more’, says Hanich. The evaluation from the education committee was also positive. Hanich will thus carry it out this year too, ‘[i]n order to create an atmosphere which is more focused for students as well as teachers’, he says.
Studying makes you tired. Processing information requires energy and you can only function optimally for a limited time. Luckily, there’s a trick to get you back up-to-speed. Every now and then, simply look at a plant. It doesn’t even have to be a real one: a photo will do, too.

      According to RUG professor Agnes van den Berg, students and high school pupils perform better when there are plants in the room or lecture hall. They also attain higher scores on cognitive tasks. The greatest effect – an improvement of ten to fifteen per cent – can also be achieved if you are stressed.

      Why is that? The prevailing Attention Restoration Theory (ART) proposes that plants effortlessly attract our attention. As a result, attention span is more easily restored and there’s more room for reflection.

      Why plants have this effect isn’t very clear. It probably has something to do with evolution: it is possible that we are automatically drawn to plants because our species developed in natural surroundings.

      Van den Berg herself is of the opinion that our brains more easily process the geometrical information patterns of plants. But the fact that these patterns – so-called fractal shapes – are so easily processed is also likely connected to evolution. Whichever way you look at it: be kind to your inner primeval self and you will both profit.
    • While you're at it, you may as well add some norepinephrine. Dopamine and norepinephrine are neurotransmitters which are released in your brain when you move. They make you feel happier, but they also prevent you from becoming quickly distracted.

      A group of education experts and sport scientists from the RUG researched how exercise helps with learning. During a maths or language lesson at school, the researchers had primary school children jump around next to their desk for twenty minutes. What did they find? The children that had these Fit and Skilled lessons scored considerably better on the CITO test (high school placement exam).

      This approach works best for knowledge which has to be automated, such as when memorising formulas or learning words, says Esther Hartman from the sport science department.

      Hartman thinks that the production of dopamine is just one of the explanations. Movement causes the brain to process information in two ways: the movement supports thinking, and there is also a more long-term effect. Through exercise you become fitter, which improves the blood circulation in the brain: new neurons and extra connections are made. You can also accomplish this just by regularly exercising.

      But there’s another way to learn that is even better, Hartman says. When you’re not simply jumping up and down but doing something more complicated, like juggling for example, you learn better in theory. This is due to the connection which is made with the prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain where you learn, make decisions and where emotions are controlled – and the cerebellum, which is needed for control of your motor skills. This connection could possibly result in better performance during studying. Hartman doesn’t know this yet for certain, but the research is in the pipeline.