Did you know there’s research on how people learn, study, and retain information effectively? There are multiple areas of science (cognition, education, development, etc.) that actually research how people can best remember things for both short term memory (taking the test and forgetting it) and for long term retention (actually remembering material beyond the exam). Here’s a list of the top 10 study strategies according to science, in no particular order.
1. Spaced Practice. Let’s imagine you want to play in the NBA Finals. You want to win that coveted championship like Lebron James, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Would you only practice for 8 hours the day before the first game and then show up to play? No! You would not be prepared and you wouldn’t last long on the court. Same goes for studying. If you only cram the night before, you’re not really learning the information. Sure you might be able to pass the class, or make it limping through Game 1, but you don’t really know the information, you won’t win the whole championship.
Think about it, how many times have you crammed the night before, then went into the test, maybe even did well, but walked out not remembering a single thing you learned? I did this a lot in college! I had to relearn everything when I got to grad school. Don’t be like me.
Space out your studying over time to avoid this. Study for 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week instead of right before the exam. Don’t have enough time for 20 minutes a day? Try 10 minutes a day. Go over what you learned in class for 2 minutes after class each day. The length of time isn’t completely the point (though at least 10 minutes is best to focus). Studying for just 10 minutes a day, 5-6 days per week, will help you learn information infinitely better than wasting 8 hours the night before the exam. It also can save you a lot of time.
Once I learned this strategy, I gained my nights and weekends back. I fit studying into a 9-5 schedule (not really 9-5, I was still in college and had a job, but during what I labeled my “business hours”), then I could be free to do whatever else I wanted after. It can save you time, and helps your brain process information better. I’ll spare you the details, but to consolidate information from short term (where cramming stores information) to long term (true learning) memory you need to practice with that information over and over. Spacing out your studying over time forces you to retrieve the information multiple times thus consolidating that information into your long term memory where you want it.
2. Retrieval Practice. Spaced practice forces you to retrieve information over and over again to store it in long term memory. This act of retrieving the information is what scientists call retrieval practice. Just like NBA players need to practice consistently building muscle memory to help win championships, so do great learners. We need to build the brain connections from the information to retrieving that information that makes it easy to recall. Imagine you are trying to remember a phone number or bank account, and alast you have nothing to write it down with. What do you do? You rehearse it over and over again until either you know it by heart or find something to write it down. This is retrieval practice. You are retrieving that information from your short term memory repeatedly until you can consolidate it to your long term memory.
We want to do this with studying. When I was in college, I remember a specific study session
where I bravely started trying to do practice questions rather than just re-reading my notes and the book. I hated it! It made me so vulnerable and scared that I wouldn’t remember stuff. And guess what, I didn’t remember everything. I thought it was proof that I was stupid and didn’t belong in college. Now that I’ve learned so much about learning, I can easily see that this is not being stupid or not cut out for college at all, but is actually just the process of memory! This is when little failures teach us what we do and do not know. This is when we learn what we still need to study and what we can simply review to make sure it stays in long term memory.
Retrieve information from your brain without assistance. There are three different types of retrieval you can practice: free recall, cued recall, and recognition. Free recall is when you have to pull the information out of your brain with no cues or identifying information. This is like an essay question response or fill in the blank response on an exam. This is the best way to study as you will truly have to know information without context prompting you to recall. Next is cued recall where you have some assisted information (cues) to help you. This is multiple choice, or true/false questions. You have the question stem (the actual question itself) to prompt you in case you forget. Lastly is recognition. This is when you have to just recognize information from a list or paragraph. This is what happens when you read your textbook or notes again. You’re recognizing the information so it makes sense, but not truly retrieving it like in free or cued recall. This is why re-reading notes and the book is an ineffective way to study.
