A Review of Optimizing Learning in College: Tips from Cognitive Psychology


This article was published in 2016 by the Association for Psychological Science.  The authors are Adam L. Putnam, Victor W. Sungkhasettee, and Henry L. Roediger, III.

Below is a review that highlights key portions of the paper listed above.  This article is of particular importance to me because I teach 11th and 12th grade Advanced Placement (AP) students who will (80% – 90%) attend a college or university.  The tips provided, in my estimation, aim to “provide a brief tutorial in how to optimize learning in a college course.”  Although the article is tailored for the college student, I cover a vast majority of these tips with my high school students.  These suggestions are wonderful for a few reasons:

  1. They are applicable across most subject areas.
  2. They are applicable across most ability levels.
  3. They capitalize on how learners learn.

To expound on point #3, I believe this is a much underappreciated and underused aspect of teaching and learning.  I have never heard of prospective teachers being exposed to ‘how we learn’ in their training, and very rarely is it mentioned in professional development training or edchats.  A general knowledge of how our brain works to foster memory retention, as well as suggestions for how to utilize this knowledge, would only serve to make our classrooms more efficient and effective.  

The information provided below and at the above link (the full paper) should be required reading for students in high school and college, teachers, and parents.  If used appropriately, these tips can reduce stress and increase retention of material, while also working to establish disciplined study habits.  The authors state that many of the strategies seem counterproductive because they take more effort and time.  However, this encourages students to actively think about what they are learning.  Typically, effortful learning is more reliable learning.  So, rereading and highlighting (which upwards of 80% of students report as being their primary form of study) are quite fleeting in their long term benefits.  Yes, rereading is faster.  Yes, highlighting is faster.  But, typically, there’s not a lot of mental effort, or cognition, required for these tasks.  Students don’t actively participate with the information.  As the strategies listed below will show, more active engagement with the material leads to a greater result, assuming the reason students study is to gain knowledge.

Starting the Semester

Students who struggle seem to have poorer time management skills.  Taking some time to get organized in the early stages of the semester (ideally, before it even starts) will give you a nice head start.  

  1. Organize your time by starting to use a calendar.  Look at your class syllabi and enter in quiz, test, and project dates.  Create alerts on your phone for important assignments so they don’t sneak up on you or slide through the cracks.  Calendars not your thing?  The authors suggest looking into ‘the One Minute To-Do List’ by Linenberger for help, or see if you school has any time-management resources.  
  2. Be sure to also buy or rent your books before the course begins.  You’ll need them.  If you go used, make sure the text isn’t already highlighted.  The person who owned the book previously may have taken poor notes or highlighted unimportant information.  Paying attention to poor highlighting can impede your understanding.  
  3. Lastly, before the semester starts, be sure to find a quiet place to study.  Eliminate distractions.  That means putting down your phone, taking the earbuds out, and turning off the television.  “Repeatedly switching attention among tasks makes learning less effective.”  Even if you believe you are not distracted by social media or music or the television…you are.  

Preparing for Each Class

If your teacher/professor assigns readings to do before class, do them.  Don’t rush, though.  Take your time, keeping in mind that the goal is to comprehend the material, not just finish.  Comprehension takes time.  If you’re rushing through the reading, you actually could remember less (the speed-comprehension trade off).  Remember, as you read, actively engage with the material.  Simply reading and highlighting will not lead to better retention of material.  Here are some strategies for interacting with the reading:

  1. Before you begin your reading, answer comprehension questions that may accompany the assigned reading.  It may seem a bit strange to answer questions before you know the information, but research shows, even if you’re making educated guesses, you may remember more than if you did not answer any questions.  Primarily, this occurs through activating prior, or related, knowledge you have about the topic.  Activating these memories, or schemas, make it easier to connect the new material to what you already know.
  2. While reading, generate questions about the important points.  For instance, if you come across terms you don’t know/understand, literally write down a question you can revisit and answer about the term.  The authors give the example of reading about cognitive dissonance.  Perhaps you would write down questions like “What is cognitive dissonance?” or “What are two real-life examples that show cognitive dissonance at work?”  Like previously stated, answering these questions will help you to connect what you already know with what you are reading (this is also known as elaboration).  Also, the authors note these generated questions can also assist as a study guide later.
  3. A last method for use during and after reading is read, recite, and review.  After reading the text, attempt summarizing the material from memory.  Next, review the chapter and note what you remembered for the summary and what you forgot.  This method amplifies what people remember when reading a text.

