Learning is the process of acquiring knowledge or information. It happens (ideally) when we're taught something, or teach ourselves something, or study/experience what we've been taught by others.
In college (really, in life) you need to retain much of the information you're learning so you can use it/retrieve it/perform it/etc. later. This is where the memory process comes in. One of the best ways to make college-level studying more effective is to understand and apply what's been researched and discovered about how humans learn most effectively, and retain information most effectively. So how do we make memory and transfer it from our short-term store to our long-term store?
Making a memory is a multi-step process that we engage in daily, whether or not we recognize it at the time. It takes being interested in what you're learning, seeing value in the material, committing attention to the information, making connections between it and what you may already know, and practicing what it is you've learned (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2019). This may sound like a lot, but you're doing it all the time! Think about it, and do a quick self-check — what are the things in your life that you've learned how to do, that you can do without thinking, that you know and can recall from memory? Maybe it's something to do with music, or the rules of a sport or game, or performing memorized lines in front of an audience, or riding a horse/bike/skateboard/etc. Making a peanut butter & jam sandwich. Frying an egg.
In each example you find for yourself, consider your interest, what you valued about learning said example, the attention you paid it, how you made connections between it and something else you knew, and the amount of practice you engaged in. Then, add to that the repetition you engaged in, which will happen naturally as you practice more and more. All of this combined is what helps you to learn and make memory that lasts.
And all of this takes time. Often we hear from students that they just don't have enough time. We know it's not uncommon for students to cram before an exam or test, rather than to distribute their practice over the course of days/weeks/months. And we've been there too — we've used the less-than-perfect approach of waiting until the last minute to prepare and then staying up all night to do so, cramming in half a term's worth of study and practice into a single eight-hour marathon study session. It's not great, it doesn't feel great, and it doesn't yield great long-term results. As they mention in their book, The New Science of Learning, Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek share that a person can actually remember quite a lot post-cram-sesh, for about 18 to 36 hours; within a week's worth of time, though, about 75% of that material will be lost (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2019).
AAACK! That's such a waste of energy! Because cramming takes a lot of energy, and deprives you of energy in the process. It's stressful, it often cuts your sleep-time down (which is when memory is being transferred from short term to long term, too), and all of this can further impact your ability to perform well on the test the next (or just later that) day.
And another thing: if you're enrolling in courses that are a part of a series, and you're relying on last-minute studying/cramming to prepare for your quizzes and exams, you're sabotaging your future self who will need to know and be able to use and refer back to these foundational ideas. So do what you can to start spreading your study out.
Officially, it's called distributing your practice. It's the idea that rather than studying eight or ten or fifteen hours in a single go, you'll break that study up into multiple two- or three-hour chunks. So in this example we're not saying study more hours, we're saying spread them out over the course of the week. Doing so allows you to forget what you've learned, and asks your brain to work at remembering it, which is just the kind of practice you want to be engaging in to create memories and to learn to retrieve the information when you need it (like on a test).
Here's how it could work (along with some ideas of different activities you might try, so you're learning and connecting and applying the content in different ways, too):
We know: change isn't easy. But if you're not currently distributing your practice, we encourage you to try. You can use a Weekly Calendar to get a feel for everything on your plate for the week, and how you might spread your study time out differently. If you want to chat with someone about it, come and see us, please! We love to talk about this stuff, and we work with students all the time to create study and learning plans that will work for them (and their memories): Waldo Hall 125 | Monday thru Friday | 9 AM to 5 PM. Swing on by, no appointment necessary.
To learn more about the important elements of the memory process, read through the following information about attention, encoding, and storing information, which provides the rationale for reading and note-taking strategies; all of 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?
Repetition. "Rehearsal" and "repetition" are both terms that refer to the act of practicing your recall of information. Quizzing yourself using flashcards and doing random practice problems until you can do them correctly are examples of repetition-based recall practice.
Elaboration. Elaboration is the process of connecting new information with prior information and looking for relationships between information. You can elaborate by thinking of examples of concepts, practicing explaining a concept to someone, or creating a summary based on your notes.
Organizational Schemas. Our brains are natural pattern seekers. Your brain will find it easier to remember information if you make associations or connections between ideas. These associations create a structure of knowledge for information which is easier to remember than random facts. Creating your own study guides, making a concept map, and comparing and contrasting ideas are examples of study techniques that fall into the category of organizational schemas. For example, you might think that Waldo Hall is a building at OSU (new information) that looks like a castle from the Harry Potter books/movies (stored information).
Multiple Modes. When you’re studying, you can create stronger memories if you engage your visual, auditory, and kinesthetic senses. Information stored using more than one "sensory mode" will be easier for you to remember and recall later (Cuseo, Fecas & Thompson, 2007).
Sleep & Breaks. Sleep is vital to the memory storage process because the transfer of information into long-term memory occurs during the REM stage of sleep (Sousa, 2001). If you want to engage in effective studying, your time spent studying needs to be spaced out over multiple sessions on different days, with periods of rest in between. Studying in shorter sessions with more breaks focuses your concentration and attention, both of which are important for encoding and storage.
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.
Now that you know more about the memory process, and you're thinking about how you're scheduling your time and what you're doing within that study time to learn your content, consider the below tools for new and effective study activities.
This is one of our favorite tools! Take a look at the learning & studying strategies below. Are you using more initial learning strategies, or review/self-test? Find some strategies in review/self-test you'd like to try, and bring them into your practice. Your memory will thank you!
If you're looking for even more active study strategies, check these ideas out. They'll help you to vary your practice and engage your brain to learn, remember, and be able to retrieve content. Find what you're not already using and try it out!