Improving Academic Performance

Brain Rules: 6 Ways to Improve Brain Function

Posted by Lisa Alvarado on Tue, Mar 14, 2017 @ 10:00 AM

In Brain Rules, John Medina, a molecular biologist and student of the brain, dissects the way our brains work, providing practical tips and advice for how to harness your brain’s ability to learn and grow to be more successful in every avenue of life from school to work and more.  

Oftentimes, students feel that the only way they can improve academically or enhance their performance on exams is by taking an expensive course or hiring a tutor, someone else to teach them. While seeking-out academic help is certainly important and can help you make great strides, there are many things you can do on your own to improve your brain function and ability to better comprehend and recall information.


Overtime, human’s brains have evolved as a survival mechanism from initially being used for necessities such as breathing and keeping us alive to a brain ideal for dissecting complex subjects and problem solving.

Humans’ ability to relate to each other became our chief survival tool. By building relationships and creating alliances with others we are best able to learn, grow and problem solve. The same way that humans in the past worked together to survive the environment and a changing ecological landscape, today those same relationships serve us both at school and in the workplace.

In our learning environments relationships are equally as important. How many times has a teacher or professor you perceive as being condescending led you to clam up and not seek out help. Under such a circumstance the student does not feel trust, but rather judgement and isolation. Obviously, this is not the ideal scenario for a productive learning environment. When choosing a private tutor or even study partner, you must feel comfortable, you’ll be unable to work successfully with someone who makes you feel self-conscious or insecure


Male and female brains are different. Even something as simple as our gender can affect the ways we process information. Anatomically, male and female brains are different. Due to the different make-up of their brains men and women process information differently. Men tend to take in information and get the gist of it, while women are more inclined to recall more details about any given subject.

On the surface, this may not have much to do with learning and retention, but students can put this knowledge to great use. We all recognize that over the course of our educational careers we have a greater affinity for certain professors or instructors over others. Think back to your favorite teacher, was she a big picture type of instructor or did she use plenty of details to paint a picture of the course material? In general, when reading a passage or watching a presentation, are you more likely to recall the main idea of the reading or do certain descriptive details stays with you? By recognizing how you absorb and retain information you can become more efficient while studying.


Once you recognize the ways you absorb information you can work on methods to help you retain this information.

We forget much of what we hear within 30 seconds if it’s not repeated. Therefore, it’s imperative to repeat the information in a variety of ways to remember it. This could be as simple as hearing a phone number and repeating it to ourselves over and over until we can jot it down, this goes into our short-term memory. We are essentially encoding the information in our brains to be retrieved later. If we no longer need the information, its purged from our brain. The more intricately we encode information the better it will be remembered. During infancy and childhood, we often learn songs or chants to remember parts of our body, manners, multiplication tables etc. As we grew we began to employ mnemonic devices to help us remember things like the order of operations when working an algebra problem. These mechanisms are more elaborate tools used to help us encode data into our brains. Eventually, if we repeat information long enough and consistently, we can commit it to our long-term memory. But, this takes much more time, sometimes as long as years. It’s said that information learned in the first grade is not completely formed until your sophomore year of high school! Use tools such as repetition and mnemonic devices to help you retain information.


Our bodies were built to handle stress for short periods of time, as we encounter obstacles which will heighten our stress only so long as we problem solve to find a solution. The human brain and body are not built to endure on-going or chronic stress and eventually this type of stress can have a dangerous impact on our brains leading to such serious health events as cardiac arrest, stroke or damage to the hippocampus region of the brain leading to memory problems.

Outside of chronic stress, there are forms of emotional stress which can leave you feeling hopeless when things are beyond your control. This type of stress hampers out ability to learn or perform at work. Take measures to keep your stress levels in check, it is hard enough to study and retain information when we are in the right frame of mind. It can prove almost impossible to concentrate when we are under a lot of stress. How can we limit stress? By being vigilant about those things we do have control over. Don’t procrastinate, when we wait until the last minute to cram for a test or pull an all-nighter to complete an assignment we are not only putting ourselves under emotional stress but our bodies under physical stress, this includes a lack of sleep or poor eating habits as we skip meals or fill up on junk and caffeine as we try to power through cram sessions.


Vision trumps all our other senses, we remember most, what we see. If you hear a piece of information, 3 days later you will only remember 10% of it. If you are introduced to that information with an accompanying picture, 3 days later you will remember 65% of it! It’s as if our brain takes a snap-shot of the picture and stores it, allowing us to recall the information we have associated with the picture.

How do we incorporate this into our studying and retaining of information? When taking notes incorporate more diagrams and flow charts, whenever possible use a picture representation of an event or process. This way, when studying you can quickly pick out visual cues to help jog your memory about the subject matter.