13 Study Strategies To Help Students Retain New Learning

What Are The Best Research-Based Study Strategies To Help Students Retain New Learning?

There’s a book that sits on my shelf called Study is Hard Work by William H. Armstrong.

It was first published in 1956, and my father used it when he attended high school. At the end of the second chapter, Armstrong concludes by reminding the reader of the purpose of studying:

So often, students speak of doing an assignment, writing a paper, preparing a test, for Mr./Mrs. ________, the teacher. But you are not doing these things for [them]; you are doing them for yourself. The great enterprise is yours; the teacher is a minor partner in the enterprise. The teacher can open windows of vision and point to horizons beyond, but the horizons belong to you. The teacher can be “as the shadow of a mighty rock in a weary land,” but only you can find shelter from the sun, wind, and sand in the shadow of the mighty rock. The teacher is the guidepost for the journey, but the journey is yours. The teacher can light the lantern and put it in your hand, but you must walk into the dark.

Too often, this is what students seem to miss as they progress from elementary school to middle school, to high school, and beyond. Too often, studying is merely viewed as a means to an end, which — in the context of competitive learning environments — implies that shortcuts are available and preferable. But shouldn’t mastering the process of studying be the end, itself? Isn’t studying just the same thing as getting into the ‘flow‘ of learning, which Steve Wheeler explains is “that moment when you are in the zone, on the ball, completely focused…[where] you become so absorbed by what you are doing that you forget what the time is, you forget to eat, you miss sleep. According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, being in the flow is the ultimate in focused intrinsic motivation. And viewing studying through that lens is a way to approach it, make it a routine, and, dare we say, enjoy it.

In the four sections that follow, we’ll break down essential study strategies in sequential order. We’ll start with necessary routines or steps to take before one even sits down to open a textbook. There are particular routines and practices that will help us maximize time and maintain concentration. Next, we’ll enter that space and decide what — out of all the material in one’s possession that may or may not be relevant — they should devote ourselves to studying. Then, we’ll explore specific strategies to focus on the concepts or skills where one is most inexperienced, confused, or curious. Finally, we’ll share ways that students can check themselves for understanding so that they are confident going into an assessment or real-world application.

Study Tips: How Can I Make The Most Of My Time?

This first set of study tips includes more broad, systematic suggestions for students to instill positive study habits. The idea of creating these systems is to highlight a sense of purpose and efficiency in the act of studying. By planning, organizing, and establishing routines, students can feel a sense of self-determination. Even in the face of intimidating courseloads or unfamiliar material, they can feel confident that the systems and routines they have set up and made habitual will guide them to success and retention of new content.

1. Use An Agenda Or Planner To Set Priorities

You’ve likely heard the saying, “Fail to plan, plan to fail.” That’s why we’re emphasizing the use of planners as our first study tip.

Studies indicate that students who plan their time are more efficient in being prepared for learning and achieving higher scores on cognitive tests. Whether using a physical or digital planner, a composition notebook or an iPhone calendar, making note of homework, deadlines, test dates, and other important events help students stay ahead of the game.

We recommend that students experiment with different kinds of planners — regardless of which mode they end up selecting, it is important to have their planners with them at all times so that they can set priorities in the moment. Some students will have difficulty getting in the habit of using a planner, especially if they’ve never done so before. A great idea is to incorporate non-academic dates and priorities in the calendar, as well, so that there are more reasons to use the planner. This could mean highlighting birthdays, parties, team tryouts, community service events, job schedules, and family vacations. Younger students who are not as apt to attend such events can use the agenda to make note of their household chores or responsibilities.

As students grow more comfortable with using their planners, they will feel empowered by their ability to carve out time for the activities that bring them joy. MyStudyLife and myHomework Student planner are excellent digital options for staying organized.

2. Instead Of Cramming The Night Before An Assessment, Revisit New Content For Shorter Increments On A Daily Basis

We’re all guilty of pulling hours-long cram sessions the night before an important exam or essay due date. According to experts, this is not the way to retain information. Some of us may cringe when we think about all the time and money we spent on our education, only to lose so much of the content (and the skills we could have built from that content that could have helped us in some capacity as older adults).

Spreading study sessions over an extended period of time (as compared to a 12-to-24 hour period) improves long-term memory and retention. This doesn’t mean that students have to study in the same manner every day leading up to an assessment. Research clearly shows that students who utilize more time actively studying perform better on exams — these strategies include reading and synthesizing notes, completing problem sets, reviewing old exams, performing self-assessments, and making diagrams. This means that students can annotate their notes one day, generate questions or example problems from the notes on another day, and create a visual representation of a concept on yet another day. Doing so ensures that students are reaching beyond low-level recall and recognition tasks.

