April 3, 2016

How To Study

Guest post by Jamie Hale 

The effort required to form strong memory is often intense for students. Students often spend hours trying to master new information. Of course, methods to enhance memory are important for everyone, not just students. For example, when a friend recommends a new shoe store we want to remember the name of of it, or when going to the grocery it is important to remember the items we need to pick up. What are some strategies that can be used to strengthen memory?

For a start, don't spend excessive time worrying about whether or not you will remember the information. Evidence suggests that intention to remember often does not have a direct effect on memory (Reisberg, 2013; Varakin & Hale, 2014). What matters most is the approach taken when trying to learn the material. Reading material over and over and telling yourself you are going to remember it is not necessarily the optimal strategy for enhancing memory. A better strategy is to try to understand the material deeply. Try to think about the meaning of the information and how it is related to other information you already have stored memory. This approach often leads to strong memory.

Experiments are often conducted that compare incidental learning conditions with intentional learning conditions. Incidental learning conditions consist of participants that are not aware that they will be exposed to a memory test at some point during the experiment. The participants in the intentional learning conditions know they will take a memory test at some point during the experiment. Before the memory test participants from both conditions perform the same cognitive task. Often, participants in the incidental group perform as well as those in the intentional group. This suggests that intent to remember doesn't directly enhance memory. This finding has been replicated in a broad range of studies.

However, the intent to remember may have an indirect positive effect on memory. If it leads to thinking about the meaning of the material and how it is related to other information already stored in memory. It is the mental approach regarding the materials to be learned that matters most, not the intent to remember.

In an effort to increase understanding asking yourself questions while studying is important. This allows you to consider various perspectives and often leads to the formation of numerous memory connections. Paraphrasing can also be useful. Stating the information in different ways forces you to think about meaning and how it is connected to other information. I suggest paraphrasing in as many ways as you can think of.

Test yourself on the information you are trying to remember. Do not have the answers in plain view while testing. If the answers are in view while testing you aren't really testing yourself, and this often leads to thinking you know more than you really do. You need easy access to the answers, so you can check to see if you are correct, but if they are in plain view it is hard to resist looking , even if just catching a glance. This brief glance may provide a retrieval cue that leads to the correct answer, and leads to overconfidence in your knowledge (read more).

Memory is best when you spread your studying across multiple sessions (spaced learning). For over a century, it has been known that learning and/ or memory is strengthened when information is studied over time when compared with the same amount of information studied in one or fewer sessions-cramming sessions (Sisti, Glass, & Shors, 2007). One of the key reasons that spaced learning increases memory is that each time you study you may perceive the material from a different perspective. Seeing the material from different perspectives allows the creation of different connections; connections that you didn't see before.

Cramming should be avoided. This type of study does not lend itself to the formation of strong memories. Often, students are confused and fail to distinguish between high test scores and high levels of memory. Doing well on a test is not necessarily indicative of strong memory. Strong memory reflects an understanding and is often demonstrated weeks after the test. I have seen many students (graduate and undergraduate) do well on a test, but lack any type of memory whatsoever for the material a few days after the test. They never understood the material; they crammed and they done well on the test.

What about mnemonics? Mnemonics, as they are generally referred to, are efficient shortcuts used to enhance memory. They work because they impose some sort of organization on the materials to be remembered. Mnemonics are helpful in some circumstances, but at other times not recommended. They may divert attention away from understanding the material. This often leads to fewer memory connections. Avoid these type of shortcuts when he goal is to form strong memory connections. Using cognitive shortcuts is fine to use for some information, but in situations when trying to remember information it is important avoid shortcuts.

Our modern era, often referred to as the information age is rarely (if ever) referred to as the knowledge age. Information availability doesn't necessarily translate to knowledge. Translation of information to knowledge requires learning / memory.

Key Points 

  1. Don't spend excessive time worrying about whether or not you will remember the information. 
  2. Try to think about the meaning of the information and how it is related to other information you already have stored memory. 
  3. Paraphrase the information you are trying to remember. 
  4. Test yourself on the information you are trying to remember. 
  5. Memory is best when you spread your studying across multiple sessions (spaced learning). 
  6. Cramming should be avoided. 
  7. Strong memory reflects a strong understanding (meaning and connections of various memories) 
  8. Mnemonics are helpful in some circumstances, but at other times not recommended. 
  9. The key foundation of strong memory is UNDERSTANDING! 
  10. Studying should be structured and involve immediate goals that can be attained with each session.
What is provided here is a concise framework that can be used to enhance memory. The suggestions here can be used by most people to build stronger memories. With the appropriate time and effort you can likely build a strong memory for anything you desire. Start using these strategies today, and in a relatively short period of time you could see dramatic improvement in memory.

There are other issues that should be considered in regards to a comprehensive study of memory, but those issues are beyond the scope of this article. Effective use of the information provided here may assist readers in learning / memory efforts.


  • Reisberg, D. (2013). Cognition: Exploring the Science of the Mind 5th Edition. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. 
  • Sisti., H.M., Glass, A.L., & Shors, T.J. (2007). Neurogenesis and the spacing effect: Learning over time enhances memory and the survival of new neurons. Learning & Memory, 14, 368-375.
  • Varakin, D.A., & Hale, J. (2014). Intentional memory instructions direct attention, but do not enhance visual memory. Sage Open, 1-8. doi: 10.1177/2158244014553588 

Jamie Hale, M.S. is associated with Eastern Kentucky University's Psychophysiology Lab and Perception & Cognition Lab. His current research interests are scientific cognition, memory and eating behavior. He has written for numerous national and international publications. He is the author of In Evidence We Trust: The Need for Science, Rationality and Statistics. To learn more about Jamie visit his sites www.knowledgesummit.net and www.maxcondition.com. To hire him for lectures send him an e-mail (Jamie.hale1@gmail.com).


  1. THis is an excellent article for teachers to share with their students in order to have a discussion about effective study strategies. In my opinion, many students don't have a strategy for studying. As the author suggests, they just read and re-read material hoping it will sink in. To help students, teachers should have discussions about study strategies, and focusing a discussion around the points in this article would be productive.

  2. This is good advice. I'd add just a couple of things. Don't merely think about it (#2) and paraphrase (#3) but write it out. When you write it out you remember better than just thinking about it. Also, writing has an advantage of being able to see and review your thoughts and catching errors in logic.

    Also, when reading a textbook or research paper, I recommend reading the short intro or abstract then turn to the back of the chapter or report and read the summary and conclusions. Textbooks often have a list of keywords and review questions - look them over. Now go back and read the headings/subheading of the chapter or paper. Finally, read the contents. Now your brain will have a general idea of where the information is going and you will be more likely to focus on the key words.

  3. Great points made by SocioSam. Forming strong memories require a lot of cognitive effort. However, by allocating a lot of cognitive effort initially less will be required in the future. When information is over learned it is generally retrieved easier. Memory is biological and with increased memory synaptic connections are potentiated leading to stronger electrical chemical signaling.


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