“Recalling information from memory, as in the read-recite-review method, is one of the best ways to remember information.”

These strategies may take more effort when compared with rereading and highlighting, but they also provide for better long-term retention of material.  Quizzing after reading provides two benefits: it increases your memory for what you read and gives you a nice idea of the concepts/information you need to revisit and study.

During Class

Go to class.  Class attendance is highly correlated wish success in the class.  Go to class.


  1. Attending all of your lectures is quite important.  Students may say that the teacher/professor only covers exactly what I read before class and decide not to attend.  Actually, that is a good thing for learning.  Experiencing information more than once only encourages successful learning.  Also, if the professor provides an additional example or explains a concept in a different way, you can learn much more.  Also, when there is a delay between experiences with the material (spacing effect), you are more likely to remember the material.
  2. It is also a good idea to leave your laptop at home if it is not required to access an ebook or run a program necessary for the class.  This allows you to avoid distractions that accompany internet usage…primarily the presence of social media.  Your phone should be put away for the same reason.  “Evidence shows that using social technologies in class is negatively correlated with college grade point averages.”  Also, laptop use not only distracts you, it can also hinder the learning of those around you.  
  3. This leads to point three; write your notes instead of typing them.  Evidence shows those students who have to synthesis information to take proper notes remember more of the information presented.  While students using a laptop take more notes, they generally aren’t processing the information and are only interested in typing as much as possible.  Those writing notes with a pen/pencil have to organize their thoughts, decide what is most important for writing, and transcribe the necessary information.  This part of note taking appears to more greatly benefit the learner than typing down all the notes for later studying.
  4. If possible, try to obtain the slides before class.  A lot of professors/teachers post their presentations online for just this reason.  Professors may present information too quickly, so being able to look over them and print them before class can aid in combating this.  Also, the authors point to a study where students learned more by having the slides printed out before the lecture.  Students were able to write directly onto the printed slides, not worrying about the text that is already on the slides, which give them more time to think about information and listen to the professor.


After Class

Most students put the day’s work out of their mind as soon as class is over.  However, a little time management and proper study skills can assist in retaining information from your days reading and class meeting.  

  1. At a minimum, flesh out your lecture notes.  Add information you didn’t originally write down and be sure to revisit any information you did not originally understand.  You can write any confusing information in the form of a question.
  2. Also, another great exercise would be to rewrite your notes from memory.  Make sure you cover the main points your professor/teacher covered and assimilate this information with big ideas from the text.  Synthesizing in this way can assist in broadening your understanding of the material and/or help you to see different ideas relate.  
  3. Finally, try to answer any of the questions you wrote from point 1 and combine these questions with the questions you composed during the reading of material.  

Preparing for Tests

Most students study at the last minute.  This is commonly called cramming.  Again, most students report they study by rereading the assigned material and their notes, focusing on what they previously highlighted.  Research suggests, though, that these methods are not the most effective.  

