Have you ever walked out of class and realized you don't remember a thing the professor said? Do you often spend an hour studying for a midterm, then despair when you can't remember half the information?
You aren't the only one.
Research shows people tend to forget up to 50% of the information they receive within an hour of learning it. Within 24 hours, they've forgotten 75% of what they heard.
While the tendency to forget information can make school more challenging, it doesn't mean you can't excel in your classes. With a few adjustments to your learning process and study habits, you can ace a test and retain information long after you've learned it. You can do this with a few learning retention strategies designed to maximize your abilities and your time.
Before you do anything, know your goal. Are you studying to pass a test? Are you researching to write a paper? Are you learning valuable and practical information that's essential for career success down the road? There are lots of different reasons to study. But knowing your motivation will help you identify the best ways to absorb the facts you need to draw on later. It can also help you narrow down what information is essential, so you can devote your time to learning those details and not get bogged down in all the other stuff.
If you aren't sure what your goal should be, pay attention when a professor or adviser provides a syllabus, study guide or other materials. The presentation of class materials can often guide your goals. For example, a professor may announce the "unit" — or overall subject you'll cover in the first month. Then, under the unit, they will list five major topics the class will cover. Looking at these topics can help you decide your objective for the course and its material.
Buying a fancy pen may not make you smarter, but having the right supplies goes a long way toward keeping you organized when it counts. When you begin a new class, look at the syllabus and the course calendar. Purchase a notebook or binder that will help you organize class notes and materials by unit and keep all relevant information together. Be sure to also invest in a hole punch and stapler, so you can keep track of handouts given during class or printed off outside class. A folder may also be helpful if you have a professor who gives many handouts or requires you to read a lot of supplemental materials.
Whether you're going to class in person or participating in a virtual classroom, arrive at class with your notebook, pens, highlighters and the textbook or handouts your professor specifies. Having handouts or the class textbook nearby can allow you to highlight the information you need to revisit later. It also keeps all your notes and materials in one place so you know where they are when it's time to review later.
Your physical and mental health has a significant impact on your ability to retain information. If you've pulled an all-nighter, then show up to class keyed up on caffeine and a doughnut you grabbed on your way to school, you'll probably struggle to pay attention. If you do learn anything, there's a good chance you won't remember it by the time you get home and take a nap later on.
Good study habits start with getting the proper amount of sleep. Although the "right" amount of sleep varies from person to person, aim to get seven or eight hours each night. Exercise can also help your brain's ability to recall information. If you're feeling sleepy, moderate exercise can stimulate you and help you focus on studying and remembering information. One study even found that exercising after you study can help your brain process — and retain — the information you just heard.
It's also a good idea to take frequent breaks. It might not be possible to do this in the middle of class, but it's a must when you're studying. If you've just finished an hour-long class, don't immediately hit the books. Eat a healthy snack, take a walk or call a friend for a brief chat before you start. Once you begin your study session, periodically stop so you can stand up and stretch, grab something to eat or watch a television show. It may feel like you're wasting time — especially if you have a test or paper due — but these short breaks give your brain the rest it needs to stay healthy and retain information later.
If you're trying to memorize all the information contained in 100 pages of assigned reading, you're setting yourself up to fail. For most people, it's impossible to read that much and remember everything later. Break up reading assignments into smaller chunks to spend more time on each topic and avoid the "brain drain" that happens after you've been reading for too long.
If you aren't sure how to divide it, use the natural breaks in the text as cues. For example, if an assigned reading contains five chapters, read one each day over five days. If you need even smaller chunks, use the chapter's subheadings as natural stopping points. You can read two or three sections at a time, then call a temporary halt and come back to it later in the day. If you're short on time, it's still essential to incorporate small breaks throughout the reading to give your brain time to reenergize and focus.
At the end of each class or after you've completed your assigned reading, take a few minutes to jot down a recap of the information you heard. You can use bullet points or just write out a quick one- or two-paragraph summary. Doing this while the details are still fresh in your mind is also an excellent opportunity to note any questions you had about the material or ideas you need to revisit to fully comprehend them later.
