Smart Student Study Strategies

Study Better

Smart Student Study Strategies that are Extremely Effective for STRONGER Memory

This article is written TO STUDENTS. They need to know these study strategies. You can share this information in parent newsletters and SHOW students how to use the strategies.

Smart Study Strategy #1: Comprehend It!

  1. Make sure you understand what you learned in class. Knowledge must be accompanied with understanding to really make a lasting memory. Psychologist Robert Sternberg, E. Grigorenko, and L. Zhang said, (Styles of learning and thinking matter in instruction and assessment, Perspectives on Psychological Science 3 (2008), 486-506), “one cannot apply what one knows in a practical manner if one does not know anything to apply.” So get the knowledge in your head so that you can understand it and then apply it constructively. Mastery requires knowing and understanding how to use it! The content given during class time needs to become meaningful to YOU the LEARNER! Do everything you can to make the content meaningful, and therefore, memorable. Some strategies to help you understand the content better:
  • Read a textbook or article about the information presented in class
  • Study visuals connected to the vocabulary words mentioned in class
  • Mindmap the “disjointed” content that was learned so that you can connect the concepts and labels for better understanding
  • Create webs of vocabulary words to see the connections
  • Google more information or vocabulary words about the content
  • Create questions WHILE you are learning or reading about the content
  • Reorganize your notes by adding visuals, color, and rephrased sentences – the more you place the learning in your own words (and making sure your understanding is correct), the stronger the memory will be.
  • Elaborate on the topic by creating metaphors/similes, mnemonics, and nonlinguistics (pictures or symbols). Also make sure you can explain it to someone else, rephrase in your own words, and explain how it connects to other known topics and yourself.
  • Create a big picture, visual summary and keep adding to it. This powerful visual will stay in your memory as you connect new knowledge and understanding to it.


Smart Study Strategy #2: Self-Quizzing Often Sinks It in the Brain

  1. Practice retrieving the new learning by quizzing yourself often. Self-quizzing should become your primary study strategy (rereading your books and notes is actually not effective UNLESS you don’t understand the content – it’s not a sure path for memory). The only way you know if the new learning made it into long-term memory is to RETRIEVE it from your brain. Be aware that mere repetition did not enhance learning in several studies. These studies have confirmed that repetition by itself does not lead to good long-term memory. (Tulving, E. Subjective organization and the effects of repetition in multi-trial free recall learning, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 5 (1966), 193-197). Student who reread their lecture notes and texts to the point of fluency had a false sense that they can recall them at a moment’s notice. Even the most diligent students fail to know their weak areas of what they are studying. This creates a false sense of mastery which is why self-testing is truly the way to know if it’s in that long-term storage area (Gilovish, Thomas. (1991). How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. NY: Free Press). The following strategies will help you self-quiz:
  • After going over notes or while reading about the content, STOP and ask yourself questions or write them in the margin of books/notes. Research these questions or ask the teacher for clarification. Be able to recall the answers without looking in notes/texts the answers. Some questions to ask:
    • What are the key ideas? Main ideas?
    • What terms or ideas are new to me?
    • How would I define these words?
    • How do these ideas relate or connect with what I already know?
  • Create a test that forces you to think about what you learned. Write or verbalize aloud the answers. Go back to notes or books to determine if you are correct. You could create an on-going test after every 2 days of class. Great way to study (see points on Spaced Practice).
  • This quizzing helps you to see areas of strength and growth opportunities. After identifying them, spend most of your time learning the growth opportunity content better.
  • WEIRD: the harder it is for you to recall new learning from memory, the stronger the memory can be. Making errors on your self-quizzes will not set you back so long as you check your answers and correct misunderstandings.
  • Log vocabulary words that you learn. Your background knowledge is made up of vocabulary, labels, terms, concepts and generalizations. LeAnn suggests the Learning Frame Method (3 x 5 card folded in half; one half has word and picture. The other half has bullet points of information about that word (description, examples, facts, synonyms, etc.). On the back of the 3 x 5 card, create a meaningful sentence with the word in it and make it about YOU! Relevance and emotion help you remember content).

FYI – If you are still not convinced to self-quiz OFTEN, there was research performed at a middle school in Columbia, IL. The students who self-quizzed often averaged an A- on their quizzes while those that just reviewed often the content averaged C+ (McDaniel, Agarwal, Huelser, McDermott & Roediger (2011). Test-enhanced learning in a middle school science classroom: The effects of quiz frequency and placement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 399-414).

