Learning is the process of acquiring knowledge or information. You also need to retain the information to use it at a future time, and that is where the memory process comes in. One of the best ways to make college-level studying more effective is to understand and apply information about how we as humans learn and store information in our memory. The information below about attention, encoding, and storing information provides the rationale for reading and note-taking strategies; this information also can help you assess if you’re preparing for exams in an effective way.
Information enters our brains through sensory receptors that hold onto that information for mere seconds. Although thousands of bits of information come at us at once through our eyes, ears, touch, and other senses, our brains filters and selects things for us to pay attention to. When you consciously pay attention to something (a sign, a sound, where you put your keys) this means your brain receives that information and it is consciously perceived. That conscious perception is the first step of the memory process.
Once we have perceived information, we move that information into either (a) our short-term/immediate memory which lasts for only a few seconds (e.g., a phone number you are trying to remember for a few seconds) or (b) "working" memory which can hold more information for longer, but only if you’re actively working with it (e.g., the numbers from a math problem that you’re talking through with a study group). Working memory can really only hold information for 10-20 minutes (Sousa, 2001), and can only hold 5-9 pieces of information at a time. That is why it is so important to take deliberate efforts to move information from your short-term memory into your long-term memory through storage.
The act of moving information from short-term to long-term memory can be done in a variety of ways. Learning information initially is critical, but you must also find ways to organize information based on meaning and store that information into long-term memory for later retrieval (Sousa, 2001). “Going over” a reading will not store that information in a way that allows you to retrieve the information later. So, what WILL enable your brain to store information in long-term memory?
The ability to retrieve information when you want to (e.g., on an exam) is a product of many factors. How you pay attention and how you encode and store the information play a big role in whether or not you’ll remember the information later. Research on the science of forgetting suggests that regular review of information is important in order to store that information in your long-term memory for later retrieval. Spitzer (1939) examined rates of forgetting textbook material and found that from the time of first learning information from a textbook, we forget almost 50% of information within one day, and up to 80% of the information within 2 weeks.
Since you are likely to forget information unless you use or revisit the information regularly, you'll need top plan each week for time practicing retrieval of previously stored information. You can do this by focusing not just on new information you're learning each week (in lectures, reading, etc.) but by focusing time on reviewing material from previous weeks. By using repetition/practice and elaboration, you can make connections between the previous information and the new information you're learning. Monitoring learning and taking time to test your knowledge and recall are important ways that you can assess if you are well-prepared for an exam or need to spend additional time studying.