28 Learning to Study

April Ring


What you’ll learn to do: describe study techniques for long-term information retention

A student looking intently at his computer screen.

Learning never exhausts the mind.

—Leonardo da Vinci

By the end of this section, you will be able to compare passing a test and gaining knowledge (cramming versus learning). You will identify study techniques that help long-term retention of knowledge and will identify common myths about studying. You’ll also explain how peer groups can aid in class preparation.

Learning Deeply

Learning Outcomes

  • Compare passing a test and gaining knowledge (cramming versus learning)

What is the ultimate formula for learning at the deepest level? Is it raw intelligence, a great teacher, good studying habits, or a perfect study space? Is it critical thinking, creative thinking, a mindset of success, or dogged determination?

The formula is probably a combination of all these things and more. Each student, though, will have unique stories to tell about how deep learning has occurred for them. In fact, stories about deep learning are the basis of What the Best College Students Do, a book by historian and educator Dr. Ken Bain. In writing this book, Dr. Bain conducted more than one hundred interviews with notable lifelong learners, like Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Dr. Bain asked each interviewee to talk about how they used their college experience to develop and feed their curiosity about topics that interested them—topics that came to define them in many ways. The deep learning each person experienced helped them go on to lead focused and purposeful lives.[1][2][3]

If Dr. Bain were to interview you, what would you tell him about an experience you had in which you learned deeply? What factors account for how you absorbed knowledge during that experience and how you used the knowledge for something that mattered a lot to you? Conversely, which factors were missing when you had the experience of not learning deeply?

Learning deeply, says Dr. Bain, “doesn’t just mean the ability to remember stuff for an examination. It means the ability to create. It means the ability to analyze and synthesize, to solve problems, and to understand what that problem-solving means.” What matters most about the college experience and earning grades, he says, “is learning deeply, thinking about implications and applications, and expanding the powers of one’s mind. If students intend to learn deeply, grades will usually take care of themselves.”

In this section on deep learning, we examine key strategies you can use not only to get good grades, but also to truly enjoy your learning experiences in college and to reap the greatest rewards from them in the future. Deep learning is a key to succeeding in college and in life.

Deep Learning vs. Cramming

How can you tell if you are actually engaged in deep learning? Dr. Bain offers the following classification of learners:

  • Surface learners: They do as little as possible to get by.
  • Strategic learners: They aim for the highest grades rather than for true understanding.
  • Deep learners: They gain a real, rich education in college because they pursue their passions more than grades. They are also comfortable with experimenting instead of just “getting it right,” and they develop a personal connection to their studies.

Which learner do you feel you are now? Are you drawn to learn more deeply?

Five students studying in a classroomTo illustrate the process of deep learning, let’s use an example of what deep learning is not: “cramming” for a test―studying right before an exam without much preparation beforehand. Can you remember a time when you stayed up late to cram for a test the next day? How did it turn out for you? Did you pass the test? Did you learn much while you were cramming? How much do you remember now of the material you studied then?

The problem with cramming is that it doesn’t give the brain ample time to process information or to make the kinds of critical connections necessary for the brain to retrieve the information later on. When you cram, you simply forget what you have learned much faster than when you study diligently and steadily over an extended period of time.

Why would this matter? Why not just cram, take a test, do reasonably well, and move on to the next challenge? One of the main reasons not to embrace this approach is that without learning deeply, you lose the opportunity to apply what you learn to other pursuits (in college and in life). For example, if you have classes later in college that build on earlier courses, you’re unlikely to retain and apply what you learned from previous classes in which you crammed.

Another cost of cramming is that you forgo the pleasure and satisfaction of acquiring knowledge at a deep level.

Committing New Information to Long-term Memory

When you learn something new, the goal is to lock it in and move it from short-term memory, where it starts out, to long-term memory, where it can be accessed much later (like at the end of the semester or maybe years from now). Below are some strategies for transferring short-term memory to long-term memory:

  • Start reviewing new material immediately: Remember that people typically forget a significant amount of new information not too long after learning it. As a student, you can benefit from starting to study new material right away. If you’re introduced to new concepts in class, for example, don’t wait to start reviewing your notes and doing the related reading assignments—the sooner the better.
  • Study frequently for shorter periods of time: Once information becomes a part of long-term memory, you’re more likely to remember it. If you want to improve the odds of recalling course material by the exam (or a future class, say), try reviewing it a little bit every day. Building up your knowledge and recalling it this way can also help you avoid needing to cram and feeling overwhelmed by everything you may have forgotten.
  • Use repetition: This strategy is linked to studying material frequently for shorter periods of time. You may not remember when or how you learned skills such as riding a bike or tying your shoes. Mastery came with practice, and at some point the skills became second nature. Academic learning is no different: if you spend enough time with important course concepts and practice them often, you will know them in the same way you know how to ride a bike—almost without thinking about them.