The same can be said for studying multiple subjects — to keep the brain engaged, students can switch up subjects in an hours-long session. How does this work? According to Kornell and Bjork (2008), the learning, forgetting, and relearning process helps the brain retain new information in long-term memory.

The likelihood of forgetting information after cramming isn’t the only negative aspect of cramming — sacrificing sleep before an exam can cause future academic problems, like challenges with understanding material. The verdict on cramming? 100% not worth it.

3. Create Quiet, Comfortable, Distraction-Free Settings

Keep in mind that ‘quiet’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘noiseless.’ A lot of students enjoy listening to music as a tool to aid their focus. The key to background music is making sure the volume isn’t too loud or distracting. Additionally, it is better to listen to music from a speaker, versus a set of headphones, as research shows that studying with headphones or earbuds on can actually decrease retention. Creating one or several study playlists based on different genres of music could provide a nice sense of variety to a daily studying session. Chillhop is a great YouTube channel for ambient, non-lyrical music — the site gained significant popularity over the pandemic for its lo-fi genre. Lo-fi means ‘low fidelity,’ and unlike high-fidelity music that uses high-quality production methods, lo-fi music may contain audio imperfections and background noise. It is generally made with inexpensive equipment, but that hasn’t stopped students from enjoying several of their most popular streams, which blend jazz, hip-hop, and instrumentals.

We recommend that students establish multiple of these distraction-free settings to spend time in during the week — having more than one will help create a sense of variety. Additionally, if there are multiple children or teenagers living in the home, the student does not have to feel powerless if one of their designated areas is being utilized by someone else.

4. Keep Physical And Digital Materials Organized

Have you ever heard the expression, “A cluttered space is a cluttered mind”? Research indicates that the saying has merit. Having an organized space — like a desk, table, or area of a room where academic materials, textbooks, and other study resources have a set location — can help students feel a sense of control that can combat feelings of overwhelm that often associate with studying sessions. In an organized space, a student is less likely to fall prey to distractions (like TV shows, outside activity, or loud conversations in common areas of the house)

Whether studying in the bedroom, kitchen, back porch, or library, there are certain tips students can take to set themselves up for success:

  • Eliminate any items that don’t serve a purpose for the function of the space (furniture, papers, toys, devices, etc.). A 2011 study conducted at Princeton University proved that a cluttered space restricts a person’s ability to concentrate, and that simply clearing away their physical workspace can have positive effects.
  • Use a labeling system for notebooks, shelves, file folders, storage bins, and containers that hold desk accessories. Research reveals that binders and other organizational tools can reduce student frustration, increase time spent on learning, and raise grades.
  • Purge any drives (i.e., Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive) of unnecessary files and set up a folder system for different subject areas. Just like eliminating unnecessary items from a physical space can improve concentration, cleaning out hard drives and creating digital organization systems can reduce student stress levels.

Evernote and Google Drive are great resources for organizing (and sharing) digital files.

5. Integrate New Learning Into Your Daily Life And Conversations

As obvious as this one sounds, so many don’t take this last and necessary step in learning. Once students have grappled with new content over multiple encounters, it is useful and important to apply new learning to their everyday lives. This helps establish meaning and relevance. It also helps students generate new questions as they apply the learning in new contexts. It may help them form new representations or make connections to prior experiences or learning.

A great place to integrate new learning is through conversation, since we learn through watching and engaging with others. How about bringing up a topic at the dinner table? Or in a group text among friends? There’s also the option to set up a mini-project at home, especially if it could be used to solve a real problem. Applying new learning to meaningful contexts can help students understand that learning is not just confined to school. Learning is for anyone, anywhere, anytime, and can be used for just about any purpose. In fact, many adults who have completed their K-12 education cycle would most likely say that their most impactful learning experiences have occurred outside of the classroom, when attempting to solve actual problems in a work, relationship, or community setting.

Study Tips: How Do I Know What To Study?

Once students have created a space, routine, and plan for studying, getting into the actual study materials won’t be so daunting. Next, we’re delving into the actual process of studying. As students progress through K-12 school and into college, they receive less direction regarding what and how to study. Often, it is assumed that students know how to study, when the reality is that many students are never explicitly taught study skills. In these cases, the de facto approach is to open either (a) reread old notes, if they’re even available, or (b) open a textbook and read passively. Spoiler alert — neither of those practices fall under effective study strategies.

