How memory works is not a big mystery.  We can easily remember the ideas, items, and information that we turn our attention to often, and we can quickly forget the ideas, items, and information that we “touch” only once or twice.  This natural forgetfulness of information we touch only once or twice is a quality of a healthy mind--after all, why store information we tell our minds we won’t need?  So the point is simple: We tell our memories what’s important to store by how many times we practice retrieving the information.  The more times we practice—the more times we touch the information--the more permanently the information will be stored.  Before we continue, let’s look at how scientists think memory works: 100 Billion Neurons.


The Curve of Forgetting graph below (originally called The Ebbinghuas Curve after the German philosopher Hermann Ebbinghaus who developed it in 1885) demonstrates how quickly we forget new information we don’t work with repeatedly.  Here’s what the graph demonstrates: Assume that we hear ten new terms in class on Monday.  Our immediate recall, Point A of the graph, is 100%--we can repeat the terms and definitions at the point where we first encounter them.


However, if we do not repeatedly return our attention to these terms and definitions, we will forget about 40% over the first 24 hours (Point B).  If we wait another 24 hours before reviewing the information, we have lost 60% (Point C).   So we can go from a grade of ‘A’ (100%) to ‘D’ (60%), to ‘F’ (40%) in just 48 hours.




            100                  A: The moment we first hear new information


%         80


R         60                               B: One day later without reinforcement


T          40                                           C: Two days later without reinforcement


I           20


E            0

D                    0          1          2                                                          7


                                    ELAPSED TIME IN DAYS


This is the deception of temporary memory:  When we first hear something, because we can immediately think about it and repeat it, we assume we will remember it from then on.  However, what has really happened is that our brains have attached a drop of temporary memory “glue” to the information.  (There really is a scientific name for the chemicals that bind the memory). 


In a short time, this drop of temporary “glue” loses its bond and we forget the information.  But if we continually return our mind’s attention to this information, if we continually add more drops of “glue,” eventually the information will become part of more permanent memory. 


We add new drops of “glue” by first getting to the new information as soon as we can after we first hear or read it.  Then occasionally but continually we review the material, often quizzing ourselves on it.  Our study goal is to “touch” the information often, in little review sessions, with a bit of time in between sessions.



General Keys to Effective Study


Ñ1 Remember that the purpose of all studying is to keep The Curve of Forgetting from affecting your recall and ability to use what you have learned.


Ñ2 The more times you touch new information, the less The Curve of Forgetting will affect it.  Eventually, if you touch the new information enough times, it will become part of your permanent memory.  Your name and phone number are good examples of this.



Ñ3 Always study in Question/Answer format.  In other words, whether you are reading a textbook chapter or going over your lecture notes, you should always be looking for an answer to a question you have created to focus your attention.  In addition, the question/answer format is precisely the format of a test.  Studying in this format means that you immediately begin learning the information in the way a test will ask it.  Remember--it is possible to learn the right information in the wrong way and fail a test.



Ñ4 Create and use FLASHCARDS whenever possible:  Put any information you can on flashcards--term or question on the front of the card with the definition or answer on the back.  Remember to put only one term, question, idea, or list on a card.  Flashcards automatically show you information in question/answer format.  In addition, flashcards are very portable--you can take them with you everywhere and use those 5 to 10 minute free periods in each day to quiz yourself.


Ñ5 The very best way (perhaps the only way) to learn anything well is to trickle it in to your mind in little bites or brief intervals over a period of time.


Keep in mind that this method is the opposite of cramming where you try to absorb large amounts of information in one or two long sessions.  Cramming is the least effective study method because The Curve of Forgetting will immediately begin to erase the information from your memory.  Consider what might happen if you cram information you will need to know for a job or for the next level of a course.


The “Trickle-in Method”


Here is how to use the Trickle-in Method”:  Assume that you have a 25-term vocabulary test facing you on Friday, so you begin to “trickle in” the information on Monday or Tuesday, not the night before the test.  You put each vocabulary word on a separate 3-by-5 card with its definition on the back.  You carry these cards in your pocket or purse.  You go through the cards and quiz yourself on the ten-minute bus ride in the morning.  That same day before lunch, you quiz yourself again.  Five minutes before your favorite soap or Oprah starts, you look at the cards again.  While supper is cooking, you give yourself another quiz.  Just before you go to bed, you quiz yourself once more.


Time spent to do this:  four or five 10-minute periods.  If you continue to do this each day, you will do very well on the test Friday, and you will not have missed the time you used to study.  You have touched the information several times in little bites (you have “trickled in” the information) and will have fairly permanent knowledge of this material.  This is good news for the final, too, because the information has a good chance of staying in your mind the rest of the term.




1. Try to study in the same place as much as possible.  Humans tend to get “conditioned” to doing a certain activity in a certain place.  Studying in the same location allows us to get to work much sooner.


2. Try scheduling classes and study periods when you are most alert.  For example, if you are a "morning person," try to organize your schedule accordingly. 


In addition, if your life allows, schedule one-hour breaks between your classes (for example, schedule your classes at 8:30, 10:30, and 12:30, so that you have breaks at 9:30 and 11:30).  These one-hour breaks allow time to “review and preview”: Review what you just heard in the lecture and preview what the next class will cover. 


3. Have a study plan and study according to priorities.  Decide beforehand how you  will divide your study sessions and use a “to-do” list to organize your time.


4. Break long study periods into shorter segments—20 to 30 minutes and then change subjects or activities.  Return to a previous subject or activity later if you need more time for it.


5. Remember—“trickle in” the information--little bites in question/answer format.


6. Keep a calendar of upcoming tests and assignments--begin trickling in the information well before the date, using flashcards when possible.


7. Your grade on a test or in a course is not determined by how many hours you spend studying but by how much quality study time you spend.  Study smart--remember--you can waste hours and hours studying improperly.


8. Do whatever it takes and do not give up.  If this were easy, everybody would have a degree or certificate.



Very Important


The Big Six


1.    Terms

2.    Definitions

3.    Examples

4.    Lists (Enumerations)

5.    Reasons Why

6.    Items on the board (handouts)



The Two Great Study Skills Questions



1.    Where will the test questions come from?


          Textbook assignments? Lectures/Lecture Notes? Other?


2.    What kind of test will it be? 


               Objective (multiple choice, true-false, etc.) or Essay?