How to Actually Retain the Information You Learn in Lecture

We’ve all been there. You show up to lecture early, take notes, resist the temptation to browse Facebook, even ask a question or two...and when you look back at your notes weeks later to study for the exam, you don’t remember a thing you wrote down. As awesome as it would be if we could just go to lecture and walk out as experts, hearing information and learning it are two very different things. 

Learning is a continuous process, and it can’t be rushed in a caffeine-fueled panic a few hours before your final. Spaced repetition — that is, studying material in increments — can cut your studying time in half when the exam rolls around. 

Here’s how to do it:

  1. 1. Use the Cornell Notes Method

    You may have learned this method in high school, but I remember thinking it seemed like far too much work. Although that may have been the case back then, in college, the Cornell Notes method has been a lifesaver for me on numerous occasions. Basically, you create two columns - notes on the material go in the left column, and potential test questions go in the right. I have Google documents for each of my lecture-based courses; for each day of lecture, I have a two-column table labeled with the date, the topic, and the corresponding textbook pages. You can write questions as you take notes if you’re fast enough, but it may be easier to look back at your notes and generate questions after a few hours. The Cornell Notes method is a good way to actively think about the material instead of just mindlessly writing it down.

  2. 2. Write Summaries of Each Lecture

    Below my Cornell notes, I have “takeaways” from each lecture, which are one or two paragraphs that summarize the material from the lecture. These can be written right after the lecture, but again, waiting a few hours actually helps; it reinforces the material after it is no longer in your short-term memory. Some professors provide summary slides at the end of each lecture, which are great tools for writing these takeaway paragraphs. You won’t even have to look back at the slides when it’s time to study.

  3. 3. Self-Test

    Starting a week or two before the exam, compile 10-15 of the most important questions from your Cornell notes, and give yourself about 15 minutes to answer each one in a sentence or two. It’s okay if your questions are broader than what would typically be asked on an exam; these are to test your understanding of class concepts. Make a note of the questions you get wrong, and highlight the corresponding material in your notes so that you know what to study.

  4. 4. Make the Most of Your Recitations

    Too many people skip recitations because they think they’re useless, but the point of recitations is to review the material covered in lecture. Think of it as a weekly group study session. In my Google docs, I have a separate section labelled “recitation review,” where I write any new information from recitation. I also keep worksheets from recitation and use them to study afterwards; often, these questions are the closest to what you will see on the actual exam.

  5. 5. Go to Office Hours

    If there’s a concept that you keep missing during your self-tests or something keeps making little sense, go to your professor’s office hours. Ask them to explain the concept and walk you through a question where you can apply your knowledge.

  6. 6. Create Study Guides

    When it’s time to study, create a separate document (please don’t attempt to study from 100+ pages of notes). Copy-paste your lecture summaries onto it, and add in any clarifications from recitation or office hours. Then, write down key terms from each topic and define them; these terms may be theories, experiments, parts of a system, etc. depending on the course and the topic. Your self-tests should go onto this document as well. For final exams, creating a large table that breaks down the components of each topic is a good way to organize massive amounts of information. For example, for a final in my geology course about natural disasters, I created a table stating the process, consequences, human influence, etc. of each disaster we have learned about.

  7. 7. Review Your Assignments and Exams

    I’m the type of person who never wants to look back at a homework assignment or exam after I’ve received a grade. I hate being confronted with the often careless mistakes that cost me points. However, reviewing is the only way that you can avoid making those same mistakes. Even if you do really well on the homework or exam (congratulations!), look back at what you got wrong so that you don’t focus on it when preparing for the final. If the course is for your major or minor, keep your notes and exams (if possible) even after it’s over - you may find it helpful to refer back to them during other classes.

Studying is often stressful, especially if you’ve never learned how to do it effectively. But it doesn’t have to be! Doing your best in class often requires consistent commitment, and it takes a while to figure out exactly what works for you. However, if you make that commitment and follow these tips to your best ability, the difference in your grades — and your knowledge — will be staggering.