How to improve concentration

Advice from a memory expert

You're staring at the page, but nothing is going in. You need to learn this information, but you can't seem to put your mind to it. Here are some ways to study smarter, not harder.

Learning how your brain retains information could be the key to keeping you focused during your next free period. Sharon Tindall-Ford is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Wollongong and has spent the past 30 years studying human memory. She explains that our memories have three components: sensory, short term and long-term

"Your sensory memory is where the information you first see or hear enters your brain. It’s then transferred to your short-term or working memory, where the mental work is done. The problem is that working memory is very limited in capacity and duration. It can only hold about five bits of information at one time for roughly 20 seconds,” she says.

On the other hand, our long-term memory may be limitless. Everything we know about everything is held there. Studying helps transfer the information from our short-term to long-term memory. This is how we learn and remember information,she adds.

Associate Professor Tindall-Ford is an expert in cognitive load theory, which explores how the brain processes information. 

“The problem is that once information enters our working memory, we have a very short time to use it, or it gets lost. But if we use the information, consciously think about it and connect it back to things we already have in our long-term memory, we build schemas. These are like spiderwebs of information on a specific topic," she continues.

To ensure the brain can make the connections and transfer information, we need to manage the load on our working memory 

Five tips to improve your concentration during your next study session.  

Break it down 

One of the easiest ways to manage the load on our working memory is to focus on a single task, topic, or piece of information at a time, Associate Professor Tindall-Ford says. 

"Don't try and learn big chunks of information all at once. Instead, break it down into smaller bits. Read it, write it down, and think about it. Then, use the information and link it to what you already know. This way, you're going to embed it and build a bigger schema in your long-term memory so that you can use it later," she says.

Limit distractions 

While you may feel that you work better while listening to music or sitting in a café, this isn't always the case. Associate Professor Tindall-Ford says external distractions add to our limited working memory as our brain can only process one thing at a time. This is especially noticeable while learning something new.

"Think about when you were first learning to drive. It can be hard to focus on the road while talking to someone in the passenger's seat. It's only once driving becomes automated that we can multitask," she says.

The same goes for studying. A good rule of thumb when learning something new or challenging is to switch off the music and remove yourself from distractions. You can then save the tunes for the tasks where you're on autopilot. 

Take a break

When your concentration starts to wobble, Associate Professor Tindall-Ford says the best thing to do is take a break. 

"Short, sharp, productive time at work is much better than sitting there for hours on end, she says.

"Your brain gets tired, just like your muscles when you exercise for a long time. Your working memory needs a break. Take the information out of your brain by writing a list of key points, and then take a time out. This puts the load onto an external source, which you can return to after you’ve had a rest.”

A hand holding a pen, writing in a notebook. They have a grey sleeve and a coffee cup on the table. The best thing to do when you feel your concentration starting to waver is to stop and take a break. 

Don't split your attention 

Focusing on one thing at a time is essential for an effective study session, but how we study can impact our working memory too. 

"Splitting your attention between your computer and a textbook can strain your working memory. For example, if you have notes on your computer and are reading a textbook. Your brain is trying to flick between the two sources, and pulling this information together is difficult. Splitting your attention puts a load on your small working memory and limits the learning capacity,she says.

Instead, pick one medium to learn from at a time.

The perfect formula 

The formula for the perfect study session will look different for everyone, but there are rules of thumb we can take from cognitive load theory 

"Firstly, write down everything you know about the topic from your long-term memory. A mind map can be helpful for this. Then aim to link the new information to what you already know on the mind map," she says. 

The vital ingredient is actively using the new information and connecting it to what you already know. This is also why your teachers encourage you to practice questions without your notes; it helps identify gaps in your long-term memory

"Once you finish your practice questions, go back to your textbook. Look at the information you remembered, the stuff you forgot, and how to solve the problem. This will help you build new information and create bigger knowledge schemas in your long-term memory."