3. Summarizing. Summarizing activates retrieval systems in our brain. You have to use a form of free recall (or cued recall) to put information into your own words. When I started the practice quizzes for the first time, I also tried this method. I hated this one too. I would read and read and then try to summarize what I learned. I struggled. I couldn’t put it in my words. Now as a professor I can tell when students struggle with this as well because their definitions or summaries will so closely match the book I can tell they don’t truly understand. If you can’t summarize it in your own words, you don’t understand it. That is why it was so hard and why I hated it so much. I just wanted to understand the first time. But again, that’s not how learning works.
Instead of getting it right the first time, every time, try summarizing each section of a book or article you read before moving on to another. If you can’t state it in your own words, read it again until you can. If you still find yourself still struggling with the reading, Google it! Look for videos or blogs that talk about the content you are studying. Look for the information framed in a different manner. Try summarizing that. Keep going until you can finally summarize it in your own words. At this point, you know and understand the information and can work on retrieval practice to move it into long term memory.
4. Teaching/Discussing. Teaching has been hailed as the leading way to learn information. I, myself, have said this a million times. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to learn information all on its own though. The reason teaching works so well is that you are combining multiple of the top study strategies at once. You have to summarize information, sometimes you have to summarize it in multiple ways if students (or your friends/study group members) aren’t quite understanding the way you are phrasing it. You have to find examples and maybe more than one example. Teaching also involves constant retrieval practice and spaced practice if you’re teaching at more than one time.
If college students are students and not teachers, how do college students find ways to teach information? Great question! You can use study groups as a way to teach others. Study groups are great because you can teach part of the class content when you know it and ask others to teach you in a different way when you don’t understand something. If you can’t do a study group though, what do you do? Discuss the information with someone. If you have a supportive friend or family member that can listen to you drone on about your classes, do that! If not, then find another way. Discuss it aloud with yourself. Record yourself talking about it. Make a YouTube video about course concepts. Make a TikTok series about it. It doesn’t matter how you talk about it, just start talking outloud.
5. Interleaving. Interleaving is a fancy word for studying more than one thing at a time. Research has found that if you mix up (interleave) multiple subjects in one study session, your brain stays awake and attune to information and consolidates it to memory better. Try studying for one class for 10 minutes, then switching to another class. Mix these up for however long your study session lasts. When I tell this tactic to students, I’m often met with hesitation. Students don’t like mixing up different classes. It works because we cannot learn when we are not paying attention (there’s even a fancy phrase “we cannot learn to that which we do not attend” in learning science circles). Our brains can only pay attention for a max of 10 minutes. This is why you find yourself daydreaming or scrolling through social media when studying too long. Switching subjects tricks your brain into waking back up and paying attention again. If you’re too afraid to switch full subjects/classes, then try just switching up concepts or chapters for the same class.
6. Elaborative Rehearsal. Your brain is composed of 100 billion neurons. All of these neurons form connections with each other over time to help you access stored information. The more often you use the same connection the easier it is to retrieve. You can train your brain to form these connections through your experience or studying, this is called neuroplasticity. The beauty of neuroplasticity and connections among neurons, is this helps you learn and retain information, and it can be hacked to help you learn faster. See connections are like routes you take to get to school. The more often you take the same route to school, the less you have to think about it. You can start thinking about what you want to eat or when you want to work out later and not pay attention to the road or directions. Come on, you know you’ve gotten to school and were afraid by not remembering the drive from time to time.
Your brain works like this too. The more often you retrieve information the more those connections are solidified and the less you have to do to recall that information. This is actually the crux behind retrieval practice and spaced practice. To learn faster all you have to do is connect new information to these existing routes. Let’s imagine you’re trying to find a new restaurant. If you know it’s right next to school, it’ll be much easier for you to navigate. You won’t need as much mental energy or even your GPS since you have a point of reference already. Studying is the same, ff you connect new information to what you already know (past experience, past course content, etc.) then you can hijack an existing connection (route) and use that to retrieve the information. Now instead of taking the time to form a new connection, you attach to an existing one and save a whole load of time.