Smart Study Strategy #4: Spaced Practice Makes Permanent

  1. Space out your retrieval practice so it’s not mass practice. We’ve known for years that cramming the night before a test could give you a decent grade the next day but it certainly will not create long-term memory of those concepts lumped and massed together in one sitting. I’ve always heard neuroscientists say: “Learn it 5 times over in 3 weeks rather than 5 times in one day.” Spaced practice means studying information more than once and leaving time in between these practice sessions. (Moulton, Dubrowski, MaxRae, Graham, Grober, Reznick, Teaching surgical skills: What kind of practice makes perfect? Annals of Surgery 244 (2006), 400-409) (Karpicke, Butler, Roediger. Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own?, Memory 17 (2010), 471-479.) How can this be done:
  • Self-quiz every other day (incorporate the new information but keep RETRIEVING the previous learning).
  • Create flashcards and continue going over them. Make sure these flashcards FORCE you to retrieve the memory rather than just read over them. Also ensure that you can EXPLAIN these words to someone else and use them in a meaningful sentence. (Create your own flashcards on or ask your teachers to make a game out of it for the whole class on
  • Interleave other types of concepts while studying. In other words, mix up your math problems that have different rules. This will force your brain to have to determine each time you solve a problem, which rule or pattern you will need to use in order to solve the problem. This practice called interleaving strengthens memory.
  • Space out your self-quizzing so a little forgetting actually can happen. That way you are working harder to reconstruct your learning. More effort means stronger memory.


Smart Study Strategy #4: Prep Your Brain

  1. Prime your brain before the class. If you know what the next unit is going to be about, read articles or Google images about this topic before the instruction from the teacher. Priming is a powerful memory tool – there will be neural networks in place in your brain to store the new information. Priming improves efficiency in the student’s ability to name a word, an object, and a concept or even perform a skill with this earlier exposure (Martin & van Turenout, 2002). This extra effort to learn information is very beneficial to memory too!


  • Generation = This strategy is an attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or solution. Try to solve a math problem that you have never solved before but it’s built upon other concepts that you have learned – you will be amazed at how well you remember that problem because you struggled with it. Great effort toward learning improves memory.
  • The more you know about a topic before the formal instruction, the more you can build on those neural networks. Google the topics days or weeks before you actually learned it. Just learn a few facts or view quick video clips about the topic before you learn it in depth.
  • Create questions that you have about the topic or the reading beforehand. Predict the answers beforehand too, and then confirm.


Smart Study Strategy #5: Reflect and Ask Questions

  1. Reflect on your learning at the end of class AND/OR after formal quizzes or tests. Re-study what you didn’t understand by using any of the elaboration strategies list within point #1. Ask the teacher questions so you truly understand why you missed the problem or question. Some questions that help you reflect on daily learning or periodic tests or quizzes are:
  • Writing to Learn is powerful! Write about what you learned from your mistakes, from the experiment, from the project, from the lesson, etc. Use the new vocabulary words that you learned too!!! Research to strength of strategy: Over 800 college students in several introductory psychology classes listened to lectures throughout the semester. After the lecture, instructor asked them to write to learn, so they generated their written summaries of key ideas in their own words and created examples of what they learned too. For other key concepts presented, the teacher just summarized the learning for them and showed them via slide. Students were to copy the summary verbatim from the slide. I bet you know the results: Those who wrote their own summaries scored significantly higher (half a letter grade) on those concepts while the other concepts that were summarized FOR them by the professor were not remembered as well for the test. In the follow-up tests 2 months later, the benefits of writing to learn as a form of reflection proved to be worth the time! (Gingerich, Bugg, Doe, Rowland, Richards, Tomkins, & McDaniel, Active processing via write-to-learn assignments: Learning and retention benefits in introductory psychology, Teaching of Psychology, in press.)
  • What did I learn well today? What strategies did I use to learn it?
  • What could have gone better? What didn’t I understand?
  • What can I do on my own time to understand it better?
  • What other knowledge or experiences does this information remind me of?
  • What should I learn better or research more for better understanding?


BONUS: What college students have done to “knock the socks” off test and quizzes. I would rather say: What college students did to master content effectively and efficiently (not necessarily quickly let me remind you)(Brown, Rodiger III, and McDaniel. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning)


  • Read about the topic before a lecture.
  • Anticipated test questions and answers while taking notes or while reading about it.
  • Asked self questions at certain “down-time” points within the class (summarized learning right after learning a chunk or module).
  • Reviewed study guides and highlighted terms and phrases that didn’t make sense; relearned this information after getting answers to misunderstandings.
  • Copied bolded terms and their definitions (yet taking the time to rephrase the definitions into own words) into a notebook or on notecards (Learning Frames).
  • Took practice tests that are on-line or provided by instructor. Then learned what was not known.
  • Reorganized the course information into a study guide created by student (using color and visuals to reinforce the concepts).
  • Rewrote information that is confusing and placed that content in key areas around living environment (refrigerator, door, mirror, etc.).
  • Spaced out practicing or studying of class notes: every other night or every 3 days, etc.




Author: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. is the author of 11 books focused on teaching strategies: Deeper Learning (2008) and Bringing the Common Core to Life (2014) are the more recent books. LeAnn specializes in cognitive science in education by using the best tools to reach every student. LeAnn is passionate about schools becoming more empathy-centered. You can contact her: or visit her website:

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