Chapter 6: Learning & Studying

The Role of Memory

Memory games

Study the list of items for two minutes and then see how many you can write down without looking at the list.





hot dog







ice cream

shower gel



hair spray



jet ski

make up

Now, create a story with the items in the list. The story doesn’t need to make sense. Just visualize the items as you create the story. After two minutes, try to recall the list of words again. How many items did you remember? Did you remember more items with the story method than without it? The same story memorizing game can be used with a list of facts or words you need to memorize for a class.

Look at the list again and notice that all the items fit into three categories: transportation, food, or grooming. Now, study the words based on their categories. After two minutes, write down as many as you can remember. Did you remember more or less than when you created a story? How could you use this technique with a class or classes you are taking this semester?

Memory is more indelible than ink. ―Anita Loos, author and screenwriter

Jennifer felt anxious about an upcoming history exam. This would be her first test in a college class, and she wanted to do well. Jennifer took lots of notes during class and while reading the textbook. In preparation for the exam, she had tried to review all five textbook chapters along with all of her notes. 

The morning of the exam, Jennifer felt nervous and unprepared. After so much studying and review, why wasn’t she more confident? 

Knowing What to Know

Jennifer’s mistake was in trying to master all of the course material. Whether students take one or more than one class, it’s simply impossible to retain every single particle of information they encounter in a textbook or lecture. 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 to memorize, rather than trying to tackle all of it. Below are some helpful strategies to identify what’s important.

  • Think about concepts rather than facts: From time to time, you’ll need to memorize cold, hard facts, such as a list of math equations or a vocabulary list in 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, for example how photosynthesis works, how to write a thesis statement, the causes of the French Revolution, and so on.
  • Take cues from your instructor: Pay attention to what your instructor writes on the board or includes in study guides and handouts. Although these may sometimes be short lists of words and phrases, 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 because you’ll learn much more by writing about what you read than by reading alone.

Identifying the main course content

  • Describe several situations in which you struggled to learn and retain new material in a class. Was there a particular type of content that was more challenging compared with others?
  • Explain at least two strategies for identifying the main course content that you could use moving forward for studying.

Short-Term and Long-Term Memory

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, and the earlier material has vanished from their mind. Most likely those students didn’t consistently and regularly review the material, so 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 regularly using different studying approaches rather than 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.

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! Start reviewing your notes and doing the related reading assignments immediately.
  • 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, 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 may have forgotten.
  • Use repetition: This strategy is linked to studying material frequently for shorter periods of time. Mastery comes with practice, and at some point skills become 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 or tie your shoes, almost without thinking about them.
Photo looking over shoulder of young woman writing in a small notebook on a table
Studying notes and writing questions or comments about what you learned right after class can help keep new information fresh in your mind.

Strengthening Your Memory

In addition to zeroing in on the main concepts you learn in class and transferring them from short-term to long-term memory, students can improve their memories through practice in much the same way they build muscle through exercise. Below are some strategies that can aid memory:

  • Incorporate visuals: Visual aids like note cards, concept maps, and highlighted text are ways of making information stand out. Because they are shorter and more concise, they have the advantage of making the information to be memorized seem more manageable and less daunting than an entire textbook chapter, for example. Some students write key terms on note cards and hang them around their desk or mirror so that they routinely see them and study them.
  • Create mnemonics: Memory devices, known as mnemonics, can help students retain information while only needing to remember a unique phrase or letter pattern that stands out. For example, the mnemonic “ROYGBIV” could help students remember the order of the colors of a rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).
  • Get quality sleep: Although some people require more or less sleep than the recommended amount, most people should aim for six to eight hours every night. School puts a lot of demands on the brain, and, like tired muscles after a long workout, your brain needs to rest after being exercised and taking in all sorts of new information during the day. A good night’s sleep can help you remember more and feel prepared for learning the next day.
  • Connect new information to old information: Take stock of what information is 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. For example, if you are taking a sociology class and are learning about different types of social groups, you may be able to think of examples from your own experience that relate to the different types.

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.


Memory scenarios

Discuss the following memory scenarios as a group. Come up with memory strategies for each scenario. Be prepared to share the strategies you choose.

  1. You have a history midterm on the first 12 chapters.
  2. You are taking a required class and you are losing interest.
  3. You have several lists you need to know for an upcoming quiz.
  4. You meet someone from your career field and you want to make sure you remember their name.
  5. You read the chapter for your economics course and did not remember anything.
  6. A friend who is having trouble remembering content for her courses comes to you for help. What advice do you give?


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


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