By Maria Yagoda and staff reporters

For students, going to class is the easy part. Retaining the information they learn, especially around test time, can be more challenging. Now we know that many students are going at it wrong.

Reviewing course notes is the most popular study approach (in a recent Student Health 101 survey, 80 percent of respondents said they do this). But research shows this doesn’t necessarily work—unless they’re reviewing those notes the right way.

Fortunately, a vast field of science devoted to memory and retaining information has given us more effective strategies for academic success. The best learning methods are active, such as taking practice tests, sketching diagrams, and asking oneself questions about the material. A diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables seems to help, and good sleep is important for the consolidation of all that information.


Have students try these research-backed study methods for improving cognitive performance

  1. Ask themselves questions about the material. This helps “[y]ou create a better understanding, which leads to better memory and learning,” said Dr. Mark McDaniel, co-author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Belknap Press, 2014), in an interview with Vox.
  1. Sketch out diagrams and flowcharts. Illustrations promote deeper learning, especially when they draw connections between concepts, according to a study published in Learning and Instruction.
  1. Use flashcards. By helping students identify their strengths and weaknesses, flashcards direct students toward the areas that need more attention, according to a study conducted at King’s College, London.
  1. Take frequent practice tests. “The biggest surprise to many people is that taking a test on something—having to retrieve it from memory—leads to much greater retention on a test given later than restudying the information does,” says Henry Roediger, another co-author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.
  1. Avoid cramming. Breaking up study sessions gives memories time to consolidate, according to a 2009 study in Applied Cognitive Psychology.
  1. Switch up their studying location. Mixing up where they study (e.g., transferring from a desk at home to the café) can help students remember the material, according to a 2008 study in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
  1. Grab a tea or coffee before 3 p.m. Caffeine intake can boost memory recall up to a day afterward, according to a 2014 study in Nature. But sip early—drinking caffeine after 3 p.m. can negatively affect sleep.
  1. Eat veggies and nutritious food. In a 2011 study at the University of Oxford, UK, students who avoided high-fat, low-carb diets in favor of balanced, fibrous meals up to a week before a big exam ultimately performed better.
  1. Get enough sleep and exercise. Regularly getting a full night’s sleep helps us better retain information and consolidate memories, according to a 2006 study in Neuroscientist. Why exercise? Because regular physical activity boosts the brain’s ability to function, according to Neurochemistry International (2001).
  1. Practice a musical instrument. Studies show that students who regularly practice music perform better on memory and cognitive ability tests.