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Five Ways to Actually Remember What You Learn at Uni

Give yourself the best chance of remembering your course content.
Illustration by Ben Thomson

This article is supported by Victoria University who are introducing the First Year Model in 2018, a unique approach to the first year uni experience designed to optimise learning. In this article, we look at the psychology behind when and how we best retain information while studying.

Between juggling subjects, paying bills, pulling beers, doing internships, and taking in the Life of Kylie, uni students have a lot to think about—and it's all fighting for precious brain space.


The days when students could just be students are gone. "University fees are so much more expensive than they were a generation ago, as is the general cost of living," clinical psychologist Dr Rosalind Case tells VICE. "Many students find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to juggle full-time study and work."

We're soaking up more information at faster speeds—and from more sources—than ever before. How can we find room to retain it all? We look at a bunch of ways.


If you can barely grimace at the convenience store guy when you're buying a crappy coffee before your 8am class, you're probably not going to be able to retain much in early morning classes—especially when there's a hundred students between you and the lecturer.

Later starts are better for your sleep patterns, physical and mental health, and cognition.

A new study for Frontiers in Neuroscience confirms that the peak performance spell for most undergrads starts around 11am or midday, much later than some classes do. You might not be able to adjust those first-thing commitments at uni, but you can at least make weekends work for your body clock.


The environments we process information in can change the way we process it. Smaller group settings allow for increased participation, discussion, and retention.

Grace Griffiths, a 22-year-old currently in the 4th year of a double Bachelor degree in Law and Communications, prefers intimate tutorials to break down complex material. "Often in these classes we'll engage in an actual conversation where we don't have to put our hands up to answer a question; we can just bounce off each other as peers."


"I definitely think I'm more eager to go to a class where the tutor knows my name and isn't just talking at me."

The more people there are in a room, the greater the chance you'll be distracted or disconnected from discussions. Dr Case has tips for those who feel like small fish in a big, off-putting pond. Optimise your surroundings, and take a short break every 45 minutes if possible.

"Sit at the front of the class so that you can focus on your lecturer or teacher. If you're distracted by your laptop or phone, put them away. Take notes with a pen and paper. Or just listen. If there's a break in your lecture, don't stay in the classroom—take a few minutes to get some fresh air."


Staying on top of multiple units, competing priorities, and deadlines can be exhausting and anxiety-inducing. It's part of the reason why Jake Coburn*, a 22-year-old Bachelor of Primary Education student in his final year, deferred for around a year partway into his degree; the everything-at-once expectations became overwhelming.

"At the time, I was about to move into my first apartment and couldn't comprehend being able to balance rent with a three month, full-time unpaid prac placement," he says. "I had to step back and decide what I really wanted to do. I applied for apprenticeships, worked full-time in call centres, and tried balancing part-time work with part-time study." Eventually, Jake returned to his course—the extended break served its purpose, and helped him realise that he really did want to pursue teaching.


When Grace began her combined degree, she found the chop-change timetable tricky to navigate. "Jumping between mindsets was quite hard as one degree would be creative and the other very analytical," she says.

"I also found the attitudes of the teaching staff differed—my communications tutors were very laid-back about having work done and about extensions, in contrast to the law faculty's strictness. It was also difficult because they had different deadlines. One was very much assessment-based, and the other mostly exams, so often I'd have a communications assignment due in the middle of exam STUVAC."

Dr Case says there's several techniques to make multitasking manageable and build your long-term memory capacity. Break things down, and tackle obstacles one at a time. For studying at home, she recommends the 'Pomodoro Technique'—turn your phone on flight mode (or better still, turn it off) and work in 25-minute bursts to optimise your attention span. Reward yourself with short breaks for snacks and fresh air.

For retrieving memories from the giant black hole that is your brain in an exam, the research indicates that mixing up your study style is key.

"It's helpful to encode information multiple times and in multiple ways."

"Repeated exposure to the information via different modalities—for example, lectures, written notes, videos, talking aloud and mnemonics—can help us to store and retrieve that information when we need it most," Dr Case explains. "Repetition in multiple forms is key."



We all remember that one, super-compassionate teacher from primary school that bestowed VIP jobs upon us like collecting lunch orders or using the electric pencil sharpener. It's the same in uni. The more passionate and invested your tutor or lecturer appears, the more inclined you'll be to really listen.

"There's a large body of research that demonstrates the importance of providing positive emotional contexts to enhance learning, from primary school right through to adult learners," says Dr Case.

"In particular, students value having a lecturer with a sense of humour. Personal anecdotes and stories from lecturers also enhance this rapport and can help students to engage with and remember the lecture material."

Jake performs best in small classes where teachers focus on the practical application of content—and where it's obvious they care. "Studying education, we learn a lot about how a class should look, how a teacher should be, and how things are managed. I could see the flaws in the way we were being taught, because they'd be teaching us the exact opposite."

"Any class where a tutor gives you an activity to work on, like an iPad app, for over an hour feels like a waste and doesn't inspire me, and lectures often just feel impersonal. You can spot a tutor who doesn't want to be there from a mile away."


Anyone who has studied knows that feeling when the words on the page become a big jumble of nothingness and it seems impossible to soak anything in.

Dr Case explains that we're more likely to remember course material when it triggers an emotional reaction. "Humans store information in the form of neural pathways, like networks in the brain," she says.


"If the information is relevant, we're able to recognise patterns and contextualise it in a way that enhances storage and retrieval from those networks, improving long-term memory."

Grace has found this too—it's easier to remember stuff from communications electives, because it feels real. She's absorbing media constantly, on public transport, when she's walking down the street. With law, she'll remember specifics for a month or so after the subject's conclusion, then have to check in with her textbooks.

The solution? If the link between what you're learning and real-life isn't obvious, make one as a memory tactic. Try connecting it to personal experience, or to someone you know for the best chance of remembering it.

And while it seems obvious—finding subjects you're passionate about outside of class will help you too. Jess Henley*, a 19-year-old second year Bachelor of Commerce (Liberal Studies) student, tells VICE, "I think in general there's just some part of me that really wants to do well, and that feeling pushes me to do the work, but I'm probably more motivated when I'm actually interested in the subject and it's not just something I have to take as a degree/major requirement."

*Names changed on request.

This article is supported by Victoria University. You can find out more about the First Year Model here.