    1. A more advantageous way of preparing for tests is to study each subject a little bit every day.  This is commonly called ‘spaced practice.’  “For learning over the long term, it is much better to study information repeatedly over time.”  Spacing your practice does not take any more time than cramming, and you learn more from each session of study than if you simply crammed.  It may feel like you remember more from cramming immediately, but spaced practice leads to greater long-term retention.  
    2. One of the best ways to study is to study by quizzing yourself.  This is also called ‘retrieval practice’.  “Research has shown clearly that answering a question correctly makes it easier to answer that question in the future–you actually learn when you take a test!”  Also, this retrieval practice (answering questions) shows you holes in your learning; concepts or information you need to return to and further study.  This practice can be done by answering the questions you formed during reading or that you composed after fleshing out your notes post-class.  Also, flashcards a great way to use retrieval practice.  Simply placing key terms and concepts on the card with the definition on the back is a great way to quiz yourself.  Make sure you leave each card in your deck until you have correctly recalled the information three or four times.  Also, elaborating on definitions is a method to help with retention.  Instead of just reciting the definition, perhaps you could provide examples of the term or explain why the term is important and related to other terms.  
    3. A few other test preparation tips: If you have trouble scheduling your studying, look into successive learning.  If you have to remember a lot of factual information, the use of mnemonic devices can assist in remembering.  Acronyms, like HOMES for the names of the Great lakes, serve as specific memory improvement strategies.  



Preparing for a test in this way takes more effort and can take more time, but you will be rewarded with a better grasp of material and you will retain the material much longer than if you just reread or highlighted information.

The Final Exam

If you have used spaced practice and retrieval practice during the semester, you should be well on your way to being prepared for a cumulative final exam.  While final exams typically cover a great amount of material, you have ready-made study materials.  Revisit the questions you created throughout the semester, test yourself and review what you were unable to retrieve.  If possible, revisit past tests to provide for further retrieval and spaced practice of material.  The night before the exam, be sure to get a good night’s sleep to assist with consolidation of knowledge.

Some General Tips

While school should not be completely lacking of fun, protect your study time.  Be sure to prioritize studying first and reward yourself with fun after studying.  Also, exercise has positive effects on learning.  Most campuses have a gym and studies have shown that a 50 minute walk can restore the ability to focus.  Also, be sure to get proper sleep.  Most people require 7 to 8 hours per night.  Sleep helps to organize and consolidate memories of the day that include your studying.  This can lead to better problem-solving ability and creativity.  

Closing Thoughts

The following chart summarizes the most important ideas presented in the article:

Screen Shot 2017-11-07 at 3.16.41 PM

Successful learning requires active engagement with the material.  If you are still struggling after following these strategies, you may want to figure out a way to study more or see if your campus provides academic support services.  Many of these strategies discussed, like testing, surprise teachers and students for two reasons: They are counterintuitive.  Students report they feel like they remember more by rereading.  But this demonstrates overconfidence.  Also, people wonder why they weren’t taught these skills in school?  Great question.  “This article is our attempt to help spread the word about this research that can have such a large impact in any learning endeavor.”  

Blog Author’s Comments

Why did I do this?  Why summarize an article on learning?  In my opinion, there are few things I can teach my students that are more important for their future successes.  This is how we learn.  It is a shame this information is not more widely known and taught.  Most professors/teachers do not know this information, what are the chances students have encountered and understand it?  Very little, if any.  

Lastly, if students or teachers are interested in the technical reading of journal articles, this article is a great one to begin with in your practicing.  It is technical in that it provides in-text citations and references, but isn’t too technical in prose and is very clearly organized.  I encourage anyone who has a hunger for reading research to begin with this article.  It is a nice introduction into the practice of such a technical reading, and due to its subject matter, will make you a better learner.  

How can you get this information to your students?

How can you incorporate these strategies (spaced practice, retrieval practice, elaboration) into your classes?

8 thoughts on “A Review of Optimizing Learning in College: Tips from Cognitive Psychology

Add yours

  1. Thank you very much for this article: it’s essential for students to understand why metacognition is so important for them: even the feeling of having to struggle roughly to have success may be replaced by the pleasure to superate obstacles. I also try to teach my young students the tips I’ve learned with a French Author, Antoine de la Garanderie.
    I will share your article and your url with my colleagues.

  2. Thanks for sharing this I think the oWaves app may be helpful to students as it lets them create routines to block out time for spaced practice and other important aspects of living a healthy life

  3. Wow! This is comprehensive! I love how you organized this and made it clear! Thank you for your insights!

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