Learning deeply goes beyond just test scores. It connects to skills you will need the rest of your life, like critical thinking, critical analysis, applying principles to solve problems, assessing your effectiveness, revising, and applying what you know.

So, if you are looking ahead to do well on a test or some other kind of assessment, avoid cramming. Start studying now and keep studying as you go along. Use your time-management skills and tools to make the time for it. Recall improves when studying is spread out over time, because every time you retrieve information or knowledge, you’re learning it more deeply. Also, by spreading out your studying, you can avoid mental exhaustion and having to cram before exams. Take study breaks to relax both mentally and physically.

Study Techniques for Long-term Retention

Learning Objectives

  • Identify study techniques that help long-term retention of knowledge

The following are additional study techniques you can use to work your brain; raise your grades; perform well on assignments; and, most importantly, learn deeply.

Prioritize Learning Materials

Whether you take one or more than one class, it’s simply impossible to retain every single particle of information you encounter in a textbook or lecture. And, instructors don’t generally give open-book exams or allow their students to preview the quizzes or tests ahead of time. So, how can you decide what to study and know what to know? The answer is to prioritize what you’re trying to learn and memorize, rather than trying to tackle all of it. Below are some strategies to help you do this.

  • Think about concepts rather than facts: From time to time, you’ll need to memorize cold, hard facts—like a list of math equations or a vocabulary list in a Spanish class. Most of the time, though, instructors will care much more that you are learning about the key concepts in a subject or course—i.e., how photosynthesis works, how to write a thesis statement, the causes of the French Revolution, and so on. For example, Jennifer might have been more successful with her studying—and felt better about it—if she had focused on the important historical developments (the big ideas) discussed in class, as opposed to trying to memorize a long list of dates and facts. Depending on the discipline being studied, it’s also important to have examples that illustrate the concepts. For example, in explaining the causes of the French Revolution, we might invoke the idea of a regressive tax system in explaining how social and economic inequality increased. An example of a regressive tax system would be one in which the more money you make, the lower your tax rate. Can you see how such a system would increase economic inequality? If Tonika is taxed 10% on her $1,000 per year salary and Melanie is taxed 1% on her $100,000 per year salary, then although Melanie pays more money into taxes than Tonika ($1,000 vs $100); that $100 for Tonika will have much more drastic consequences on her ability to buy essentials (food, housing, etc). In contrast, $1,000 is a drop in the bucket for Melanie. Thus, an example of a regressive tax system can help us better understand how regressive tax systems could further exacerbate economic inequality (which was one of the key causes of the French Revolution).
  • Take cues from your instructor: Pay attention to what your instructor writes on the board or includes in study guides and handouts. Although these words may be short—just a list of words and phrases, say—they are likely core concepts that you’ll want to focus on. Also, instructors tend to refer to important concepts repeatedly during class, and they may even tell you what’s important to know before an exam or other assessment.
  • Look for key terms: Textbooks will often put key terms in bold or italics. These terms and their definitions are usually important and can help you remember larger concepts.
  • Use summaries: Textbooks often have summaries or study guides at the end of each chapter. These summaries are a good way to check in and see whether you grasp the main elements of the reading. If no summary is available, try to write your own—you’ll learn much more by writing about what you read than by reading alone.
  • Plan your learning: Set realistic goals and prioritize your studying by surveying your syllabus, reviewing material, and identifying the most important topics covered in the class, or areas you’re struggling with.