6. Try The Focused Note-Taking Technique

The focused note-taking technique is endorsed by AVID — a national program dedicated to teaching middle and high school students the skills they need in order to be successful in rigorous courses. The idea is that students take their notes, worksheets, and other academic materials and, through focused note-taking, determine what information is important or confusing. There are five steps to the focused note-taking process:

  1. Take notes. This starts with forming an essential question and using a desired format (2-column, 3-column, outline, Cornell-style, etc.) to organize information. It does not simply mean noting bullet after bullet and trying to capture as many words on a slide or coming from a teacher’s mouth as possible. It means being selective about what’s important and making note of that in an efficient way.
  2. Process the notes. Let’s say the student takes notes in class. They would then come back to those notes later on that afternoon or evening to process them, which involves making annotations, underlining important sections, circling vocabulary, or using highlighters to categorize information. Ideally, the student will use a consistent ‘key’ of symbols during the annotation process so that they can recognize symbols when they return to their notes the next time. Kami and PDF Escape are great sites to upload documents, annotate over them, and save them as new documents that students can then print or upload to a digital binder.
  3. Make connections. This involves writing in the margins when the student recognizes text-to-text, text-to-self, or text-to-world connections. It also involves asking questions when they encounter confusing or interesting material. The student might complete this step the day after they’ve processed the notes, while the information is still fresh.
  4. Summarize. Whether using paper notes, digital notes, worksheets, old assessments, or diagrams, the student should aim to write a 1-2 sentence summary that serves as the answer to the essential question. They should strive to use key vocabulary or concepts generated from their questions and connections in their summary. Again, this is an act they might perform the day after completing step 3, but there is plenty of room for flexibility.
  5. Apply new learning. Like we mentioned in the previous section, it is critical that students take what they are learning and attempt to use it in new settings. This helps cement new concepts in their long-term memory, because they have instilled meaning to the concept.

The focused note-taking process is great because it is flexible and unique to all students. Its overall purpose is to reduce the ‘forgetting curve’ that happens over time, from the moment we absorb new information. The focused note-taking process is actually proven to reduce the forgetting curve, which you can see here.

7. Use A Graphic Organizer

We’ve previously written about The Best Graphic Organizers for Promoting Critical Thinking, where we wrote: “The power of graphic organizers stems from dual coding theory, developed by psychology professor Allan Paivio in 1971. Essentially, Paivio suggests that our minds operate with two classes of ‘codes’ — mental images and verbal representations — and that our memory has two ‘storage facilities’ for these codes. While they are housed independently, they do interact with one another. Paivio’s central claim is that we are more likely to retain new information in our memory (and consistently retrieve it later), if it is stored in both the verbal and visual locations of the brain.”

Other than promoting multimodal learning, graphic organizers can also help students separate what they know for sure, from what they kind-of know, to what they do not know. KWL charts are a simple tool to use for this purpose. To create a KWL chart, students can draw a 3-column chart with the letter K in the first column, the letter W in the middle column, and the letter L in the third column. KWL is an acronym for “Know,” “Want to Know” and “Learned.” Before sitting down to study material, students can glance at their focused notes, for example, and make note of what they know in the first column. From their questions and connections in the margins, they can complete the second column. Intuitively, students can then devote attention to the sections of their materials or the concepts where they are still unsure or confused. Once they have touched on the material several times and used strategies that we mention in the following section, they can complete the third column and make a self-assessment based from that information.

Of course, there are many other different graphic organizers that students can use to plan, brainstorm, and study. Simple Mind is a great site that allows users to create mind maps and other graphic organizers.

8. Create Your Own Study Guide For Denser Texts

The older students get, the longer and denser their reading materials become. The idea of tackling a 20-60 page chapter can be ominous to students who are new to rigorous coursework. Creating a study guide can be a helpful tool to reduce stress and focus on essential information.

To create a study guide for a more extensive text, the student should scan headings, subheadings, diagrams, and keywords in order to create an outline. They should do this prior to reading the chapter or essay in depth. Think of it as a movie trailer — the headings and diagrams are a preview to the entire story. Not every piece of information is essential, and performing an initial screen can help the student orient themselves to the essential questions and information embedded among the pages. The student can even force themselves to be concise by writing their headings down and allotting themselves a given amount of space to write information in each section.

