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How to Effectively Study

Research-Supported Techniquesevidence-based-learning-methods

Outside of lecture, university students are commonly expected to master course content on their own. However, multiple research studies have found that many university students are commonly unaware of, and seldom use, effective learning techniques.1,2 In the following section (and the linked pages below) we discuss important do’s and don’ts of successful learning, plus introduce several of the most promising and effective evidence-based learning methods. These are backed by a growing body of learning science research – a substantial portion of which has been conducted right here at UCSD and in this very department. By taking advantage of these methods, students can transform their learning activities to be more efficient (make better use of time) and more effective (resulting in learning that is more comprehensive and lasts longer).

What Students Need to Do to Succeed

Psychology courses, as well as those in many other departments and at other universities, revolve around high-stakes tests (for example, midterms, final exams). In fact, on average, 80% of the course grade in PSYC classes at UCSD is determined by exam performance.3 In order to perform well on such exams, it is crucial for students to master a wide range of course content.

How can that objective be accomplished? Through the use of evidence-based learning methods. Note that these are not described as “study methods”. Although it is common to describe preparing for an exam as “studying”, which is why this page is titled as such, simply “studying” information multiple times (“restudying”, “rereading”, or “reviewing”) is by itself often not very effective.4,5 Instead, as described below, other methods are far more powerful at improving the learning of course content.

The Most Effective Learning Techniques

If you have only limited time to read this page, at least check out the following two points. For
further details, click on the links to learn more.

Based on decades of learning science research, the two most effective methods known to date are:

  • Spaced practice / distributed practice – learning that occurs over multiple sessions at different points in time (for example, revisiting a textbook chapter once every three days). This technique refers to when you should be preparing for course exams (that is, multiple sessions spread out over several weeks).

► Further information: Spaced Practice

  • Retrieval practice / practice testing – instead of simply restudying information, attempting to recall that information from memory (such as by taking a practice test). This technique refers to what you should be doing to prepare for course exams (that is, test yourself via practice tests or other recall-based techniques).

► Further information: Retrieval Practice

Spaced practice involves when you should “study” and retrieval practice involves how you should “study”. When you use both (for instance, you can prepare for your exams using a spaced practice schedule and then use retrieval practice during each session), they make a powerful combination.

Additionally, if you perform retrieval practice across multiple days – and, each time, practice recalling information until you attain 100% accuracy (a method called successive relearning) – then recent research shows that your ability to retain that information over long periods of time is maximized.6

Finally, besides spaced and retrieval practice, there are some additional learning techniques that you may wish to try. These included interleaved practice, self-explanation, and others.

► Further information: Other Learning Techniques

Workshops and Downloadable Resources


  • For in-person discussion of these techniques, please consider attending this department’s “How to Study Less and Remember More” workshop (for dates and times, please check the undergraduate workshops calendar).


  • How to Study Less and Remember More [PDF]

Further Resources


Additional Reading


1 Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2007). The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14(2), 219-224.
2 Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger III, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17(4), 471-479.
3 Based on analysis of PSYC 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 60, 101, 102, 103, 105, 106, 120, 144, 145, 154, 163, 164, 161, 171, 181, 182, 190, 191, and 193 courses at UCSD, taught between 2013-2017.
4 Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. IES Practice Guide. NCER 2007-2004. National Center for Education Research.
5 Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
6 Rawson, K. A., Dunlosky, J., & Sciartelli, S. M. (2013). The power of successive relearning: Improving performance on course exams and long-term retention. Educational Psychology Review, 25(4), 523-548.

Prepared by S. C. Pan for UCSD Psychology
Graphic adapted with permission from under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


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