Campus Queries is a series in which Daily Bruin readers and staff present science-related questions for UCLA professors and experts to answer.
Q: How can UCLA students improve their memories for exams?
A: As midterms approach, students tend to procrastinate studying until just before an exam. However, Robert Bjork, a distinguished research professor of psychology who has studied memory retention for several decades, said students who space out their studying will learn more successfully.
Bjork helped develop the study-phase retrieval theory, which states that individuals’ ability to access original information decreases with each additional study session depending on the interval of time between sessions.
Bjork said information is best retained when learning is spaced out. For example, instead of making flash cards and studying them repeatedly a day or two before an exam, students should study their flash cards every few days over a longer period of time. As opposed to a mass presentation of information, this method allows the brain to access this information more effectively over a long period of time.
Students should also increase the intervals of time between study sessions. For example, a student could first review information the day after learning it, wait two days to review it the second time, and so on. This helps the brain encode and retain information for future use, Bjork said.
“Our research shows that reviewing information in intervals over a period of time reduces anxiety during a high-stakes test,” he said.
Bjork’s research found learning is most efficient when information is not easily accessible but can still be retrieved. For example, the longer it takes a student to remember a definition in earlier study periods, the easier it will be to recall the same definition several weeks later. Expanding study intervals will allow for maximum long-term learning, leading to greater success on both midterm and final exams, Bjork said.
“While some of these study methods may seem counterintuitive, research shows that more difficult methods of studying have a greater benefit to students,” said Elizabeth Bjork, a professor of psychology.
In addition to studying in intervals, Robert Bjork said using a process called interleaving can help improve memorization.
When using this method, students study by switching between subjects or different topics within a course as they review. Switching between various skill sets allows the brain to constantly retrieve information and strategies at varying intervals, Robert Bjork said. This allows students to consistently relearn information, aiding long-term memorization, he said.
The best way for individuals to study is to constantly test themselves on information, Robert Bjork said. Taking practice tests and actively thinking about example problems will lead to the best results on an actual midterm or final, he added.
“Students should appreciate how the retrieval you do in a test is a learning event in of itself and make that information more recallable in the future,” Robert Bjork said.