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Skills for Efficient and Effective Study

It is unlikely that anyone has ever given you explicit instruction in study methods.  Instructors of courses in the psychology of learning and memory, which are often senior level courses, are familiar with students plaintively asking "Why didn't anybody ever tell us about this?"  Without instruction, most students still manage to discover reasonable techniques through trial and error.  Even if you are a very successful student, it's possible that you could learn to use your study time more efficiently.  If your study skills consist of simply rereading your notes and underlined portions of your text several times before an exam, there is much you could learn.  Since many students today also have work or family responsibilities, getting the most out of study time is essential for success.

Time Management

Student culture perpetuates the mistaken notion that cramming for exams is desirable and effective.  There is something noble about appearing at your exam with bloodshot eyes and too much caffeine in your system.  Unfortunately, this behavior can be a prescription for academic disaster.

            Volumes of research point to the irrefutable fact that practice spaced out over time is far superior than practice that is massed together in time (Bahrick & Phelps, 1987).  Somehow, it's easier to accept this fact when we think about athletics or music.  If we wanted to prepare for a piano recital, nobody would need to tell us that practicing an hour a day for the whole week before the recital would be superior to practicing seven hours the day before.  Nonetheless, when it comes to classwork, we often fail to apply the same principle.

            Part of this effect comes from the fact that cramming simply can't make up for work that wasn't completed earlier.  If your university is on the quarter system, and you study only one hour per night for each course, you go into final exams with approximately 70 hours of studying under your belt.  During finals, you would be doing well to devote 10-15 hours of study to one class.  On the sheer basis of time invested, the cramming student will lose.

            There are other more subtle memory effects that determine this result.  Long study sessions reduce concentration and promote fatigue, affecting the quality of input.  Unfortunately for students, output is never better than input.  There are no magical processes that compensate for unorganized, misunderstood input.  This is particularly true in the case of difficult, technical material such as neuroscience.  In addition, long sessions of memorizing produce greater interference.  New learning tends to displace and confuse your memories for previously learned concepts.  Finally, studying the material at different times and possibly different places tends to result in slightly different or "elaborated" memories.  This phenomenon serves to increase the number of "routes" available for retrieving memories.  Often, we experience a blocked memory at retrieval when we have only thought about the information one particular way or in one particular set of circumstances.

            While it makes good sense to review your notes just prior to an exam, the bulk of the work should have been done over the course of the quarter or semester.  A good rule of thumb is two hours of study for every hour spent in the classroom.  For a sixteen unit load, this translates into thirty-two hours of study per week, or an average of 4-5 hours per day.  This figure should be adjusted upward for more difficult material.


Students of memory have been aware for a long time that simple repeating of information, or rehearsal, serves to maintain information in memory.   There is no doubt that repetition of information has a role in the study process.  However, simple rote rehearsal, practiced by many students, is not typically the most effective way to learn.

            Psychologists distinguish between "maintenance rehearsal" and "elaborative rehearsal" (see, for example, Craik & Watkins, 1973).  In maintenance rehearsal, information is simply repeated, as you might do when trying to remember a friend's telephone number without writing it down.  In elaborative rehearsal, more work is done on the information.  Effort is made to organize the information and relate or associate it to information you already know.  This is a far more effective means of rehearsal.  You can remind yourself to practice elaborative rather than maintenance rehearsal by following the SQ3R method developed by Francis Robinson (1941).  The method involves several steps whose first letters give us SQ3R:

            1. Survey:  The purpose of this step is to provide a structure for your learning.  The learning objectives in the study guide and chapter outlines in both the text and study guide are useful at this point.  Read the chapter summary first.

            2. Question:  Turn the main headings in the text into questions.   For instance, in Chapter One, you could ask "What do we mean by objectivity, and how is it accomplished?"

            3.  Read:  Read the first topic and stop.  Don't read the entire chapter through at this point.

            4.  Recite:  Answer your topic questions developed in step 2.  Some students find it helpful to write a short summary in their own words.  Gates (1917) reported that substituting recitation time for rereading time increased recall by two to three times.  Many students find it helpful to recite with a study group.  If you can't explain a concept to your fellow students, you know it requires more work.  Recitation is especially helpful in regards to the key terms.  Each chapter of the Study Guide includes pages of key terms and definitions which can be cut out and used as flashcards. Practice using the cards in both directions by defining terms as well as identifying the proper term for a definition.  When you have finished reciting, repeat steps 2 through 4 on the next topic.