Study Tips: How Do I Learn What I’m Struggling To Retain?

This third set of study tips focuses on the ultimate goal of studying, which is to retain new information. It is true that everyone learns differently, and it is also true that there are tools or combinations of tools that can work for everyone. It just takes effort and curiosity on behalf of the learner to experiment and find what works best for them.

9. Create Analogies Or Visuals

We have written a lot about using analogies as a tool for critical thinking. In A Guide for Teaching with Analogies, Terry Heick writes: “Academic analogies are useful for teaching and learning because they require students to analyze a thing (or things), and then transfer that analysis to another thing. This kind of transfer requires at least some kind of conceptual grasp–understanding.”

Analogies are an effective tool because they help learners connect new content to what they already know. If they can compare a complex process, like writing an argumentative essay, to a more simple process, like making a sandwich, they may be able to visualize the similar parts to making a sandwich when they are in the challenging parts of writing an essay, and then use that connection to attempt the task.

Using visuals — pictures, diagrams, charts, etc. — are another helpful tool to categorize information or make connections to prior learning. In elementary school, many teachers use the cheeseburger method for creating an outline to a five-paragraph essay. Visuals tap into multimodal learning, which asserts that we learn better through words and pictures than through words alone.

10. Put It To Music

Surely we can all still remember a song from our early days of schooling that featured the United States and their capitals, the planets in the solar system, the elements in the periodic table…at the least, we know our A-B-Cs!

Music is one of the most potent learning devices — other than helping students feel at ease and joyful, music is a powerful memorization tool. One idea for students is to take a song that they like and substitute the lyrics for content-related information. If the student feels lyrically challenged, YouTube is a wonderful place to look up effective examples. No use in reinventing the wheel!

While we doubt that a teacher will permit a student to bring a lyrical cheat sheet to an exam, the act of humming the song can help a student remember a particular concept in an assessment that focuses more on lower-level critical thinking skills.

11. Use Mnemonic Devices

PEMDAS.

My very elegant mother just served us nuggets.

Students all over the globe have encountered mnemonic devices to help them remember the order of operations, the order of the planets in the solar system (RIP Pluto), or the five factors that students should consider when analyzing a source for credibility.

Mnemonic devices are useful because they reduce cognitive load and, ergo, stress on working memory. Cognitive load may be the most important concept a teacher should know. In our post defining cognitive load theory, we share that, “because short-term memory is limited, learning experience should be designed to reduce working memory ‘load’ in order to promote schema acquisition.” Reducing words, phrases, or concepts to simple letters accomplishes that task.

Study Tips: How Can I Assess Myself To Be Confident In What I Know?

We have now come to the final section — taking action steps to confirm that the studying methods utilized were effective, that we have learned what we did not previously know, and that we can apply that knowledge to new contexts. Here are a few ways to self-assess.

12. Gamify It By Creating Your Own Formative Assessment

There are plenty of digital options for students to self-assess their own knowledge. Kahoot and Quizlet are two of the most popular that we have come across. Both sites allow users to search through an extensive library of pre-made quizzes on all kinds of topics. Both Kahoot and Quizlet offer options for small groups or whole classes. Quizlet Live! separates larger classes into groups who must collaborate to answer questions correctly — the more consecutive responses they get correct, the further their animal mascot moves ahead on the real-time leaderboard. Kahoot also displays a leaderboard after each question, where students can see who is in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, as well as who is “on fire” (answering more than three questions correctly in a row). Students studying by themselves may enjoy Quizlet’s other capacities that enable them to create flashcards, matching games, and speed races. You can also add visuals to any flashcard.

13. Study With A Partner Or Small Group

We’ve previously written about the benefits of social learning in Bandura’s 4 Principles of Social Learning Theory. Studying with a partner can help students view and grapple with concepts from a different point of view. It can prompt them to consider different questions and lead them to different answers or representations. A study buddy can be a motivational force, especially if the students offer positive reinforcement to one another, and constructive criticism where it is needed.

Studying with a small group can also help students maximize their time. In the jigsaw strategy, students take a large amount of material and divide it up among themselves. For example, if there are four chapters to be read, each member of a four-person study group can be responsible for a chapter. After they’ve taken notes in combination with some of the study strategies listed above, they report back to the group with their understanding.

In the case that a student is unable to find a study partner or group, or their available peers in the class also double as distractions, there is always the option to find a digital study partner. StudyBuddy is a site that pairs students up with a partner, and we highly recommend that students try it out to see if they like it.