Study Techniques for Long-term Retention

Learning Objectives

  • Identify study techniques that help long-term retention of knowledge

The following are additional study techniques you can use to work your brain; raise your grades; perform well on assignments; and, most importantly, learn deeply.

Prioritize Learning Materials

Whether you take one or more than one class, it’s simply impossible to retain every single particle of information you encounter in a textbook or lecture. And, instructors don’t generally give open-book exams or allow their students to preview the quizzes or tests ahead of time. So, how can you decide what to study and know what to know? The answer is to prioritize what you’re trying to learn and memorize, rather than trying to tackle all of it. Below are some strategies to help you do this.

  • Think about concepts rather than facts: From time to time, you’ll need to memorize cold, hard facts—like a list of math equations or a vocabulary list in a Spanish class. Most of the time, though, instructors will care much more that you are learning about the key concepts in a subject or course—i.e., how photosynthesis works, how to write a thesis statement, the causes of the French Revolution, and so on. For example, Jennifer might have been more successful with her studying—and felt better about it—if she had focused on the important historical developments (the big ideas) discussed in class, as opposed to trying to memorize a long list of dates and facts. Depending on the discipline being studied, it’s also important to have examples that illustrate the concepts. For example, in explaining the causes of the French Revolution, we might invoke the idea of a regressive tax system in explaining how social and economic inequality increased. An example of a regressive tax system would be one in which the more money you make, the lower your tax rate. Can you see how such a system would increase economic inequality? If Tonika is taxed 10% on her $1,000 per year salary and Melanie is taxed 1% on her $100,000 per year salary, then although Melanie pays more money into taxes than Tonika ($1,000 vs $100); that $100 for Tonika will have much more drastic consequences on her ability to buy essentials (food, housing, etc). In contrast, $1,000 is a drop in the bucket for Melanie. Thus, an example of a regressive tax system can help us better understand how regressive tax systems could further exacerbate economic inequality (which was one of the key causes of the French Revolution).
  • Take cues from your instructor: Pay attention to what your instructor writes on the board or includes in study guides and handouts. Although these words may be short—just a list of words and phrases, say—they are likely core concepts that you’ll want to focus on. Also, instructors tend to refer to important concepts repeatedly during class, and they may even tell you what’s important to know before an exam or other assessment.
  • Look for key terms: Textbooks will often put key terms in bold or italics. These terms and their definitions are usually important and can help you remember larger concepts.
  • Use summaries: Textbooks often have summaries or study guides at the end of each chapter. These summaries are a good way to check in and see whether you grasp the main elements of the reading. If no summary is available, try to write your own—you’ll learn much more by writing about what you read than by reading alone.
  • Plan your learning: Set realistic goals and prioritize your studying by surveying your syllabus, reviewing material, and identifying the most important topics covered in the class, or areas you’re struggling with.

Make Connections to Commit Information to Your Long-term Memory

  • Connect new information to old information: Take stock of what you already know—information that’s already stored in long-term memory—and use it as a foundation for learning newer information. It’s easier to remember new information if you can connect it to old information or to a familiar frame of reference.
  • Consider real-world applications: Use what you are learning when tackling real world events or problems, or consider real-world applications of what you’re learning. Reflect on how the skills and knowledge you are building can be used beyond college. This reflection creates more pathways in your brain and can help keep you motivated.
  • Create association maps: Mind maps and concept maps can lead to meaningful learning, as they force you to reorganize and make sense of the information. Redo your notes as a diagram or as a concept map.
  • Make connections to other courses you’re taking or to your life: What you’re learning ideally applies to the real world. Make connections between course concepts, other courses, and real-world situations. If you’re having trouble understanding something, ask yourself how these concepts apply to your life.

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More Study Tips

  • Engage in metacognition by monitoring your learning: Self-monitoring your learning includes evaluating, planning, and reflecting on your learning strategies and approaches. Reflecting on what you’ve done helps you see the value of certain strategies that leverage your strengths and improve your weaknesses. It also increases your sense of control over outcomes.
  • Seek specific and meaningful feedback: Ask for and use feedback from instructors, teaching assistants, and peers to adjust your learning and studying techniques. This advice can help you avoid studying and working very hard without results.
  • Chunk the information you’re studying: With chunking, you break the concept you’re struggling with into smaller pieces, and sort those pieces by theme. Focus on understanding these chunks and they’ll be much easier to digest. Test yourself five to fifteen minutes later. Mind maps and visual note-taking can help with chunking.
  • Reduce bias by asking questions: Check your thinking by asking questions about what you’re learning. What’s being said? Who is saying it? Why are they saying it? Who else says this? What do I believe? Why do I believe it? What’s missing? Asking good questions helps you solve problems, make thoughtful decisions, and think creatively.

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Memory also relies on effective studying behaviors, like choosing where you study, how you study, and with whom you study. The following video provides specific studying strategies that can improve your memory.

You can view the transcript for “‘Studying Advice: Tips for College Students’’s Student Video” here (opens in new window).