Efficient Encoding is the Secret to Success in College

By Makayla Bradley and Catherine Cunningham

When you’re a college freshman, you’re a bundle of emotions and have a million thoughts about what college is going to be like, running through your mind. We can safely assume that not one of these thoughts is centered around studying and getting good grades, which is a huge mistake. Before you know it, you’ll be eyeballs deep in readings, homework, papers, and tests, with no tools in your toolbox to combat the endless work you’re going to face. Many freshmen enter college not prepared for work they’ll be asked to complete and the difficulty of college exams. Although there isn’t much you can do to change the amount of work you’ll encounter, you can do something about the way you study for the exams.

Previously, you probably studied for exams using rote memorization that lead you to forget what you memorized following the exam. Rote memorization is the repeating of information again and again until it’s memorized, but in fact this information isn’t being properly encoded. Encoding is the process of getting and storing information into the long-term memory. There are many ways to encode information but there are a few that stand out to be the best. Here are five encoding techniques that can be acquired: forming visual images, self-reference, generating information, organizing information, and relating ideas to their survival value. These techniques can increase your chances of success on exams, give you a leg up over your classmates, and add necessary tools to your tool box.

The first technique is forming visual images. Many students are visual learners, but do not know that visual imagery can be advantageous when encoding. A study by Bower and Winzenz (1) proved the superiority of visual imagery using paired-association learning. The participants were assigned to four groups and each group was asked to use a different type of encoding to associate pairs of words. For example, participants would be asked to remember the word pair of flower and pen. The four encoding strategies were: repetition, sentence-reading, sentence-generation, and imagery. The study found that imagery was the best of the four forms of encoding. Keep in mind, imagery can be as simple as creating a mental image for two words interacting or as complex as a schema for a topic. A good example of imagery used to encode difficult information is to create a mental diagram of a complex metabolic cycle that can be imagined during a test. Below is a depiction of the “Oscillating Banana Hypothesis” with the proteins drawn as bananas.

Oscillating Banana Hypothesis by Catherine Cunningham

The second technique is linking words to yourself. What/who do you know better than yourself? You’re an expert on yourself. When studying and encoding information, self-reference can enhance your memorization. A study conducted by Rogers, Kuiper, and Kirker (2) showed the benefit of using self-reference. To clarify, self-reference is when you relate a word to yourself. If you are studying vocabulary words, you could think a word describes yourself and create a definition accordingly. For example, the word generous could be remembered with the following definition, “I am generous because I am always willing to give to others.” A reason for better memory when using self-reference is that statements that relate to yourself tend to be in more detail in your mind, therefore are encoded more thoroughly.

The third technique is generating information. It’s one thing to say you know something, but unless you can recall it without looking at the text you are setting yourself up for trouble. The generation effect suggests that information is better remembered if it’s produced from one’s own mind rather than simply read. This is done by generating information then assessing yourself or quizzing a friend. This effect was tested through a cognitive study (3). Participants were divided into two groups “read” and “generate”. In the “read group,” participants read a pair of related words and in the “generate group” participants filled in the blank with a word that was related to the first word. The generate group was found to be the most effective. Imagine you are studying for a neuroscience exam, take the word acetylcholine and using the generation effect, take the word apart, define it, and practice generating it. By doing this, you should perform better than students who are simply memorizing terms.

The fourth technique is organizing information. Our memory system uses organization to store and recall information efficiently. Words stored in groups are encoded and recalled more efficiently than words not stored in groups. Organization and grouping adds retrieval cues to information. For example, if asked to memorize a list of words: pants, soda, shoes, grapes, shirt, and bread. The grouping of words in common categories, such as food and clothes, would create cues to a specific word out of the other words in that group. A study by Bower and coworkers (4) tested this effect through an “organizational tree.” Participants studied four separate trees and then were able to recall the information in the same order presented in the trees. For example, consider this technique if you are studying for a pharmacology exam and you are asked to memorize different types of opiates. You’ll be able to remember specific terms and items based on the way they were presented on the tree. The following tree below is an illustration of an organized tree.

The Organized “Tree” for Opiates by Makayla Bradley   

The fifth technique is relating words and topics to their survival value. Nairne, Thompson, and Pandeirada conducted a study that demonstrates how survival value improved encoding. In the study, they test survival value against the other encoding technique of self-reference (5). After many trials, they found that survival value led to better encoding. To clarify, survival value is the technique of relating words or topics to potentially important uses like survival. For example, if you are taking a developmental psychology class and are learning about different techniques to calm children down. It would be beneficial to relate these techniques to how important they will be one day when you have children of your own.

Most freshmen think college is just about excitement, social events, and clubs, but that is a false assumption. More importantly, it’s about preparation for a great career in the future. These five efficient encoding strategies will guide you to success not only during your freshman year, but all the following years. By applying encoding skills to studying routines there’s no doubt that you’ll be able to handle any exam. It’s extremely important to develop solid study skills your first year in college because it’ll only get more difficult as college continues. College is demanding; but if you believe in yourself, work hard, and follow these encoding strategies you’ll perform well. Before you know it, you will be graduating and all the long hours studying will have been worth it.

Photograph by Makayla Bradley 


(1) Bower, G. H., & Winzenz, D. (1970). Comparison of associative learning strategies. Psychonomic Science, 20, 119-120

(2) Rogers, T. B., Kuiper, N. A., & Kirker, W. S. (1977). Self-reference and the encoding of personal information. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 35, 677-688

(3) Slameka, N. J., & Graf, P. (1978). The generation effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4, 592-604

(4) Bransford, J. D., & Johnson, M. K. (1972) Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 717-726

(5) Nairne, J. S., Thompson, S. R., & Pandeirada, N. S. (2007). Adaptive memory: Survival processing enhances retention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33, 263-273

2 Replies to “Efficient Encoding is the Secret to Success in College”

  1. I really enjoyed this blog post. I will definitely be using the organizing information, visual imagery, and self-reference effects to study for an upcoming Pathology exam. It would be helpful if professors integrated these effects more into lectures to help students learn the information better. That way, when they go to study the information, these encoding pathways have already been utilized.

    -Hannah Menz

  2. I actually just sent this post to my little brother, who will be a freshman at Boulder next year. He’s super smart, and high school was a breeze for him, but I’m worried that the adjustment to college will be hard. As a junior at Marquette, I feel like I have learned by trial and error to use a lot of these skills at a very basic level. If I had been taught (or had I actually listened to) tips like these, I would have been much better off. And by this point, I would have hopefully perfected these skills and would be better prepared for graduate school. But alas, I guess I can only hope to have these skills down by then, and hope to help ease my brother’s adjustment into the real world.

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