7. Chunking. If you've ever played scrabble you might have poured out all your letter tiles and then arranged them on your board in new formations that could potentially spell words. This is chunking. Taking information that can be grouped together (consanant and vowel tiles) and putting them together to remember them more efficiently.
Memory research shows that if you chunk information together, it becomes easier to remember. For example, try remembering the following letters NBAFBICIA. I’ll give you a second. Ok, now write them down. How’d you remember them? Most people given this string of letters, chunks it into three letter strings NBA FBI CIA. Now it’s easier to remember for two reasons: (1) you’re only recalling three things instead of nine and (2) it’s now connected to things you already know (elaborative rehearsal). This is what we do to remember phone numbers, XXX-XXX-XXXX is chunked from 10 numbers to three sets of numbers. Bank accounts, social security numbers, and license plate numbers all follow this as well.
It’s easy to chunk random letters or numbers though, how do we do this with studying complex content. Chunking is what we are doing when we use acronyms (HOMES for the Great Lakes Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior) or made up phrases (Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally for Parentheses Exponents Multiplication Division Addition Subtraction in math) or even making associations between specific content and broader themes (think about how we classify animals and plants in biology).
8. Focused Study. Earlier I mentioned how our brains can only focus for about 10 minutes at a time. When studying you want to make sure your focus is on the material you are learning and nothing else. Eliminate distractions. A recent study found that if you have your phone near you, even if it’s on silent or vibrate, you recall less than if your phone is in a completely different room. Make sure your study environment is conducive to studying and limits the amount of time you can be distracted. To do this, make sure you’re studying for short bursts of time with breaks in between. This is called a Pomodoro method and is a fav among writers. There are websites and apps that help you use this technique. Currently, I am using both an online timer and an hourglass on my desk to time this writing session. When my 20 minutes of allotted writing time is done, I have another time set for a 10 minute break where I usually scroll through Twitter or TikTok.
This can also be done with accountability partners for added benefit. I have Pomodoro groups where either we log on to the same website and work together and it’s enough just to know someone else is working. Or I have some groups where we log on to Zoom, turn off our cameras and audio and just work together. Having a set time and other people to show up with motivates me to get started, and getting started is the hardest part.
9. Metacognition. How do you study best? When do you know what you know for sure and what you still need to study? Why did you get that grade on a test? How could you have studied better? Did you miss that test question because it was a bad question, because you didn’t study that content, or because you weren’t paying enough attention? How can you make your study environment better and more effective for you?
These are all questions related to metacognition. Metacognition, generally, is the awareness of your thought processes and the way you think. When studying it relates to being aware of your thought process, behaviors, and actions surrounding studying and evaluating how to make those more effective. Being aware of how you think and process information can inform how you study. If you struggle putting things into your own words, you can study by summarizing more to practice that skill. If you are great at multiple choice, you can review information in a more cued recall manner. Metacognition not only helps you understand your own thought processes but helps relate how you study to the format of the test. How you study for multiple choice (cued recall) will be different than how you study for essay tests (free recall) and knowing how and when to study in different ways is key.
Evaluate how you learn, how you are studying, and even how you are performing on tests and assignments. Think about what you did that worked, what you did that didn’t work, and how you can improve in the future.
10. Health. Learning does not happen in environments where physical or mental health are neglected. Our physical and mental health must be as good as we can get them to truly learn. Have you ever tried to study when you haven’t slept for a while? When you’re hungry? Or when you just went through a huge breakup? It’s impossible. This is because our brains are devoted to another process and cannot sustain their attention on the information we are trying to learn. All research on learning shows that getting adequate sleep, eating (mostly) healthy, exercising, engaging in mindfulness or meditation, and generally taking care of ourselves increases memory, learning, and school performance. This is difficult in college when work, school, and social schedules are the most intense they will ever be in your life. Make yourself a priority and all other aspects of your life (even beyond school) will be better for it.