7 Information Retention Tips for Long-Term Learning

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Returning to school as an adult student to pursue an online college degree is a major decision. It takes time, organization, and commitment to hold a job and keep up a personal life while also fulfilling degree requirements. As you transition back to being a student, having a system in place for processing and retaining information may be beneficial.

Consider the following tips to help promote positive study habits:

1. Take notes by hand.

One way to help improve your information retention is by taking notes. According to three studies conducted by researchers from UCLA and Princeton University, students who take notes longhand perform better on conceptual questions than those who use their laptops to notetake.1 Students who take notes on a laptop during a lecture, however, may write verbatim and not describe a concept in their own words.1 So, when attending a lecture, consider putting away your laptop and opting for a pen and a notebook instead. You may find that explaining the material in your own words helps you remember it better.

2. Review your notes and rewrite them.

Spend a few minutes reviewing your notes or the main ideas of a lesson after your class instructor presents the information. Refreshing your mind can help transfer the concepts from your short-term memory to your long-term memory.2 Rewriting your notes is another option to help reinforce material you’ve learned and to build your understanding.2 The more often you see something, the more likely you are to recall it.

3. Self-test for retention.

Before an exam, create flashcards to test your knowledge and identify what you know and don’t know. First, decide what questions or keywords you think the test will include. Then, write each question or keyword on the front an index card and put the answers or definitions on the back. As you go through the cards, ask yourself the questions and then flip the card over to check your responses. Use the process of elimination to determine what you know and what you need to check.3

4. Create a teachable moment.

Train yourself to consume information as though you must teach it to someone else. This method, known as the “protégé effect,” may help boost your own understanding and retention because, when you teach or intend to teach something to another person, you also learn it.3, 4 Ask friends or co-workers if you can share and present the material to them to test your understanding of the material.

5. Explain the material to yourself.

When you’re having a difficult time understanding class material, you might opt to use the self-explanation strategy—thinking through a problem out loud—to walk yourself through new material and to bridge new information to past knowledge.3, 5, 6 Talk to yourself and ask questions such as:5

  • What information do I need to solve my problem?
  • Where can I find the information I need?
  • Has someone else solved or answered my problem?

Asking questions and explaining the material to yourself can help further your understanding of what you’re doing and thinking. As you work to determine what you still need to learn, you can fill in any missing information and connect what you’ve learned to what you already know.5, 6

6. Apply the SQ3R Method.

You may have used the SQ3R method—the 5-step process used to help comprehend, retain, and process written information—in high school or middle school. However, people of all ages can use this method. The acronym SQ3R means survey, question, read, recite, and review.2, 7

When you open your textbook to the material you’re learning, scan or survey the chapters for images, graphs, or charts before you start reading. Pay attention to the titles of each chapter and, if the text has questions at the end of the chapter, note them. If you have questions, write them down.

As you read, focus on one section at a time, write what you don’t understand, and pinpoint the important parts. Recite or state how the information connects to what you already know and try to answer the questions you recorded. Review what you’ve read and organize the information in a way that's meaningful to you to help recall the information better.

7. Eliminate distractions.

When it’s time to study, try to find a quiet space free from distractions. Any noises, like new message alerts, might urge you to check your devices. So, you may want to disable the alerts on your smartphone or computer and turn off your television to encourage productivity and limit interruptions.

Study methods are different for everyone. For some, new information just “clicks” and reviewing an idea or concept isn’t necessary. But for others, they must spend time reading, writing, and reviewing notes to comprehend and remember class material. If you’re struggling, try one or more of the above study suggestions and then assess whether the method helps you or not. The key is finding what works best for you.

If you need help, connect with the Smarthinking tutoring resource in the Virtual Campus or reach out to your class instructor or student advisor.


1. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” SAGE journals. Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614524581 (Visited 02/08/2019).
2. “Review Strategies Committing Learning to Long-Term Memory.” MindTools. Retrieved from: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newISS_05.htm (Visited 02/08/2019).
3. “Smart Strategies for Student Success: Five techniques you can use with students in any class to help boost their long-term learning outcomes.” edutopia. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/smart-strategies-student-success-donna-wilson-marcus-conyers (Visited 02/08/2019).
4. “The Protégé Effect: Why teaching someone else is the best way to learn.” Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-be-brilliant/201206/the-prot-g-effect (Visited 02/08/2019).
5. “Learning Strategy 5: Self Explanation.” VirtualSalt. Retrieved from: https://www.virtualsalt.com/learn5.html (Visited 02/08/2019).
6. “Self-explanation is a powerful learning technique, according to meta-analysis of 64 studies involving 6000 participants.” BPS Research Digest. Retrieved from: https://digest.bps.org.uk/2018/12/07/meta-analysis-of-64-studies-involving-6000-participants-finds-that-self-explanation-is-a-powerful-learning-technique/ (Visited 02/08/2019).
7. “SQ3R: AN EFFECTIVE READING METHOD FOR ALL STUDENTS.” Pediatrics Plus. Retrieved from: http://www.pediatricsplus.com/parents/therapy-resources/therapy-resources/sq3r-an-effective-reading-method-for-all-students (Visited 02/08/2019).

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