Study hacks from TV and movies

Graphic showing symbols and quotes from Legally Blonde, Sherlock Holmes and Grey's Anatomy. In the top left, there is a note with the quote, "What, like it's hard?" beside a pair of heart-shaped sun glasses. In the top right, there is a stethoscope alongside a note that says, "Have some fire. Be unstoppable." In the bottom, there is a magnifying glass in front of a note that says, "Elementary, my dear Watson!"
From Hollywood to better grades, be a star student.


Listen time: 7 minutes 25 seconds

Reading time: 6 minutes 12 seconds

The class is full, yet so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Your head is leaning on your palm, elbow firmly placed on the desk, while you work through the exam. Turning a page of your midterm, you see this question:   

Define hippocampus and its role in the brain.

It’s you, the paper, the pen and whatever you’ve retained from pouring over your notes.

Can you answer the question?

Maybe you take a moment, try and connect the word hippocampus to some event or exposure you experienced in the past, like a conversation you had, or an image you’d seen. Or perhaps you panic, and your mind goes blank.

No need to worry, this isn’t a midterm and we’ll give you the answer. The hippocampus is the main structure in the brain tied to memory.

Your studies are likely giving you lots of new information to remember and techniques to master. With the help of SAIT academic coach Joe Hudson, we’re looking to big and silver screen favourites like Sherlock, the BBC’s mystery television series featuring the distinctive Benedict Cumberbatch, Legally Blonde, the popular romantic comedy that’s hard not to love, and Grey’s Anatomy, the drama that has had most of us hooked for 19 seasons, for practical ways to understand and digest course material to equip you for success.

Sherlock Holmes and the mind palace  

The what: making connections.

Sherlock’s friend Dr. Watson explains the concept of a mind palace in the episode, “The Hounds of Baskerville,” in the second series.  

“You plot out a map with a location — it doesn’t have to be a real place. And then you deposit memories there. Theoretically, you can never forget anything. All you have to do is find your way back to it,” he says.  

Joe’s take: connect, relate and associate.

In its simplest form, the mind palace’s goal is to build connections so the brain retains information, says Joe. But he suggests you don’t necessarily need to go with Sherlock’s exact method to remember class content, especially if that complicates matters for you.

When Joe was younger, he enjoyed working on BMX bikes, tearing them apart to build them back up again. Since he had vivid memories of bikes, it made sense to him to connect the different parts of a bike to the bureaucratic theory he was trying to learn, and doing so helped him explain the concepts more clearly in his work.

Study tip #1: Create an environment to make those connections.

Link the material you’re learning to things you understand well. It will also make studying more enjoyable. Combine that with a variety of memorization techniques, such as:

  • Group it! If you need to remember a variety of numbers or data, it might be easier to get that done in chunks. Remembering numbers 1 9 5 3 individually might feel more complex than grouping those digits into a year format, 1953.
  • Print it out and write it out. Researchers in Tokyo found higher brain activity in students that wrote things out instead of using computers or mobile devices. Writing by hand may actually get your brain to work harder, because it’s also trying to understand what you’ve put to paper.
  • Read it out loud. It’s an active measure that helps words become more memorable.

What the science says

When you learn, connections between neurons happen in the brain. The more connections you create increases redundancy, placing related data in multiple storage areas in your mind. It allows your brain to cross-reference data when posed a question and allows you to move from simply memorizing, to truly understanding. 

Legally Blonde and the Elle Woods technique

The what: set your intention.

“I’ll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be,” says main character Elle Woods, when questioned on her ability to succeed in law school. This scene shows a pivotal moment for her. No longer is she in law school to impress a former college boyfriend. Now she’s focused on understanding the class content to the best of her ability.

Joe’s take: Decide the why and the what.

Learning starts with intention. When you are in class, what are you trying to accomplish? What are you trying to do? Learning doesn’t just happen. You have to decide you want a specific outcome, he says. But how you get there is up to what works for you.

Study tip # 2: Set your plan, purpose and intention.

Elle Woods studies in multiple environments: the viewer sees her on the Stairmaster with her book and later at the nail salon where her friend quizzes her. She’s focused on absorbing the information and studying in environments she already enjoys.

What the science says

Intention is to the brain what a dumbbell can be for the bicep — it strengthens it.  Elle’s intent and desire to succeed is an example of self-directed neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to change in response to our behaviour.

Elle also gets active in her studying. Aerobic exercise — like a brisk walk, swimming, or a dance break — has been found to boost the size of the hippocampus too.

Grey’s Anatomy and the superhero pose

The what: get confident. 

This Grey’s Anatomy scene starts with doctor Amelia Shepherd in a five-minute superhero power pose before going to perform surgery. “Hold up your head, and enter the arena, and face the enemy,” she says. It’s followed by multiple scenes in the show where the characters stand in superhero poses before surgeries.  

Joe’s take: the heart of the matter is confidence.

Joe says the power pose is linked to a sense of confidence. Say you’re given a test with questions that are all about you. Easy, right? You’re likely not going to panic, because you’re confident. You know yourself well. You know that you know the answer. Joe says that you know what you know, so it’s about outlining what you still don’t know and creating a plan to get to that similar confidence of knowing.

Study tip #3: Get confident by knowing your course outline.

Make sure you can answer the who, what, where, why, how of every element in your course outline, and place a checkmark next to each class objective. This is a great way to identify all the gaps in your knowledge and highlight the content you need to focus on understanding better.

What the science says

A Harvard study related to power posing found it elevated testosterone, decreased cortisol and increased tolerance for risk. Essentially, pretending to be a superhero can go beyond simply the pretense and actually provide some psychological confidence to take more risk and make decisions with more certainty. In other words, it doesn’t hurt to stand tall before your test. You will be proud of your posture, and it just might help you define hippocampus on that test just a little better.

Learning Strategists

Time for Sherlock, Elle and Amelia to move aside — it’s your opportunity to be the star of midterm season.

Learning Strategists like Joe are available at SAIT to provide you with tips to ace your midterms. You can book an in-person or virtual appointment, or drop by the Lamb Learner Success Centre in the Stan Grad Centre. Consider registering for lunchtime workshops to understand the fundamentals of plagiarism, write exams like a pro, or find effective strategies to recover from your midterms.

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