Picture this: you’re a first year college student, fresh out of high school. All throughout high school you got by, by barely studying and maybe just glancing over your notes before an exam. You always got a decently good grade all thanks to your minimal effort. Your teachers warned you college would be significantly harder but hey, what do they know, right? You get to college and take your first quiz or exam, following the same study habits from high school and what do you know, your grade did not come back very pretty.
No college student is immune to the stress and panic of studying for quizzes and exams, and your old high school study techniques are definitely not going to cut it in this new higher level learning environment. Just skimming your notes and praying something will stick will get you nowhere and ultimately just help you do poorly instead of helping you get the grades you need. What you need is a whole new way of studying, suited for your new college self, to help you succeed academically and make college a whole lot better in general.
What You’re Doing Wrong:
When you attempt to just look over your notes, pray, and then take your test you’re partaking in something called free recall. With free recall there is no real substantive learning happening, just uncertain memorization and hoping you can remember it. After looking over your notes, retroactive interference, or the tendency that information learned later on, will distort and make it harder to remember past information. With free recall you’re more likely to be struck by the primary and recency effects. This means that both the first few things you learned or studied and the last few things learned or studied is what your brain is most likely to recall (1).
A study done of 128 high school students and university students were given a list of words to learn and then asked to recall those words, they were just asked to try to learn the words by looking over them. This study showed that there is no real accurate learning of the list of words among the students. They were only able to recall a few of the words on each list (2). What does this mean to you? Let me reiterate. You can’t just look over your notes and hope for the best. This is when you should try something called cued recall.
What is Cued Recall?
In simple terms cued recall is the retrieval of information with the help of a cue, such as a word or picture. This form of recall aides in the encoding of important information, which in turns helps retrieve that information quicker and more easily. It is shown that semantic cued recall is the most effective. What does all that psychological jargon mean to you? Well, this means associating word categories with a list of words to learn is the most effective way to organize and ultimately recall that information (3).
A very important thing in cued recall is the types of cues used to retrieve the information while being tested. Cued recall is more effective than free recall but certain cues are more effective than others. For example, when asked to memorize the word chair, during the test, a cue of the word table is used. The association between these two words is strong because those are two objects that commonly go together and even fit into the category of furniture. A cue that would be considered not as strong for the word chair would be the word glue. Glue and chair are not commonly thought of as a pair so glue as a cue would be less effective and have a similar result if the person was asked to just use free recall (4).
How to Use Cued Recall:
There is a couple different ways cued recall could be used to help learn and recall information for an exam. One way was shown in a study done in 2016. Participants were asked to read a section of a book about child psychology. One group was asked to use free recall and just type out as much information they could remember. A second group used cued recall by having study questions as cues that they had to answer. The group that was given questions to answer recalled the information faster (5). You could potentially integrate this into your study techniques by creating your own set of study questions or even using questions out of your text book that would be similar to questions on your tests. By studying your material and then using the study questions, the test questions similar to your study questions with cue you into remembering the information easier.
Another way you could use cued recall is if the class you are in is highly graph oriented (i.e. a math class). When you are studying make sure to study and associate the graphs that go along with the equations, values, etc. For example, in Pre-Calc, learning the values of the unit circle is part of the curriculum. When studying the unit circle, the pay attention to how the values are placed on the unit circle. Then when asked to recall the values on the test and fill in the blanks, the image of the unit circle will cue you into the placement of the values.
Ultimately, studying for college courses is a lot different from high school, and curling up in a ball and crying is not the way to go. Take it from someone who went through the same thing you did just one year ago. Buck up, sit down, and find a new studying technique that will carry you through all your classes to come. It will all be worth it, I promise!
(1) Madigan, S. A. (1969). Intraserial repetition and coding processes in free recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior,8(6), 828-835. doi:10.1016/s0022-5371(69)80050-2
(2) Tulving, E., & Psotka, J. (1971). Retroactive inhibition in free recall: Inaccessibility of information available in the memory store. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 87(1), 1-8.
(3) Fisher, R. P., & Craik, F. I. (1977). Interaction between encoding and retrieval operations in cued recall. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning & Memory,3(6), 701-711. doi:10.1037//0278-7322.214.171.1241
(4) Roediger, H. L., & Adelson, B. (1980). Semantic specificity in cued recall. Memory & Cognition,8(1), 65-74. doi:10.3758/bf03197553
(5) Nevid, J. S., Pyun, Y. S., & Cheney, B. (2016). Retention of Text Material under Cued and Uncued Recall and Open and Closed Book Conditions. International Journal For The Scholarship Of Teaching And Learning, 10(2),