In some cases, professors may provide you with information or notes during the class or post them online for reference later on. Rather than waiting until a day or two later to download and review these additional resources, make a point to look at them as soon as possible after you've finished reading or left class. Doing so can help you summarize the information and increase your brain's ability to retain the details you'll need later. As you go through the notes, identify any questions about the material you need to have answered before a test, so that you have time to ask the professor or look for answers elsewhere.
As you're studying, stop periodically and quiz yourself on the material you just read. Some books will have comprehension questions at the end of each section, or professors may provide some of these within a study guide. But if there aren't any questions already available, you can easily test yourself by asking the following questions:
When it comes to retaining material over time, repetition is the secret to success. You've been doing this your entire academic career — you just might not have noticed before! In elementary school, your teacher introduced new spelling words on a Monday. On Tuesday, they asked you to write them out three times each. On Wednesday, they assigned you to use each one in a sentence. On Thursday, they had you create flashcards and quiz the students next to you. Then, on Friday, you had a spelling test. Why did you do all this? Because practice helps you learn!
While you may not be studying spelling words anymore, you can still apply this concept to learning retention at the college level. Typically, a professor will assign readings that complement the material they're covering in class. Discussion posts and other mid-week assignments usually share the goal of helping you comprehend the material.
Look for parallels between what your professor is saying and the homework they've assigned. It can help to bring your textbook and other sources with you to class to make notes in places that reinforce the same information. Identify those salient facts and topics, then make a point to review them.
It's easy to slink into the back of the classroom, hunch over your desk and mindlessly listen to the professor for an hour. This phenomenon is even more common now that so many classes are virtual. But passive listening is a surefire way to forget what people say — or never hear it at all!
In class, choose to sit as close to the front of the room as you can. Look for opportunities to ask questions or make comments, especially if the professor encourages class participation and dialogue.
You can still participate in active learning, even in an online setting. Does your class offer a chat option or a message board feature for questions and comments? Make a point to post — and comment on other people's posts — regularly. Take detailed notes and be sure to write down any questions you have about the material, so you can contact the professor with questions after class.
Some people learn better by hearing things. Others learn better by seeing the information laid out in charts or graphs. Figure out what works for you, then use it as you study. For example, if you're a visual learner, use various colors of ink to write out notes and organize information by topic. When possible, make a chart or graph to display the information or go online to find videos others have shared about the subject. If your professor has posted online videos or resources, rely on these as a primary source of information when you study.
On the other hand, if you learn better by reading, write and review copious notes, being careful to go over any emails and written information provided in your professor's course materials or the textbook.
While there will be times you can't always go with your preference — skipping the required reading because you're a "visual" person isn't a good idea — this can help you organize your materials and maximize your study time.
These study habits can also help you in the classroom. If you're a person who learns best when you see and hear things, sit near the front and pay close attention to your professor, especially if they're making notes on the board or using audiovisuals to complement their lecture. If you're a person who tends to do better with reading material, listen carefully and take thorough notes, so you can go back and review when it's time to study later.
Joining a study group or even calling a friend to describe what you've learned can go a long way toward helping you remember and internalize details. By vocalizing and applying what you've learned, your brain can retain the information. It also lets you process the information you've already learned and identify potential holes you need to go back and fill in later.
In some cases, working with other students also makes you comprehend the material better. After studying alone, you may be able to recite facts and figures, but when you begin discussing specific concepts with fellow students, you may suddenly understand how some of that material comes together — and what makes it relevant to you. When you identify this relevancy, it helps your brain remember the details.
Besides being an effective study strategy, this is also a highly rewarding way to learn. Taking the time to listen to other people, gathering information and understanding varying points of view provides a richer, fuller educational experience beyond any classroom lecture.
When it comes to knowing how to improve knowledge retention, it's essential to get organized, take care of yourself and find a system that works for you. But sometimes you need a little bit of extra help. At 24HourAnswers.com, we offer live, online tutoring sessions for every subject. Our elite group of qualified tutors is available to help you study for a test or get you through an entire semester. And our state-of-the-art blackboard technology lets you quickly upload and share documents throughout your session.
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