Short- and Long-Term Memory

Learning Objectives

  • Differentiate between short-term and long-term memory, and describe the role of each in effective studying

Sometimes students will feel confident understanding new material they just learned. Then, weeks later before an exam, they find that they can only remember what the instructor covered during the last few days—the earlier material has vanished from the mind! What happened? Chances are that they didn’t consistently and regularly review the material, and what they initially learned never made it to long-term memory.

Research indicates that people forget 80 percent of what they learn only a day later.[1] This statistic may not sound very encouraging, given all that you’re expected to learn and remember as a college student. Really, though, it points to the importance of a different studying approach—besides waiting until the night before a final exam to review a semester’s worth of readings and notes. When you learn something new, the goal is to “lock it in” and move it from short-term memory, where it starts out, to long-term memory, where it can be accessed much later (like at the end of the semester or maybe years from now). Below are some strategies for transferring short-term memory to long-term memory:

  • Start reviewing new material immediately: Remember that people typically forget a significant amount of new information not too long after learning it. As a student, you can benefit from starting to study new material right away. If you’re introduced to new concepts in class, for example, don’t wait to start reviewing your notes and doing the related reading assignments—the sooner the better.
  • Study frequently for shorter periods of time: Once information becomes a part of long-term memory, you’re more likely to remember it. If you want to improve the odds of recalling course material by the time of an exam (or a future class, say), try reviewing it a little bit every day. Building up your knowledge and recall this way can also help you avoid needing to “cram” and feeling overwhelmed by everything you’ve may have forgotten.
  • Use repetition: This strategy is linked to studying material frequently for shorter periods of time. You may not remember when or how you learned skills like riding a bike or tying your shoes. Mastery came with practice, and at some point the skills became second nature. Academic learning is no different: If you spend enough time with important course concepts and practice them often, you will know them in the same way you know how to ride a bike—almost without thinking about them.

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  1. Student Counseling Service. "Long and Short Term Memory." The University of Chicago. 2016. Web. 10 Feb 2016.