One of our favorite academic techniques requires nothing more than pencil and paper. It’s called a “brain dump,” and it’s one of the simplest ways to test your knowledge and one of the most powerful ways to study. To do a brain dump on a particular topic, just pull out a blank sheet of paper and write down everything you can remember about the subject.
If this sounds a lot like mental recall practice, that’s because it is. But brain dumps are even more powerful because you’re writing. By writing, you’ll remember more of what you know because you’ll be lightening your cognitive load as you write. And by writing, you’ll be creating more motivation for your brain to remember what you’re working on because writing is hard work; it convinces the brain to care.
In doing a brain dump, you have options:
- Write a bullet-point list
- Create an outline with a logical organization
- Create a mind-map or diagram
- Write an explanatory paragraph or mini-lecture on the topic
Here are some examples:
- For a test on the physics of light waves, you could write out every fact and equation you can remember, diagram the electromagnetic spectrum, and explain the Doppler Effect using a drawing.
- For a test on the French Revolution, you could write a short overview, outline the key topics, describe the key figures, and create a timeline.
- For a test on the parts of a cell, you could draw a cell, draw as many organelles as you can remember, and label them with descriptions of their functions.
- For a test on Lord of the Flies, you could write your own Sparknotes-style summary, name and describe all the key characters, and discuss the book’s themes.
- For a test on quadratics, you could draw out examples of different parabolas and their corresponding equations, write down the three types of quadratic equations and what they’re used for, explain or give formulas for concepts like “line of symmetry,” “vertex,” “discriminant,” and “zeros,” and work through some example problems that you create yourself.
Make no mistake, brain dumps are hard, but that’s why they work.
You might set a timer for five or ten minutes to make the task brief and finite. You can write for longer than that if you’d like, but setting a timer will help you overcome any emotional resistance you have to starting the task.
Also, it’s rare to do just one round of brain dumping and call it good. Usually the first round goes very poorly and is somewhat painful. Then you write your wrongs and fill in the gaps using your notes or a textbook. Later, you try again.
About the Author
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.