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Studying for better retention and better grades

There are 3 memory processes that affect our ability to understand, store and retrieve information.  Each can improve with practice.  The 3 are:

  • encoding or transforming an experience (like a lecture or a reading assignment) from something heard or written on a page into signals in your brain.  Ideally we want this transformation to be accurate and complete.  Activities that increase encoding include talking about the topic, rephrasing in your own words and thinking of examples.
  • storing or making the brain changes permanent.  Repeating exposure to information is important for storage to occur, but the more actively your brain is working as it rehearses, the more learning happens.  For example, you would have to passively read over your notes many many times to get the same learning as you get in a few times of re-writing and re-organizing notes, making a concept map, an outline...
  • retrieval or getting the information out again, on a test or in answer to a question in class.  Information is stored in our brains "attached" to other similar information.  The more connections we have made, the more likely it is that we will be able to find the key information when we need it.  Just as important, we need to practice retrieving information in order to be able to get it again at will.  Flashcards make good retrieval practice, so do practice tests.


1.      Elaborative Rehearsal—associate new material with material already learned or with other new learning. Use Cognitive/concept Maps, Matrices, and Outlines to link information together.

2.      Deep Processing—learn by understanding meaning. Use paired or group problem solving and vocabulary activities.

3.      Use Mnemonics—jingles, acronyms, and formulas. This works best in conjunction with Deep Processing.

4.      Review notes—compare notes, fill in gaps, discuss the meaning and purpose of the lecture. Although this might be maintenance rehearsal done alone, in a group 

5.      Practice exams—make up questions (a book of practice exams is available in the bookstore) and discuss answers. This is a check on deep processing and a rehearsal opportunity.


Elaborative Rehearsal

Elaborative rehearsal is the most effective way of transferring information into long-term memory. It is the process of making connections between pieces of newly learned information and to old information. The more connections, the more likely you will remember and be able to retrieve the information on the next exam.

Cognitive/concept maps help make the relationships between ideas clear by visualizing them, usually by drawing arrows and writing the nature of the relationship along the line.  Arrange these ideas so they are linked meaningfully to the concept of Intelligence: heritability nutrition, education, culture, performance in school.  (Every circle needs a noun.  Every arrow needs a verb.)

 Outlines allow organization of complex information.  They work as you decide: what is the main point?  What are the secondary points?  Which terms go under which points?

 Matrices help clarify how related concepts are similar to and different from each other.

Type of learning

Types of Responses

How acquired

Practical Examples

Classical Conditioning




Operant Conditioning




Social Learning











 Flash Cards can qualify as an Elaborative strategy if you re-organize them in different ways, and keep trying to reduce them to fewer and fewer words.


Deep Processing (encoding)

Deep Processing is studying for meaning.  Many students who use elaborative rehearsal techniques still have problems on exams because they have not correctly and thoroughly understood the meaning of the material. The following strategies help with this problem.

Paired and Group Problem Solving can be used to build complete answers to learning objectives. One person should serve as leader to keep the group moving. Another person should record all the ideas mentioned.  Discuss to make sure each idea mentioned is accurately understood.  In this activity it is necessary to challenge each other to be sure only accurate information is included by the end.

1.      Pick a learning objective, or study question.

2.      Each person in the group contributes a related idea until the group feels a complete list has been created.

3.      Discuss the ideas. How are they related to the concept? How do they fit together? Are they all equally relevant?

4.      Organize the ideas so the connections are clear.


The Vocabulary Activity helps the group make sure key terms are correctly understood.

1.      Identify difficult key terms.

2.      Create a new definition. Compare this definition to the textbook and lecture definitions.

3.      Rewrite the definition if necessary.

4.      Find an example of the term in the textbook.

5.      Find an example of the term in lecture notes.

6.      Each member of the group creates a new example. (Note: when you can’t come up with your own example, this is warning sign that the information is not well understood.)

7.      Fit the term into the larger concept it relates to.

 Flash Cards can qualify as a Deep Processing strategy if you put an example on each card and write the definition in your own words.

Mnemonic Devices

These strategies are a supplement to, and never a replacement for the strategies above. Sometimes even when students have used the strategies above, they still have difficulty because of the volume of new information they must learn. Mnemonics can help in this situation.

Jingles are rhyming tunes containing key words related to a concept, like i before e except after c…

Acronyms are words made from the first letters of key words. They help ensure all the important details are recalled on a test.

Acrostics are phrases containing the same first letters of key words. Every good boy deserves favor helps us remember the lined notes on the treble clef staff (e g b d f).



Although maintenance rehearsal (the repetition of meaningless words from a flash card  or notebook) is an inefficient use of a student’s time, rehearsal (particularly practice at retrieving the right answer) is necessary for learning to occur. The trick is review information in an active, purposeful way.

Reviewing notes in a group can result in effective rehearsal.

1.      Everyone locate notes on a particular topic.

2.      Note how the lecture related to the textbook.

3.      Compare notes for completeness and accuracy.

4.      Where disagreements arise, allow a complete (but not infinite) discussion, then check the textbook. If this does not resolve the question, ask the teacher.

5.      Summarize the main points.

6.      Use an elaborative rehearsal or deep processing strategy.

 Flash Cards can work as a form of rehearsal IF you are actively reviewing them effortfully retrieving the answer each time.  They don’t tend to be effective if you are just re-reading them passively.  To make effective flash cards, write the term on one side and on the other put:

1.      the definition from the book

2.      the definition in your own words

3.      an example

Rehearsing without deep processing  will lead to problems on the exams.

Practice Exams

All exams in this class are multiple choice. All questions relate directly to the learning objectives. The most effective practice exams therefore are multiple choice questions drawn from the learning objectives. Creating your own questions allows the greatest involvement with the information. To create your own questions:

1.      Find a concept to test

2.      Break the concept into an introductory statement and an answer (for example, The encoding strategy that works best for retention in long term memory is: elaborative rehearsal)

3.      Create 3 "distracters". Words that start with the same letters make good distracters, as do related terms, like mnemonics in this case.

4.      Use examples, rather than definitions for some questions:

   Sample M/C (multiple choice) question:  June has been studying for her Psychology test by drawing maps of related concepts and making matrices. She is using:

1.      mnemonics.

2.      deep processing.

3.      maintenance rehearsal

4.      elaborative rehearsal

There are practice exams for this book on the web.  The address is on the back of your book.  Of course it tests on all the concepts for a given chapter, not just on my learning objectives.


Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security when you are able to retrieve information soon after having reviewed it.  Information tends to decay from our memories over time.  To prevent this decay, over-learning (continuing to study after you feel you are done) is necessary.