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Preserving Your Brain Over Break

If your school is like most, you'll be going to winter break soon. And unless you're in a year-long research or project course, you probably don't have any academic work to do for most of that break. How should you keep your brain active and not be a pile of mush when classes resume in January? Here's a couple tips from personal use.

For Facts, Figures, and Specific Techniques
 
If you have specific bits of knowledge you want to retain and use, for spring classes or the future, use Spaced Repetition. This is a scientifically-organized flashcard technique, optimized to bring information back around at the best intervals to reinforce your memory. There are a couple brands of software that will do the timing for you. Anki is the largest one, with many sets of cards in common subjects already in their online database.
I've found the best results with the Anki review as part of the morning routine, either on the smartphone app just after waking up, or right after morning coffee. But any place it's part of your routine works. Do you commute by bus? Use the smartphone app on the bus. Rushed morning routine? Try it in the evening. As long as you're making space regularly every day, it will work just fine.

For General Subject Knowledge
For things that can't be easily turned into the bite-sized chunks you need for flashcards, try anyway. Complicated concepts can often be broken into several pieces, and attempts to memorize those pieces until they're second nature builds up deeper understanding than you would normally expect.
However, if you can't or don't want to, anything else that makes the subject part of your automatic daily routine will work well. Studies of psychology have found that if you want to train your habits effectively, it has to take a minimum of mental effort to execute the habit, so make the timing automatic. Specific suggestions:
  • Keep your textbooks and answer a few questions each morning after breakfast; say your answers out loud and write them down, before checking them against any solutions, if there are any.
  • If you want to practice writing, write a small amount every evening before going to sleep. If you time this regularly, it's also a good way to get a regular amount of sleep; most people build up sleep debt during classes, and getting good nights' sleep over break will make you much more effective later.
  • Some subjects have websites which provide daily questions by email. See if you can find anything like this and sign up for it.
 
For Creativity
As a fun, non-academic way to keep your brain active: play games and puzzles, especially ones you've never played before. Creativity studies have found that the process of learning new rules and finding patterns is an excellent way to practice the skill of finding new ways to connect information, which is extremely useful in applying and relating what you've learned.