Research on learning and memory has shown that the best way to process and retain information is by ensuring that you get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis; studying consistently over time instead of cramming; and using deep processing strategies as you study. 

 A good night’s sleep

Trading sleep for study time is self-sabotage. Undergraduate students need 8.5-9 hours of sleep per night for effective memory.  A good night’s sleep also enhances concentration, problem-solving ability, reaction time, mood, and general health, which all contribute to the higher grades earned by students who get the recommended amount of sleep. It is especially important that you sleep well on the night before your exams, so stop studying early in the evening to give yourself time to wind down. Note: Naps don’t count!

 Consistent studying: Review early and often

It is common for students to learn something in lecture, and then put their notes away until just before their exam several weeks later, or to read and highlight a chapter but never come back to it until just before the test. 

The graph below plots amount of material retained over time. As the solid black Curve of Forgetting shows, by not reviewing the material, these students forget half of what they learned within a day, and almost all of it by the time they study for the exam. Then they expect themselves to relearn it all in a day or two under conditions of stress and sleep deprivation. How can that possibly work? And why bother to make the effort to learn the information in the first place if you are not taking measures to make sure you don’t forget it? Don’t be that student.

A graph showing that almost all material is forgotten after 30 days..

Instead, be the student on the dotted line curve. The student who knows that in order to move information from short-term to long term memory, you need to review it within 24 hours, and who makes sure to review the same material regularly, every week or so, throughout the term, in order to retain it. No time, you say? As the dotted line curve shows, the more you review, the more familiar you become with the material, so the less time each review session takes. It might end up taking you just a few minutes to review a whole chapter. 

Text description of Curve of Forgetting graphic 

The graph illustrates how long information is retained after how much time, and how this retention can be extended by regular review. 

The solid line shows a steep decline in the amount of material retained, from about 30% after Day 2 to about 5% after Day 30. 

The dotted line shows that by reviewing for 10 minutes on day two, decreasing review time to about 5 minutes by day 7, and continuing to review regularly over the month (to about 2-4 minutes by Day 30), students can retain close to 100% of the material by Day 30.

 Deep processing: Make it meaningful

Frequent review is the key to memory, but how you review matters. Just mindlessly scanning over text on a regular basis is of limited use, as is trying to memorize wording without thinking about its meaning. A better approach is deep processing. This involves thinking about the material in the following ways:

  • As you are reading, stop after every paragraph, assess your retention of the material by trying to state the main points in your own words, and think about the information in ways described below.
  • Relate what you are learning to your prior knowledge from earlier in the course, other courses, or just general knowledge. Elaborate on the new information by thinking of your own examples, and thinking about how it is similar to and different than other material you have learned.
  • Relate what you are learning to your personal experience. For example, think about how a concept in Economics may impact your personal financial well-being. Or in a Chemistry class, think about applications to pharmaceuticals or consumer products you, or a family member, use.
  • Find or develop questions for yourself about the material, in the same format in which you will be tested (e.g.: multiple choice, essay, True/False). Think about what questions you would ask if you were the professor. Exchange questions with classmates and review the material through answering questions.

 Don’t stop studying once you're able to remember the material 

To learn and be successful on exams, you must remember the material, but don’t stop there, even if memorization was the key to your success at high school. 

Continue to use deep processing strategies until you can understand the material, apply it to examples, analyze it, evaluate it, and possibly even use it to create new knowledge. These are the levels of learning that are required for success at university.

 Further reading

For research evidence on the effectiveness of studying consistently over time and using practice questions, see: Dunlosky J., K.A. Rawson, E.J. Marsh, M.J. Nathan and D.T. Willingham. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1) 4-58.