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How to Improve Memory Retention for Exam Day

by Team Nuggets
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Published on September 30, 2019

Memorization is paramount for excelling during IT exams. For instance, you need to memorize the most common ports for the CompTIA Network+ Certification exam. Memorizing WiFi speeds and connector types is a critical part of the Network+ exam.

Struggling to memorize all these key terms and concepts can be frustrating. And, let's be honest, most IT certifications require a lot of memorization, not just Network+.

Fortunately, there are science-based principles you can adopt to boost your memory retention. The network samurai must train diligently with good rest, low stress, a little caffeine and a lot of focus. While you're at it, you might as well put the phone away for a while. Here are a few tips that you can use while studying for your next IT certification exam.

What is Memory Consolidation?

Our brains are made up of cells called neurons that communicate with each other. To form a memory, our brain sends signals in a particular pattern to create connections between neurons. These connections are called synapses.

Although we form memories while we are awake, they are actually crystallized in our minds when we are resting. Each night, when we are asleep, our brains commit our newly formed memories to long-term memory in a process called memory consolidation. Thanks to memory consolidation, our memories are stronger after a night's sleep. This is also why not sleeping enough can lead to memory problems — in addition to a host of other physical and mood-related ailments.

When studying for IT certification exams, you may feel overwhelmed by the amount of minutiae you must commit to memory. You need to allot time and patience to the exam preparation process in order to work with your brain's natural wiring to get the most out of your study sessions and ace the exam. Let's explore a few science-backed ways to boost memory retention and trounce your next IT exam.

Eat a "Memory-Friendly" Diet

According to Harvard Medical School, eating the right foods can enhance your memory function. Science shows that the same unhealthy low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol that can clog arteries and damage the heart can also have harmful effects on the brain.

In a study conducted at Brigham and Women's Hospital, participants who ate a diet high in saturated fat (red meat, butter, etc.) performed more poorly on tests of memory and cognition than participants who ate a diet low in saturated fat. Based on this study, the researchers recommended a diet high in healthy unsaturated fats, such as those in olive oil, fish, and nuts. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil promote blood vessel health. Plus, these foods will leave you feeling full and give you the energy you need to tackle exam preparation.

Evidence also suggests that an anti-inflammatory diet can boost memory. Anti-inflammatory foods include fruits, vegetables, lean protein, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats. A recent UCLA study found that curcumin, an antioxidant compound found in the turmeric spice, can improve memory and mood. Antioxidants help reduce levels of toxic free radicals in the body and promote memory, as well as overall health.

Finally, reducing your sugar intake can boost memory. Research indicates that those who routinely eat lots of added sugar may have poorer memories and lower brain volume than those who eat less sugar.

The bottom line: A diet high in healthy unsaturated fats and anti-inflammatory foods, and low in sugars and saturated fats not only improves memory but overall health to boot. You may find that opting for a memory-friendly diet boosts your retention leading up to exams. An added bonus is that your concentration and mood will likely be improved due to the effects of a diet that stabilizes your blood sugar and energy levels.

Give up Multitasking

You're studying for an exam, with your cell phone by your side and you receive a text from a friend. It may seem logical to kill two birds with one stone and distract yourself by replying to your friend. However, you're bucking science and reducing your memory retention capabilities.

According to research by Stanford University, people who use many different kinds of media at once, or are heavy media multitaskers, perform worse on simple tasks testing memory than those who do not multitask. The hard truth is that distractions interfere with the memory consolidation process.

So, next time you are studying, take a break from your cell phone. Set a timer on your phone and dedicate that time solely to studying. Better yet, put your cell phone out of view, in a drawer or your bag. Any interruptions or distractions can be dealt with after you are done with your dedicated exam prep time.

Get More (Better) Sleep

Neuropsychologists believe that memories are first stored as short-term memories, and then minted into longer-term memories during sleep. Typically, it is thought that this occurs during the latter phases of sleep, such as slow-wave sleep (the third phase). Slow-wave sleep typically occurs 45 minutes into falling asleep, but you cycle through the different phases of sleep many times each night. This is why you need to make sure to get at least seven hours of sleep per night. Sufficient sleep enables your body and mind to experience all of the phases of the sleep cycle for proper memory consolidation.

Build out a long-term study plan that enables you to sleep at least seven to eight hours a night. This will help you with memory consolidation when memorizing the specifics of IT certification exams.

Drink Coffee Strategically

Recent research revealed that strategic use of caffeine can be useful for memory enhancement. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that caffeine enhances memories and reduces the tendency to forget things. Participants in one study were given caffeine tablets equivalent to a cup of coffee after studying a series of images. The participants were better at distinguishing these images from similar images the next day.

Caffeine consumption has also been shown to improve explicit memory tasks (such as memorizing facts) among college students in the morning. However, If you rely on caffeine to help you study, remember to limit your consumption to no more than 400 milligrams – or about four cups of coffee each day. Too much caffeine can result in restlessness, which will impact your ability to sleep.

If you are a coffee drinker, you don't need to give up your coffee habit to soar through IT certification exams. However, for the best sleep quality, drink coffee early in the day, and switch to tea (preferably decaf) or water in the evening.

Cut Down on Alcohol

It's widely known that drinking alcohol can affect short-term memory, and, over time, significant alcohol use can cause long-term memory problems as well. Harvard Medical School research indicates that heavy drinkers not only experience memory problems, but also experience shrinkage of the hippocampus – the area of the brain that deals with memory.

Resist the temptation to unwind with a drink after a long day of studying. Opt, instead, for healthier coping mechanisms such as exercise or medication. If you need to indulge, treat yourself to your favorite meal or dessert. But, again, skip that beer or glass of wine.

Get More Exercise

According to research out of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, exercising increases the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which can help your neurons function optimally. Harvard Medical School reports that you begin to reap the memory benefits of exercise six months after starting a regular exercise program.

Exercise can be a great stress-reliever during what can otherwise be a frenzied, stressful time of IT exam preparations. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes, or 2.5 hours, of exercise each week. You can choose to exercise in short bursts throughout the day or in larger chunks a few times a week. Either way, your brain cells and body benefit tremendously and exercise will help you stay healthy and sane during your test prep.

Finally, Don't Stress Too Much

Stress elevates levels of the hormone cortisol, which interferes with memory consolidation and can have a host of other harmful effects on the body. Next time you're feeling stressed, watch a funny movie, listen to music, take a nap, play with a pet, meditate, or engage in another fun, stress-busting activity.

Stress can interfere with memory consolidation and hamper your concentration. Let's be honest, studying for any exam can be stressful, especially as testing day looms. It's important to develop healthy coping mechanisms to deal with prep process. Examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms for stress include alcohol and drug use, while healthy ones include regular exercise, counseling, meditation, and yoga.

Final Thoughts

Passing IT certification exams requires you to memorize a lot of key terms and concepts. As a result, you need to take deliberate steps to make sure your brain is ready for the tasks ahead. From getting more rest to choosing your beverages more carefully, you can boost your memory retention — and your odds of earning that IT certification. Get ready for your exam with CBT Nuggets today!


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