Three Study Skills that Build Retention

study skillsGetting better grades always means that making powerful study skills a habit is very important. Another way to think about study skills is to think of them as study strategies. While this is not entirely accurate, knowing and using the right skills leads to strategic learning. In this article I discuss three study skills that will lead to better grades almost immediately. 1) Spacing or distributed learning; 2) lifestyle changes including time management and organizational changes; and, 3) your study environment. One thing to keep in mind is that not all study skills have anything at all to do with the material being studied. They do, however, improve the effectiveness of your studying. Let's take a look at the three.


Spacing or distributed learning aids in recalling as much or more information and for a longer time than applying a single study skill. Spacing not only aids in better recall, it is a strong component of improved test performance. So exactly what do we mean by spacing?

The idea of spacing rests on a theory that rather than doing all your studying in one long session, you should spread out your studying over a number of shorter periods. This holds true for daily studying, for weekly study review, and for test reviews. At worst, study will last at least as long as the longer planned study period. In most cases, your study time will be cut by as much as one-third. In my own case, I always study three times a day. In the morning after I wake. Then again after I eat lunch. I will also set aside time right before I eat dinner. After adopting this idea, I was clearly able to recall more and think more deeply about what I was learning,

Spacing is based on Jost's Law (1897)

If two associations are of equal strength but of different age, a new repetition has a greater value for the older one.

This law means that if you study two things at once, the one studied last will be easier to recall. On the other hand, if you space the study out over shorter periods and vary the order in which you study things, you'll be able to recall both equally well. In the case of spacing you alter the timing of your study and add to your ability to recall things better.

Lifestyle Changes

Time management and organization immediately come to mind. Once again, the study skill discussed here is not an approach to material being studied, rather it is a change in your approach to studying altogether.

Time Management

As you think about the material you are about to study you should be able to rank the material as to importance and complexity. In doing so you may then divide your study according to importance and complexity. I suggest a 2 number system with the first number indicating importance and the second complexity. In this scheme, a 1:1 would be vital and complex, a 1:2, vital and simple, a 2:1 not vital but complex, and a 2:2 is neither vital nor complex. The order you choose to do work looks something like this.

  1. 1:2 vital and simple -- first
  2. 1:1 vital and complex -- second
  3. 2:2 neither vital not complex -- third
  4. 2:1 not vital but complex -- last

The benefit of this system of classification is that by doing vital and simple first you are studying material providing the fastest benefit. By studying the vital and complex second, you get the vital stuff out of the way. If there is time, studying the non-essential material may be included but only if there is time. Your study will not only be organized as to time but to importance as well. This provides you with the greatest overall benefit for the effort extended.

Other Lifestyle Changes

There are other lifestyle changes that impact our ability to learn and retain new information. Sleep and state of mind immediately come to mind. Being rested and creating a positive attitude go far in allowing one to study smarter.


In order to keep your brain functioning at peak levels, you cannot enter a study session when tired. The more rested you are the more rested your brain is. When your brain is rested, it functions at very high levels. Those levels fall off dramatically once the body is no longer fully rested. You cannot hope to do well if you study when you are tired. That is just a simple fact.

Positive Mental Attitude

Having and keeping a positive mental attitude is, perhaps, the most important take-away from this article. Carey (2015) wrote, "we perform better on tests when in the same state of mind as when we studied." If you studied thinking this stuff is really hard and I will never do well, you are right. If you studied thinking this stuff is hard but I can master it and do well on my test, you are right. A rather famous quote attributed to Henry Ford goes like this, "Whether a man thinks he can or thinks he cannot, he is correct."

One may think one's way into a positive mental attitude. That's right, think your way into the great benefit of being positive. There are many self-help resources on the market today that will, when applied on a regular schedule, turn your negative attitude into a positive one. Your actions have consequences. Thinking has consequences because thinking is action. If you contemplate defeat you are already defeated. Positive self-esteem comes from doing esteemable things. It is truly that simple.

Study Environment

Finally, increase the effectiveness of your studying by changing the environment in which you study. You might study in your room, outdoors, in a coffee shop, or in the library. What happens in the brain is that each study environment forms different informational references in your brain creating more pathways to the information you are learning. This assures that your ability to recall information will be greater than if you only studied in one place. Carey (2105) estimates that the strength of recall of new information is increased by 40% just by selecting different environments for studying and reviewing new information.