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What is the best way to help my students retain information longer?

  • Published20 Jan 2015
  • Reviewed20 Jan 2015
  • Author Thomas Carew
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

At one time or another, anyone who has ever studied for a test has pondered the question: How can I improve my memory for what I have studied? Let me offer two helpful hints, both grounded in compelling experimental evidence.

HINT #1: Give it a rest!

About 130 years ago, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus performed a landmark series of studies examining human memory. His findings clearly illustrated the benefit of rest periods during repeated presentations of test material. This observation is now known as the spacing effect.

Since Ebbinghaus’ discovery, hundreds of studies have confirmed that experiences that are spaced out over time are far more likely to be remembered than the same number of experiences closely grouped together.

We’re still learning how the spacing effect occurs. To form a long-lasting memory, synapses — the connections between neurons — must be strengthened, a process that involves increased production of cellular proteins. There is some evidence that spaced learning does a better job of ramping up production of these proteins.

The bottom line: Take regular breaks during your lessons, and split the lesson up across two or more classes when possible.

HINT #2: Test yourself…a lot.

It is reasonable to think that the critical encoding events that lead to remembering material occur while students are studying, and that subsequent memory tests simply measure what they have learned. However, there is more to taking a test than meets the eye.

Studies by memory researchers have revealed the importance of test-enhanced learning. Their basic observation is that repeated testing can significantly improve later recall of material. Interestingly, repeated studying of material did not produce such a benefit, indicating that retrieval can be more important than encoding in the formation of long-lasting memories.

The neural basis of this phenomenon is not clear. However, one popular hypothesis proposes that retrieval triggers a process of reconsolidation where neural connections are strengthened.

The bottom line: Use multiple quizzes and tests, both in class and for homework, to promote retrieval of the material. And if you follow these two hints and your students ace your next test, remember you read it here first.

Barco A, Bailey CH, Kandel ER. Common molecular mechanisms in explicit and implicit memory. Journal of Neurochemistry. 97:1520-1533 (2006).

Ebbinghaus HE. Memory: a contribution to experimental psychology. New York, 1885.

Karpicke JD,  Roediger HL. Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention. Journal of Memory and Language. 57: 151-162 (2007).

Karpicke JD, Roediger HL. The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science. 319: 966-968 (2008).

Naqib F, Sossin WS, Farah CA. Molecular determinants of the spacing effect. Neural Plasticity. 581291 (2012). 

Philips GT, Kopec AM, Carew TJ. Pattern and predictability in memory  formation: from molecular mechanisms to clinical relevance.  Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. 105: 117-124 (2013).

Roediger III HL, Butler AC. The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 15(1): 20-27 (2011).
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