The Role of Memory
Memory is a function that we typically take for granted, but in the college context, memory skills are very important. What strategies are recommended for studying and "knowing what to know"? In what situations do we need short-term rather than long-term memory, and vice versa?
Learn about the role of memory in effectively studying, and strategies for strengthening your memory.
Knowing What to Know
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?
Jennifer’s situation shows that there really is such a thing as studying too much. Her mistake was in trying to master all of the course material. 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.
- 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 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.
Short- 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—the earlier material has vanished from the mind! What happened? Chances are that they didn’t consistently and regularly review the material, and 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. 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 a different studying approach—besides 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 (like at the end of the semester or maybe years from now). 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 to start reviewing your notes and doing the related reading assignments—the sooner the better.
- 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 (or a future
class, say), 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’ve may have forgotten.
- Use repetition: This strategy is linked to studying material frequently for shorter periods of time. You may not remember when or how you learned skills like riding a bike or tying your shoes. Mastery came with practice, and at some point the skills became 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—almost without thinking about them.
Strengthening Your Memory
We’ve discussed the importance of zeroing in on the main concepts you learn in class and of transferring them from short-term to long-term memory. But how can you work to strengthen your overall memory? Some people have stronger memories than others, but memorizing new information takes work for anyone. 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 without even
- 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–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 rest can helps you remember more and feel prepared for learning the next day.
- 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. 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.
Check Your Understanding
Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.
- Student Counseling Service. "Long and Short Term Memory." The University of Chicago. 2016. Web. 10 Feb 2016.
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