Make Connections to Commit Information to Your Long-term Memory

  • Connect new information to old information: Take stock of what you already know—information that’s already stored in long-term memory—and use it as a foundation for learning newer information. It’s easier to remember new information if you can connect it to old information or to a familiar frame of reference.
  • Consider real-world applications: Use what you are learning when tackling real-world events or problems, or consider real-world applications of what you’re learning. Reflect on how the skills and knowledge you are building can be used beyond college. This reflection creates more pathways in your brain and can help keep you motivated.
  • Create association maps: Mind maps and concept maps can lead to meaningful learning, as they force you to reorganize and make sense of the information. Redo your notes as a diagram or as a concept map.
  • Make connections to other courses you’re taking or to your life: What you’re learning ideally applies to the real world. Make connections between course concepts, other courses, and real-world situations. If you’re having trouble understanding something, ask yourself how these concepts apply to your life.

More Study Tips

  • Engage in metacognition by monitoring your learning: Self-monitoring your learning includes evaluating, planning, and reflecting on your learning strategies and approaches. Reflecting on what you’ve done helps you see the value of certain strategies that leverage your strengths and improve your weaknesses. It also increases your sense of control over outcomes.
  • Seek specific and meaningful feedback: Ask for and use feedback from instructors, teaching assistants, and peers to adjust your learning and studying techniques. This advice can help you avoid studying and working very hard without results.
  • Chunk the information you’re studying: With chunking, you break the concept you’re struggling with into smaller pieces, and sort those pieces by theme. Focus on understanding these chunks and they’ll be much easier to digest. Test yourself five to fifteen minutes later. Mind maps and visual note-taking can help with chunking.
  • Reduce bias by asking questions: Check your thinking by asking questions about what you’re learning. What’s being said? Who is saying it? Why are they saying it? Who else says this? What do I believe? Why do I believe it? What’s missing? Asking good questions helps you solve problems, make thoughtful decisions, and think creatively.

Memory also relies on effective studying behaviors, like choosing where you study, how you study, and with whom you study. The following video provides specific studying strategies that can improve your memory.

You can view the transcript for “‘Studying Advice: Tips for College Students’ StudentMentor.org’s Student Video” here.

Study Myths Busted

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify common study myths and why they are wrong

Sometimes the best way to learn a new idea is to first unlearn an old idea that’s hindering the new one. This is certainly the case with principles of learning because there are many study myths and misconceptions about how people best acquire knowledge and retain it. Below, we identify and deconstruct some of these misconceptions and replace them with ideas you can use to help you learn deeply.

Myth 1: Talent Is Everything!

If you believe that your learning abilities are fixed, you’ll put up mental blocks that hinder your learning. For example, if you usually get straight A’s, you may avoid taking intellectual risks that take you out of your comfort zone or jeopardize your perfect record. If you believe you are not good at something, like math, you may avoid really trying or lower your expectations for yourself.

But students who have a growth mindset toward learning and who believe they can really improve over time and with effort, are the ones who tend to take more chances, progress faster, and see risk and failure as part of the learning process.[4] “Research suggests that students who view intelligence as innate focus on their ability and its adequacy/inadequacy, whereas students who view intelligence as malleable use strategy and effort as they work toward mastery.”[5]

Bust the Myth

  • Know that your beliefs affect your behaviors. Cognitive psychologist Dr. Stephen Chew calls these “beliefs that make you stupid.” Watch his video below for suggestions on how to overcome these beliefs.

You can view the transcript for “How to Get the Most Out of Studying: Part 1 of 5, ‘Beliefs That Make You Fail… Or Succeed'” here.

  • Apply what you learn in practice. Practice builds accuracy and fluency. This fluency also builds the confidence and flexibility to apply what you’ve learned in different situations. Professor of mathematics Michael Starbird describes how practice leads to deeper understanding in the following video:

You can view the transcript for “The First Element of Effective Thinking: Understand Deeply” here.

  • Feed your curiosity. Ask questions, perform experiments, talk to experts, work with others, make mistakes, and explore your questions from many different angles. These habits help develop a mindset of growth and will take you farther in your development.

Myth 2: I Only Need One Good Method for Studying

If your tried-and-true study strategies aren’t working, use a different approach. Monitor your learning by measuring your knowledge against what you expect. Before you start studying, think about how it will go. Predict your homework and test results, and see if you’re accurate or not. Notice when your expectations fall short of reality, or overshoot it, and adjust your approach accordingly. This is called metacognition, and it’s an important part of learning.