            5.  Review:  When you have thoroughly read a chapter once, go through the Guided Review in the study guide.  Then review the key terms.  If these remain too difficult, go back through the chapter again.  Finally, complete the Understanding Concepts and Applying Concepts sections.


Research on memory suggests that we really don't forget very much information.  If a student walks out of an exam feeling like he or she "forgot" a lot of answers, chances are the answers weren't well learned in the first place.  Reading the words on a page does not guarantee that the facts represented by those words will be available for recall.  We might recognize them as "familiar," but be unable to retrieve any useful information.

            Most students realize that objective testing, such as a multiple choice test, is easier than subjective or recall testing, such as an essay exam.  Multiple choice or true-false tests merely ask the student to recognize a correct answer that appears in the test.  An essay exam requires the student to retrieve the information with very few cues.  Unfortunately, students who are exposed to many multiple choice tests learn to study in a very shallow way.  Information that is processed for recognition does not last as long in memory as information processed for recall.  So for the purposes of remembering course material for future use, rather than just passing a test, the thorough learning we do in preparation for an essay exam is superior.

            Don't stop just at the point where you think you could pass a multiple choice exam.  Spend more time reviewing the material beyond this point.  This is your best way of preventing test anxiety.  When material is very well learned, some anxiety actually serves to increase performance, as in the case of athletes, actors and actresses, and musicians.  When material is tenuously learned, anxiety has a very negative effect on performance.

Study Environment

Human beings differ in their capacity for selective attention.  Selective attention refers to your ability to block out irrelevant sources of information in the environment.  Some students are very distracted when another student gets up to sharpen a pencil during an exam, whereas others behave as if you could drop an atomic bomb next to them without their noticing it.  Observe your own selective attention ability, and compensate for it when selecting a place to study.  If you are easily distracted, your dormitory room may not be the best choice, and you may need to go to the library or another quiet location. 

            When we forget something, we can often recall it by walking back to the spot where we last thought about it.  The more similar your study situation is to your typical exam situation, the better your recall should be.


Our memory works best when the information we are storing and retrieving is well organized and well understood.  To demonstrate the influence of organization on memory, see how long it takes you to recite the names of the months in alphabetical order.  Although the names of the months are used frequently and are well memorized, disrupting their typical organization makes retrieval a much more arduous task.  Now imagine the impact of poor organization on information that is not nearly so well learned.  Maintaining a good mental organization of the material can be achieved by referring regularly to the chapter outlines in both text and study guide.

Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonic devices are memory aids that impose an external structure on material to be learned.  These devices can take several forms, and are sometimes useful in memorizing terminology.  One form of mnemonic devices is the rhyme, such as "thirty days hath September."  In the first-letter technique, you make a word, phrase, or sentence out of the first letters of the words you wish to remember.  Some students use this technique to memorize the names of the cranial nerves.  Visual imagery greatly improves memory.  Whenever possible, study the figures and photographs accompanying your text and make a conscious effort to associate terminology with the images. 

            A variant of simple visual imagery is the Method of Loci, developed by the ancient Greeks.  In this technique, you form combined images of the items to be remembered and a familiar place such as your home.  To recall the items, you mentally walk through your home and recall the combined images.  For example, if you wanted to memorize your grocery list, you might imagine a carton of milk just inside your front door, a loaf of bread on your living room couch, and so on.  This technique, like the first-letter technique, allows students to memorize information in a particular order, which has some applicability in science.  The Method of Loci takes time and effort during the learning stage, but the payoff at recall is well worth the effort.  It's easier to imagine a loaf of bread than the red nucleus on your living room couch, but with practice, it can be done.  A classmate of mine in a graduate neuroanatomy course was actually suspected of cheating after receiving a perfect 100% on all of her exams.  The professors had never seen such perfect performance.  It turns out that she had been taught the Method of Loci as a childhood game, and she had practiced it ever since.  When she was able to demonstrate her ability to memorize long lists of items perfectly, her professors apologized for suspecting her of cheating.     


Bahrick, H.P. & Phelps, E. (1987).  Retention of Spanish vocabulary over 8 years. 
      Journal of Experimental Psychology:  Learning, Memory, and Cognition
, 13, 344-

Craik, F.I.M., & Watkins, M.J. (1973).  The role of rehearsal in short-term memory.
      Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12, 599-607.

Gates, A.I. (1917). Recitation as a factor in memorizing.  Archives of Psychology, 40.



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updated: 05/01/2008

2007,  Laura Freberg , animations 2007, Karla Freberg