Studying Smarter, Not Harder: The Keys to Consolidation

By Cara LaBelle and Niki Bending

Every college freshman struggles with adjusting study habits from high school to college. They go from studying for their finals the night before, and doing well, to studying for a regularly scheduled exam the night before, and failing. Sadly, there is no exact formula for how much or how long you need to study in order to do well. Through our study conducted on consolidation methods, we have discovered some tendencies and tips on how to study more effectively in order to get the desired grade.

Disclaimer: Only one exam was failed in the making of this blog post.

Once the captain of her high school’s basketball team, Niki became seriously injured, permanently erasing her chances of playing another sport, so she turned to academics. Graduating with a 4.5 GPA, multiple honors, and the “#1 Teacher’s Pet” senior superlative, she headed to Marquette with high hopes. But then in Niki’s freshman year, she found herself in a rude awakening. She studied like usual: cramming in all the information the night before her exams, making study guides and highlighting book pages. Confident, she headed into her first exam only to walk out with her head hung low. The exam was harder than she expected, and the rest of the semester followed suit. With a 3.0 GPA, she was disappointed in herself. If she was going to get into the Physical Therapy graduate school, something needed to change. Now.

In high school, Cara was very involved with tutoring, basketball, softball, and soccer. Although she sometimes goofed around and earned the senior superlative title of “Class Clown”, she graduated with high honors. Then, during Cara’s freshman year, she did not study until the night before her exams. While downing 5-Hour Energy, Starbucks DoubleShot, and Mountain Dew KickStarts, she spent the entire night staring into her notes and textbooks and went straight to the exam the next morning without sleeping…only to crash from her caffeine intake by the tenth question. Her GPA took a hard hit, coming in at a 2.4 her first semester here. Needless to say, her studying methods were not getting her the grades she needed. She knew something had to change.

Despite the girls’ opposite backgrounds, study habits, and personalities, they both desperately struggled to do well in their first semester of college. It goes to show that no matter how you were as a student in high school, it had little to no effect on how well you adjusted to college-level courses. Generally, incoming freshman miss the connecting link on how to set themselves up for success without almost failing in the first semester.

In Cognition, we were introduced to the consolidation topics of effective studying, including the subcategories of “Elaborate”, “Generate and Test”, “Organize”, “Take Breaks”, and “Avoid the ‘Illusions of Learning’” as well as the terms long term potentiation, synaptic consolidation, and systems consolidation [1]. We wanted to study these ideas, theories, and terms to determine if they correlated with doing well on exams. Therefore, in our study, we decided to examine three different study habits for an upper-level psychology course exam and determine whether these cognitive psychology terms held value in the real world.

To administer an externally valid study, we utilized a control group to assess how someone would do without going to class or having any background knowledge on the particular topic. Since both of us are psychology majors and could potentially skew exam results, we asked our friend Meredith Waters, to help us. She agreed to take the exam one afternoon. With only her intuition guiding her, Meredith’s exam score came in at a measly 32%.

For our second trial, we had Cara try the typical “first semester freshman” approach to studying. Three days before the exam, Cara filled out the study guide and then proceeded to try and memorize the information in the days leading up to the exam. After trying to cram two months of information into two nights, Cara walked out her exam feeling defeated. That sinking feeling returned a few days later when she saw that her grade was only 65%.

Finally, for our third trial, we had Cara utilize the consolidation techniques and study skills we had learned from our research. For her next exam, Cara filled out the study guide given to her the day it was handed out, two weeks before the exam. Her studying routine consisted of going through the study guide once, then taking a break, and coming back and looking at the study guide once more before bed. In the last two days leading up to the exam, Cara taught the material to a friend so not only could she recognize the answers on a multiple-choice question, but recall them from memory for short answer questions as well [2]. According to Stickgold and Walker, “There are a number of stages of memory consolidation, which use distinct brain processes to perform separate functions. When combined with the multiple classes of memories and the several stages of sleep, one is with a truly staggering number of possible ways that sleep might affect memory consolidation” [3]. Following that advice, Cara made sure to get a solid night of sleep before the exam. Cara went from getting a 65%, to a 98%. Both exams were the same level of difficulty so the differences in exams did not skew our results.

We understand that the amount of studying time is subjective to each student depending on how well they initially understand the information, but from our study, we identified some helpful tendencies and tips to get the grades YOU want, even in your first semester.

Our goal was to touch the lives of incoming college freshman across the country and give them a semblance of stability when the world around them is suddenly inconsistent, uncertain, and full of mediocre cooking that will never compare to their parent’s. Through our research and study, we arguably found the best way for an incoming college freshman to avoid the first semester slump.

Our results show:

  • Study about two weeks in advance [4]
  • Be organized [4]
  • Take study breaks [5]
  • Understand the information, do not just memorize it [4]
  • Give your brain the time to catch up with all of the information you just learned [4]

Trust us. Take our wise advice, backed up by multiple professionals and let Meredith and Cara’s exam results be the one and only exam that was failed in the making of this blog post.


[1] Goldstein, E. B. (2015). Long-Term Memory: Encoding, Retrieval, and     Consolidation. In Cognitive Psychology (4th ed., pp. 179-206). Stamford,      CT: Cengage Learning. doi:doi:10.1007/978-3-642-55074-4

[2] Pauk, W., & Owens, R. J. Q.,(1984). How to Study in College. Reading World,23(4), 386-389. doi:10.1080/19388078409557790

[3] Stickgold, R., & Walker, M. P. (2004). Dissecting Sleep-Dependent Learning and Memory Consolidation. Neuron,44(1), 121-133. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2004.08.031

[4] Smith, S. L., (1982). Learning strategies of mature college learners. Journal of Reading, 26(1), 5-12. doi:10.1344/bd038901820.

[5] Reder, L. M., & Anderson, J. R., (1982). Effects of spacing and embellishment on memory for the main points of a text. Memory & Cognition,10(2), 97-102. doi:10.3758/bf03209210.





2 Replies to “Studying Smarter, Not Harder: The Keys to Consolidation”

  1. I really enjoyed this blog because I was able to relate to it personally. I actually just recently stopped trying to cram the night before a test. After I began studying earlier, I saw a dramatic increase in grade scores as I felt more comfortable with the material during the test. I think this topic is really important for incoming freshman to understand because this may have worked in high school but it really won’t work in college.

  2. This article is very relatable. I used to cram for exams in high school and my first semester of college. I wish I had this advice when I first came to Marquette, because I really had no idea how different and difficult it would be. Studying days before the exam is definitely a better technique than cramming for the exam the night before. I really enjoyed this post and I liked that you created your own study for it!

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