Bust the Myth

  • Reflect on your studying by asking yourself these three questions: what did you do, was it effective, and what can you change? Practice self-testing, described in the following video:

You can view the transcript for “Self-testing” here.

  • Test your perceptions. After an exam, make a prediction of how many questions/problems you answered correctly. When you get the test back, see how your score matched with your prediction. If you were way off, consider changing your study strategy to incorporate more self-testing, spaced study sessions,and varied approaches to practice.
  • Use strategies like generating your own questions and creating concept maps. Need some guidance? Take a look at the following video by Dr. Stephen Chew:

You can view the transcript for “How to Get the Most Out of Studying: Part 4 of 5, ‘Putting Principles for Learning into Practice'” here.

Myth 3: If It’s Easy, I Must Be Learning

When faced with familiar terms or examples, you might find yourself feeling like you really understand the material. But in fact, your brain might really just be responding to the fact that it has seen this exact material before. This familiarity is called the familiarity trap—when everything seems familiar, your brain doesn’t have to work as hard, so it feels like you’ve mastered the material even though you haven’t. Try to mix things up as you’re studying.

More and more evidence suggests that experiencing confusion about course material is where learning often begins. It might even be that some level of confusion actually activates the parts of your brain that regulate learning and motivation, helping you achieve a greater level of understanding. If you’re not confused, you might not be learning.

Try not to let yourself get discouraged if it feels like you aren’t understanding something. Not understanding can be a good sign. For a brief explanation, see Learning Goes through the Land of Confusion by Rhett Alan, a physics professor at Southern Louisiana University.


Bust the Myth

  • Retrieve—don’t regurgitate. Develop your own test questions, ask yourself questions, solve sample problems, and analyze for deeper meanings. Need some good questions to ask yourself? Try these. Why is this answer important? What does it relate to? How does this answer connect with what I already know? Can I elaborate this answer? Can I illustrate it with an example? Retrieving what you’ve learned from your memory helps you strengthen connections and relearn each time you do it; that is, every time you retrieve something from memory, you’re essentially re-learning it and creating different pathways for retrieval. The more paths you create to knowledge, the more likely it is that you’ll find a way there when you need it.
  • If you’re confused, don’t give up. Working hard to understand a problem or to figure something out isn’t a bad thing, and it will likely lead to a deeper understanding of the material, which will stay with you for a long time. Understanding a concept is especially important if your other courses build on that concept you are grappling with. If you need help developing new strategies, the following video might do the trick.

You can view the transcript for “How to Get the Most Out of Studying: Part 3 of 5, ‘Cognitive Principles for Optimizing Learning'” here.

Myth 4: Planning My Learning Is a Waste of Time

Being a self-directed learner requires planning. Answering the five questions from the graphic above can help to build a disciplined approach, which will help you tackle your academic work.

Planning can also help you develop a workable schedule for studying: “research shows spacing study episodes out with breaks in between study sessions or repetitions of the same material is more effective than massing such study episodes. Massing practice is akin to cramming all night before the test.”[6]

5Qs for Self-Directed Learners: Drawing of a learner surrounded by the following questions in text boxes: 1. What am I being asked to do. 2. What do I already know that will help me—and what do I need to know? 3. What's my plan—what steps are involved? 4. What progress am I making? 5. What would I change/do differently next time?

Planning reduces stress, helps you avoid cramming, and builds skills in metacognition. Planning is an important part of any career or occupation, so learning to plan well contributes to your overall competency. Even learning to plan takes practice, so start early!

FSW has a resource to help students plan and stay on track with studying. Enroll in Study Space and you will receive Canvas messages about upcoming study sessions. Study sessions are always optional and are scheduled at a variety of days/times each week on Zoom. Many students find participating in study space to help them stay focused, avoid distractions, and accomplish their study goals.

Bust the Myth

  • Target your studying: Try to study key themes, and take what you know about the exam structure into account when you’re planning. If you know you’ll have an essay, write study outlines! If you have to solve problems, go over homework or make up your own problems.
  • Review or practice throughout the term. Without regular review, you may have to relearn a large portion of the course right before the final.

