Studying Studying: Memory Tips from Psychology

There’s a lot of information to remember for finals– learn how to keep it all straight.

With finals season approaching, a sense of dread sets in every time I take notes in lecture—how am I supposed to remember all of this information at once? Often the prospect of beginning the study process is so overwhelming that organizing all the information seems almost impossible.

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I’ve realized that a lot of my psychology research and coursework have provided many useful tips to make studying as effective and efficient as possible. I have compiled a few here to help you get started and hopefully feel more comfortable diving into studying when reading period comes around.

1. Know where to devote your time – As my final research project for my cognitive psychology class revealed, memory of complex stimuli—things that contain many small details or are particularly abstract—is best following a few long exposures, while memory of simple stimuli—those that contain small amounts of information and are fairly concrete—is best following a lot of short exposures. So, what does this mean for studying? For concepts that you feel like you know well, it would be most beneficial to study those concepts multiple times for short periods of time. But, for concepts that are more complex and challenging for you, you should try to study for longer, but fewer periods of time.

2. Break up information into manageable sections – This is a strategy known as “chunking” in psychology. Research has shown that the human brain can hold just about 7 items in short-term memory at a time. But before you freak out—this does not mean that you are doomed and will only be able to remember 7 important dates for your history final. This number 7 is not as limiting as it may seem. Instead, imagine 7 slots available for you to store information, but each of these slots doesn’t have to be filled with only one, small fact. It all depends on how you group information; for example, you can fill these 7 slots with 7 large concepts that include a lot more detailed information within them. Try to find a way to break up all the information in a class into no more than 7 meaningful sections and use those sections to ground your studying.

3. Be deliberate about where you study – When you remember something, you are retrieving it from your memory. This retrieval can be aided by certain cues that are associated with the initial formation or encoding of the memory. One of these cues is context, i.e. where you first encoded the memory. So, if I am taking my psychology exam and I can’t remember the answer to a question, if I can remember where I studied, thinking about that place may help me remember the memory I am looking for. I use this strategy especially when I am studying for two classes that are somewhat similar—for example two psychology classes. Sometimes I will get confused about what material goes with each class, but if I separate my studying for each class by location, those different locations help me differentiate the material itself and remember it better.

I am lucky enough to be studying a discipline that embeds these enlightening nuggets of information into the coursework. I hope that these tips are helpful to you and encourage you to be mindful of what and how you are learning throughout the semester in order to develop the most effective strategies for each of your classes.

— Ellie Breitfeld, Natural Sciences Correspondent