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Study Skills: Memory, Retention & Recall

This guide offers learning strategies, study skills, and resources to support student academic success.

Memory, Retention and Learning


Your brain is constantly recording new information. Due to the volume of information you receive every day as a student your brain frequently needs to dump information that is not being used. In addition, our memories decay over time and it becomes more difficult to retrieve information as each day passes. Some studies suggest that humans forget approximately 50% of new information within an hour of learning it. Within 24 hours of learning something new nearly 80% of it will be forgotten. You will be lucky to recall 5% of what you learned 30 days later if you have not revisited that information. Fortunately, there are some techniques that help to retain information longer and recall it more readily. The following strategies will help you to create a routine for recording, understanding, retaining, and recalling information.

Learning Strategies for Memory, Retention, and Recall

The Forgetting Curve

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a 19th century psychologist tested his memory over various periods of time and discovered that our memories decay rapidly hour by hour and day by day.  To demonstrate memory loss, Ebbinghaus created the Forgetting Curve (see image below) and he outlined the impact of time on our ability to retain and recall information. 

  • Memories disappear with time. When we learn something new, but do not attempt to revisit that information, we remember less and less as the hours, days and weeks go by.  If you read a 30-page chapter today, you will only recall about 5% of what you read four weeks later if you do not read the chapter or your notes again. 
  • Our retention drops most dramatically immediately after learning. This is reflected by the steep fall at the start of the Forgetting Curve (see below). If we do not revisit or reinforce our learning, our ability to recall that information will drop exponentially.
  • It's easier to remember things that have meaning. Things with little or no meaning to the learner disappear in our memories the fastest. For example, if you're listening to a lecture on a subject that you don't really understand or have little interest in, you'll forget what you hear much faster than a subject that you found really engaging or exciting.  Previewing material in advance is a great strategy to help slow down the forgetting curve (see the tab above on Previewing).
  • The way something is presented affects learning. The same set of information can be made more or less memorable, depending on how well it's communicated. You'll likely find it easier to remember a lecture that's been organized logically and presented clearly by an engaging instructor. Conversely, if the instructor jumps around from topic to topic and speaks quickly and without much emphasis, you will have more difficulty remembering. 
  • Energy and emotion affect retention. Ebbinghaus posited that physiological factors, such as stress, diet and sleep, are important factors in how we retain information. There is sound evidence suggesting that sleep can help our brains process, store and recall information. 
  • Active learning and critical thinking help with retention. There is a measurable difference between passive and active learning in terms of how much information students are able to retain.  Our ability to recall information is reinforced when we employ higher order learning techniques such as applying, explaining, evaluating and creating (see the tab above on Active Learning).

The diagram below, created by eLearning Industry, illustrates the Forgetting Curve.

Improving Retention through Spacing

The Role of Self-care in Retention and Recall

BCIT students are busy and may juggle between six and nine courses concurrently in a term.  For some, they could attend lectures and labs for over 30 hours each week!  On top of their busy schedules, students have multiple assignments, readings, and assessments to prepare for.  It can be challenging to find the time and energy to learn everything effectively.

Academic success is often tied to retention (how much we remember) and recall (our ability to access information when we need it). 

Physiological factors significantly influence memory

Research demonstrates that stronger memory encoding (the initial learning of information), retention, and recall occur when we eat healthy, sleep well, and exercise.  So, when a student is busy it is imperative to not only have solid retention and recall learning strategies, but also apply good self-care habits and routines. 

  • Sleep. The amount of sleep that a college student gets is one of the strongest predictors of academic success.  When a student is tired (perhaps from cramming for a test all night) their memory is affected.  Getting at least eight solid hours of sleep will help avoid mental lapses (caused by being tired) impacting perception, memory and performance.  Sleep plays a key role in helping fix and consolidate memories, plus prevents the decay of memories.  Without sleep, people work harder but do not perform as well.  "Evidence now suggests that sleep is important in the processing of newly acquired information and for the long-term storage of memory," neuroscientist and sleep researcher Matthew Walker wrote in 2009. A study involving American nurses found people who both under- or overslept — either five hours or less a night, or nine hours or more — showed worse performance on cognitive tests.


The diagram below, produced by, indicates how much retention is gained through sleep versus being awake.  

  • Diet. Our bodies need the right nutrients to function at its best (mentally and physically).  Energy foods, such as nuts and berries, help keep us going.  Processed foods and sodium make us tired and undermine our ability to focus and stay on task.  Refined sugars and caffeine make learners feel tired as these can cause dehydration and also fuel anxiety. 
  • Exercise.  Moderate to vigorous exercise (a brisk walk, a jog, jumping jacks, a spin on your bike) releases dopamine (brain chemical) which sharpers your ability to learn and think quickly.  If done before an assessment, exercise can increase mental processing and boost academic performance.  Exercising outside can also give you a boost as fresh air and nature have been proven to increase energy levels. 

The Power of Previewing

Memory, Retention, and Recall Learning Resources