Different study techniques can help students learn materials long-term


Illustration by Cameron Gorman

Carrie Whalen

Junior nursing major Catlin Cole tries to study as often as she can.

“I try to study about five days a week,” Cole said. “Once I’m in the zone, I usually study for about five or six hours. I used to rewrite my notes, but I’m looking for new ways because it takes too long.”

While rewriting notes helps Cole remember materials long-term, it is not time efficient for her busy schedule.

“Many students prefer to go back when they study and reread the definitions,” said John Dunlosky, the director of the Science of Learning and Education Center. “That’s fine, but it tends to not be engaging so it’s not quite as effective.”

Self-testing and retrieval can lead to durable learning, depending on the content, Dunlosky said.

Students can test themselves on important materials by using flashcards. It works by students using a reference word, or words, and retrieving the correct corresponding phrase.

“When you get it right, it really helps you remember in the future,” Dunlosky said. “But another thing that is positive about it is after you fail to retrieve something over and over again, then you know it’s time to get help.”

Dunlosky and his team also created a list of five of the most effective study skills for students to get the most out of their study time:

1. Elaborative interrogation

Ask questions when taking in information. Ask why something is the way it is and why it’s true. This method helps consolidate and store facts with a purpose, adding it to memory and baseline knowledge.

2. Self-explanation

Explain to you or others what you just learned and what it means. This method takes you away from the textbook or study materials and sees if you understand the material well enough to explain it to others. 

3. Practice testing

Use the study material and quiz yourself with it or make flashcards. This method adjusts you to the test format and forces you to recall info quickly. It exercises memory retrieval in your long-term memory to access info easier.

4. Distributed practice

Study over periods of time and don’t cram the night before. This method forces you to take breaks, meaning you have to work harder to recall previously learned information so it is stored better.

5. Interleaved practice

Use variation and different methods to solve something or take in information. This method encourages you to learn how and why to apply learned knowledge. 

Textbooks and often instructors provide materials and questions for students to test themselves in their own time.

“For self-testing, flashcards are an effective way to do that and there are some flashcard programs that support it,” said Katherine Rawson, a professor in the department of psychology. “The key is to go until you get it right and do it on multiple different days. That can’t be the only strategy you do, you may need to appeal to the additional online supplementary resources that come with a textbook.”

Students can cram for an exam by studying six hours the night before an exam or they can effectively study for an hour on six different days, Rawson said.

“I think some of the hurdles are planning and using time well,” Rawson said. “If you’re going to spend time studying and using the time effectively, it can mean two things: when are you using the time and what are you using the time for.”

McKenna Corson contributed to this report. 

Carrie Whalen covers social sciences. Contact her at [email protected].