Memory at University

Return to Memory Strategies

IntroductionHow your memory worksForgetting and RememberingOrganizational Strategies to Promote RememberingNegative effects on memory

Memory for Learning at University

If core knowledge is not committed to memory early in a program, students will struggle to acquire more difficult and complex information.

To remember all that’s required to successfully complete a course, information needs to be reviewed frequently. Students who cram course material at the end of the term will find that much of the information is lost shortly after the final exam, meaning that they will have to relearn it next term. What a waste of time! But memory is important for more than just tests and exams: our ability to retain and retrieve information from long-term memory affects every aspect of academic life: our learning, our understanding, our ability to discuss ideas and participate in seminars, and so much more.

In this module, we aim to provide information as to how students can make the best use of their memories to support their learning in university.


The Three-Stage Model of Memory

When you understand how your memory works, it makes a lot more sense to build in time for regular review. Memory is an active process; when we learn, we use our memory when we are thinking, acquiring, and rehearsing information. Essentially, memory is our capacity to store and retrieve information; it is thought to happen in three stages.



Phase 1. Encoding

Working memory or the immediate sensory image (e.g., a picture). This phase fades in seconds unless you pay attention to certain features or transform (encode) the information into words.

Phase 2. Storage

Short-term memory or the temporary storage. This phase is small in capacity (3-10 items) and short in duration (10-30 seconds) unless information is repeated verbally.

Long-term memory. This phase is the relatively permanent, large capacity storage which holds our past. Memorized information is stored here, and this phase is what most people think of as their memory.

Phase 3. Retrieval

This phase involves getting information out of your long-term storage and using it — recalling it when you need it, in context, and being able to apply it.


Forgetting and Remembering

Why we forget

Did you know that about 60% of the material that you read is lost in the first hour after reading? It’s true! See “the curve of forgetting” (as illustrated below).

“The curve of forgetting”: by Day 2, if you have done nothing with the information (red line), you will have lost 50-80% of what you learned. Making time for active review (yellow line) can make sure you retain the information.

The primary reason we forget is Interference or “The Confusion Factor,” (e.g., mental overcrowding, multi-tasking). The more similar the event or fact that intervenes, the more likely you will forget.

Other reasons we forget are

  • Negative attitude or self-concept (e.g., “I have a lousy memory”)
  • Underlearning: not learned well enough and is easily forgotten
  • Disuse: materials is most rapidly lost after initial learning
  • Changed cues: the right cue is missing (e.g., you studied one way but the test question is presented in another way)
  • Lack of attention/effort/concentration

More details: Reasons for Forgetting.

How we remember

We remember by Thinking – Encoding – Rehearsing – Retrieving. We remember in pictures. Memory is helped by:

  • Organization and order
  • Funnel approach: moving from general to specific
  • Associations/ connections with prior knowledge
  • Personal meaning – emotions
  • Grouping or chunking

Long-term memory is helped by

  • Repeating and reciting
  • Rehearsing : reciting or repeating but in the actual place you need to remember the information
  • Elaborating (deep processing)
  • Connecting
  • Teaching someone
  • Retrieval: Self-testing

More details: Solutions for Forgetting.

Organizational strategies

Learn from General to Specific

Don’t go for the details first; there’s more chance that you will get lost. When reading, for example, firstly skim the text to get the gist. If you get the big picture, it is easier to remember the detail because you see how the detail connects to the whole.

Distributed practice

Study in short sessions over a long period versus cramming for concentrated periods of time. Cramming is an ineffective way to help you remember; as you have learned, memory is aided by rehearsal (e.g., reviewing, elaborating) which takes time.

See The Distribution of Practice Effect.


Decide on an order of importance and organize the material into an outline or framework. When reading, keep in mind the larger pattern of the book or journal article as you progress so you can relate subordinate ideas (e.g., details) to the larger pattern. Mind maps are a great tool for visualizing large patterns from subordinate ideas.


Concentrate on the most significant information. The type of memory strategies you use might depend on the nature of the course. That is, some courses require you to focus on the big picture (e.g., themes, concepts, patterns) while others require attention and memorization of detail.


Rehearsal Strategies


Remember that 60% of what you read is lost after the first hour unless you review the material. Both verbal and written recitation of the material will stave off rapid forgetting.You may recite while you read through each paragraph or section. Recite in you own words. Rephrasing or paraphrasing shows that you really know the information.