Myth 5: Failure should be avoided at all costs

“Every success is built on the ash heap of failed attempts.” This reminder from Prof. Michael Starbird (University of Texas at Austin) offers a good reason not to fear failure. Failure doesn’t often feel good, but it may be your best teacher in helping you learn deeply. In fact, in the book 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, authors Edward Burger and Michael Starbird say that failure is an important foundation on which to build success.

But seeing failure as an opportunity for learning requires a fresh mindset. Once you make a mistake, you can ask, why is THAT wrong? Failure is an important aspect of much creative work, though it goes by a different name: iteration. Iteration is important in refining, working through problems, starting small, and refining until more can be added. Iteration is a feature of work in design, science, technology, and really any field where innovation is important.

Bust the Myth

  • Use failure as an opportunity to rethink and relearn. Ask yourself why you got it wrong and what happened. What is an alternative approach? How might a new approach be more successful? Watch Professor Michael Starbird’s video about making mistakes as a strategy for learning:

You can view the transcript for “The Second Element of Effective Thinking: Make Mistakes” here.

  • Give yourself permission to fail. When working through problems or studying unfamiliar concepts, consider allowing yourself to fail nine times before getting it right. This allowance may free your mind to think creatively about solutions without the pressure to get it right. You may find that repeated failures may actually lead you to new insights about the problem that you can take into other contexts.

Getting the Most Out of Peer Groups

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain how peer groups can aid in class preparation

Studying with fellow classmates and/or working with them on projects and class assignments can significantly enhance learning. Group work can help teams chunk bigger tasks into more manageable parts and steps. It can also help participants manage their time better. In addition, group work often involves discussion and collaboration, which can improve everyone’s understanding of the material. By being forced to explain something to others, you have to repeat it, which aids in learning. Additionally, when explaining something to others, you are sometimes forced to reconsider your own understanding of it when someone asks a question you cannot answer. Another benefit is the opportunity for feedback on ideas and performance. And working in groups always helps members develop stronger communication skills—both speaking and listening skills.

Getting the most out of working in a group itself requires some special skills. The following video, Group Work, from the University of British Columbia, offers some pointers.

You can view the transcript for “Group Work” here.

Below is a summary of the key points in the video:

  • Know your strengths and learn what others can bring to the table. Consider these strengths when assigning roles or project tasks.
  • First meetings are key to setting a good tone. Plan enough time to do the following:
    • Learn people’s goals for the group.
    • Learn people’s strengths.
    • Assign roles.
    • Set up a meeting schedule.
    • Review the tools you will need to support your work (Google docs, Wiki page, etc.).
  • Be clear about everyone’s goals so that the group has a clear idea of what people expect to get from the group study process. Goals are important to motivation.
  • Get everyone working:
    • Assign tasks that play to individual strengths.
    • Assign a progress checker to follow up on progress.
    • Use meetings to review progress and provide guidance and support where needed.
    • Choose a good online tool to help you collect and respond to one another’s ideas and questions between meetings.
  • Conflict is natural and can be necessary to achieve collaboration. Learn to manage it.
    • Develop effective communication skills.
    • Work toward mutual understanding.
    • Keep group interests at the forefront.
    • Be flexible in looking for solutions.
    • Make sure solutions work for everyone.


deep learning: the ability to create, analyze, synthesize, problem-solve, and be consciously aware of the process of problem-solving

study myth: a misconception, perhaps of long-standing, that keeps one from adopting new, more effective study methods and self-understandings

group work: a study format where students work together to address material, solve problems, and present ideas and interpretations to each other


  1. "Fostering Deep Learning—A Report from the CFT's 25th Anniversary." Center for Teaching. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
  2. "Secrets of the Most Successful College Students." Time. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
  3. "Ken Bain: What the Best Students Do." Spin Education. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
  4. Dweck, Carol. "What is a Growth Mindset?" Mindset Works, 2009, https://www.mindsetworks.com/science. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020. 
  5. Ambrose, S.A, Lovett, M.C. (2014) "Prior Knowledge Is More Than Content: Skills and Beliefs Also Impact Learning." Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum, edited by V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala, 2014, http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php.
  6. Clark, C.M. and R. A. Bjork. "When and Why Introducing Difficulties and Errors Can Enhance Instruction." Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum, edited by V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala, Teaching of Psychology, 2014, http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php.


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Learning to Study Copyright © 2023 by April Ring is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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