Skip to Main Content

Student Learning Success Guides!

MEMORY & RECALL are important aspects of learning, but they’re only part of the picture. Understanding how the brain works can make it easier to learn and remember. You'll probably need to change some study habits to get the most out of your brain! 


Be sure you understand information before you attempt to memorize the details. 

Your brain needs time to absorb and remember information. Don't expect immediate results.

Use as many of your senses as possible when learning and memorizing information.

Part of learning is trial and error. Don't be too hard on yourself when you make mistakes. Instead, learn from them.

Team up with classmates to help you learn, remember, and recall information. Discuss course content and quiz each other often.  


How much do you know about the brain and how learning works?

How might your attitude affect your ability to learn? Do you think it’s fun? Tedious? Exciting? Hard? Boring?

If you wanted to improve your memory, what steps could you take?  

When you need to learn new material for an exam, what study strategies do you use?

Do you monitor your learning to figure out what works best for you?

The Brain Science Behind Learning

For thousands of years, scientists and scholars have contemplated and researched the complexities of the brain and learning. This brief overview barely scratches the surface, but even basic knowledge can help you improve your approach to learning: 

  • Think of your brain cells, called neurons, as information messengers. 
  • When you learn something, neurons develop new pathways through which they carry information messages. 
  • It takes time for your brain to develop these neuronal pathways.
  • The learning curve is usually steep at first while the pathways are still forming.
  • You quickly forget new information because the pathways are either weak or nonexistent in the beginning. 
  • Over time, new learning is solidified as the pathways increase in number and strengthen.
  • Active learning that includes repetition, reinforcement, and practice are essential if you are to retain new knowledge.

So what are the implications? Learning takes time, perseverance, and patience. It's usually not comfortable. If you're confused, you're probably learning! Don't be too hard on yourself as you move through the learning curve. 

Memory Systems

Many models have been developed to explain learning and memory. Does this diagram look familiar?

  • Sensory memory is activated when you receive input through your senses. You may not even be aware of the input unless you're paying attention. If you're not paying attention, neuronal pathways don't develop. 
  • Short-term/working memory is brief storage of information you're currently using. You typically remember only 5-9 items at a time, which you quickly forget unless you intentionally encode (store) the information in long-term memory. This is the process of building strong neuronal pathways. 
  • Long-term memory is relatively permanent storage of huge amounts of information. To retrieve (recall) information from long-term memory, it's helpful to organize it in some way. 

Why does this matter? You might think you have a poor memory, but maybe you're not forming strong neuronal pathways. For example, if you meet someone once and don't see them again for a few weeks, it's normal to forget their name because it wasn't encoded in your long-term memory yet. You need memory strategies like rehearsal and reinforcement to make it stick. 

Memory Strategies

You could read hundreds of sources on the topic of memory strategies. This brief overview lists just some of the possibilities. 

Structuring strategies = ways to organize information so you can more easily remember and retrieve it 

  • write outlines
  • create concept maps
  • make tables

Rehearsal strategies = repeated practice of information to commit it to memory

  • read a passage, then look away and state it in your own words from memory
  • test yourself by writing down what you're attempting to recall
  • use spaced practice and interleaving (see "The 6 Habits of Highly Success Students" below)
  • talk to others about what you're learning

Association strategies = connecting new information to information you already know to make it more meaningful

  • generate examples
  • use visuals
  • connect ideas within and between courses
  • use mnemonics devices like acronyms or acrostics

For more details, see "Mnemonics: Memory Techniques" and "Memorization Strategies" below. Keep in mind that effective memory strategies for one subject may not translate well to a different subject.