Study suggestions to help increase memory retention


With finals fast approaching, students are willing to resort to some pretty strange study techniques to cram for their upcoming exams. Here are four easy but not-so-common tips to help increase retention and decrease stress.


A recent study at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign provides compelling evidence for exercising to help prepare for exams. Mice that were allowed to exercise for 30 days were injected with a chemical that marks newly-created brain cells. These mice showed signs of being primed for cocaine addiction. Mice that were active before and while they were first introduced to cocaine were addicted for longer than mice that were sedentary when they were first introduced to cocaine and only began running after they had become addicted. Although the connection between exercise and addiction seems alarming, study author Justin Rhodes commented, “What the study shows is how profoundly exercise affects learning.”

When the brains of the mice were examined, mice that had been active throughout the study showed twice as many new hippocampus brain cells than the initially-sedentary mice. The hippocampus is a place in the brain critical for the formation of new memories, especially with the type of learning that requires you to associate a new thought with its context. So while you’re hitting the books, don’t forget to take breaks to hit the gym too!

Change up your study location, or study somewhere with a strong smell:

Your brain forms subliminal associations between information and the background sensations that occur while studying. A 1978 study found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words twice in two very different environments performed better than students who studied the list two times in the same location.

Smell also proves to be a powerful tool for encoding memory. Studying in a location with a distinct smell, such as freshly brewed coffee, can also help form associative memories. The olfactory bulb, which helps sense odors, has strong connections to the hippocampus and amygdala: parts of the brain that aid in memory formation and emotional encoding. If you prep for the test in a coffee house then bring a cup o’ joe along to the exam, you may remember more of what you studied.

Ask yourself questions, study by taking tests:

Find yourself reading the same line in your textbook again and again? It’s time to take a break for a quick and painfully-hard exam. Several studies have found that taking tests after learning material improves the brain’s capacity to retrieve the information, especially if the test is difficult. The more effort it takes to retrieve and work with a certain memory while taking an exam, the more securely this memory will become stored in the mind. The memory also becomes more accessible for the future.

Change your notes to a font that is hard to read:

In a recent study published in the journal Cognition, Indiana University and Princeton University psychologists presented two groups of participants with the same reading material, but in different fonts. They found that the participants who had been presented with the material in harder to read fonts performed better on an exam — another example of difficult learning facilitating easy memory retrieval.

Many of us are able to look in the back of the book at answers to problems and convince ourselves that we knew them all along, just because they seem familiar. In doing so, we are confusing ease of storage with ease of recall. Many a study so far tells us that the more we struggle with learning, the longer our memories will last. Changing those notes to a crazy font may be just the right amount of struggle needed to conquer finals week.

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