Source:  Utah State University’s Academic Resource Centre.

Reviewing & self-testing

See our online resource Exam Prep for ideas on reviewing and self- testing.


You can say it in your sleep! Overlearning is especially important when preparing for tests and exams because it will protect you if test anxiety blocks your ability to recall what you’ve most recently learned.


When reviewing for an exam, talk to someone (e.g., use a study group), or yourself, about the topic you’ve been studying. When you are able to explain the information clearly and intelligently, you have really learned it.

Sleep on it!

We do a lot of thinking while we sleep—sometimes our most creative thoughts occur during the subconscious sleep state. Freshly learned material is better remembered after sleep than after an equal period of daytime activity when interference may take place. While we sleep our minds are busy sorting, filing, and deleting information.

Negative Effects on Memory


Lack of sleep

Sleep plays a vital role in organizing and laying down memories. So, it’s not surprising that a recent U.S. survey[1] discovered that students who study all night have slightly lower grades than those who get a good night’s sleep. Good sleep hygiene is critical to good memory so aim for a full night’s sleep, especially when studying for tests and exams.

For more information about sleep, see our online resource on Exam Prep or’s article “Snooze it or Lose it.”


Drugs & alcohol

Smoking marijuana causes short-term memory deficits which can persist for some weeks after. So, if you use these drugs, think twice about smoking in the weeks before exams. For more, see Marijuana & Memory.

Having a hangover is more than a nuisance when you need to think hard while studying, taking notes in a lecture, writing an essay, etc. Alcohol impairs judgment, slows your reaction time, and affects your sleep patterns. Alcohol is also a depressant which can negatively affect your mood. For more, see Alcohol & Academics.

Source: Toronto Star, “Night School a Failure.” December 20, 2007. The study was conducted by Dr. Pamela Thacher and published in the January issue of Behavioral Sleep Medicine.


Food & nutrition

Good nutrition is important for thinking and for memory. Toronto scientist, Dr. Carol Greenwood, conducts research on how general health and diet contribute to brain function and decline. In her research, people who ate complex carbohydrates for breakfast (whole grain cereals and breads) got a memory boost. But those who ate a simple carbohydrate, like white bread, experienced memory decline.

Food & drinks that help memory: Omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., oily fish like salmon, walnuts), and fruits and vegetables, particularly brightly coloured ones which are high in anti-oxidants. Another ‘brain food’ is lecithin, a phospholipid containing ‘choline’, a building block of one of the neurotransmitters in the brain that form thought and memory. Foods rich in lecithin are soybeans, eggs, and wheat germ. You can also buy lecithin as a supplement in the health section of most grocery stores. Drink lots of fresh water, too.

Foods & drinks that hinder memory: refined sugars and white flour, food with MSG and aspartame (like Nutrasweet), coffee (can provide a short term memory boost, but it can make you jittery).

Source: Tactics to improve a sluggish memory: New Activities, rhyming techniques, eat well. Canadian Press
Written by: LISA ABEL Aug. 20, 2007


Anxiety and stress

Worries about your academic and/or personal life can affect your ability to concentrate and, therefore, remember what you’ve heard, read, or observed. Stress causes your mental wheels to spin around preventing you from releasing the unconscious thought processes that get you to the highest level of information processing (i.e., the Know Stage). The good news is that you can learn to manage your stress with the right mindset and useful coping strategies. Kevin Trudeau, in his bestseller Mega Memory, outlines an interesting eye movement technique that can reduce stress and help recall. It’s easy and you can do it anywhere. Try it during your next test! If you suffer from high levels of stress, consider consulting a learning strategies or personal counselor at Queen‘s Student Wellness Services.


Illnesses and medications

Some medications can negatively impact concentration and, in turn, your ability to recall. If you need to start of new course of medication that might impair your memory, especially at very busy times during the term (e.g., midterms/exams), consider making your professors aware of your situation. If you’re not comfortable doing this, consult a learning strategies or personal counselor at Queen’s Counselling Services.



For the mature aged student reading this module, you might be wondering if your age has anything to do with ability to retain and recall information. The good news is that aging is not as big a factor in memory loss as was once thought. Recent studies have shown that we can retain our memories if we continue to ‘exercise’ them, i.e. practice daily activities to aid memory such as word games or learning a foreign language.