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Improving Concentration/Memory

Concentration and memory work together, but one does not lead to the other. To concentrate is to direct your mental powers, or efforts, towards a particular activity, subject, or problem. Memory is the ability to remember information, experiences, and people. There are some specific skills that can be learned to enhance both concentration and memory. Practicing these skills is likely to improve one's success as a student.

Once something is stored in our brains, we never forget it. We may, however, have difficulty recalling the information. It is also possible that the information we are trying to recall was never stored. This program will help you understand the structure of memory and also suggest some skills you can use to try to improve your memory.

Good concentration will enhance memory. If we only practice skills that improve our memory but never look at factors that enhance concentration, our efforts will only be marginally successful. For this reason, tips for improving concentration will also be discussed.

Improving memory and concentration can be challenging. If you want further information about strategies to use to improve these skills, review other sections of Academic Support for Students. If you have been trying to improve your memory and concentration but the strategies you're trying just don't seem to be helping as much as you would like, please contact Cook Counseling Center.

Read these twelve words and then open Activity Part 2 below:

  • Glass
  • Speaker
  • Basket
  • College
  • Medium
  • Hello
  • Fall
  • Ready
  • Frame
  • Shoes
  • Spoil
  • Final

On a piece of paper, write down as many of the 12 words as you can recall from the previous fold. Return to the previous fold to see how many of the words you were able to recall.

How did you do? Were you able to recall all 12 words? If so, you are already practicing good concentration and memory skills. If not, some of strategies mentioned in this program may help you improve your concentration and memory skills.

Factors that can impact concentration include your study environment and the structure you have in place for your study time. Factors that can impact memory include the way you organize information, how you use your body during the study process, how you use your brain during the study process, and whether you include time for recall.

Concentration Basics

There are two areas that are crucial to improving concentration: the study environment and structure for study sessions. These areas are broken up into several conditions. It is not necessary to fully perfect all of these conditions, but the more of them you implement, the more you are likely to be able to improve your ability to concentrate.

Study Environment

  • Distraction free
  • Conditions that are conducive to studying (i.e. chair, desk, temperature, and lighting)
  • Materials needed for studying bring present

Structure for Study Sessions

  • Develop realistic goals for the study session
  • Decide on the order that tasks will be completed
  • Plan a reward

Take the Study Environment Analysis to help you evaluate the three place where you study most frequently.

Now that you have assessed the quality of the three locations where you most frequently study, look at the variables that make certain environments more conducive to studying than others.

Distraction free

Much study time is wasted by distractions like talking to friends, playing computer games, or watching TV. Think about your last study period. How long did you try to study (time from beginning to end)? How much of that time was actually spent studying? If there is a big discrepancy in your response to these two questions, you may want to explore another study location with fewer distractions. The result may be that it actually takes you less time to accomplish the same amount of work because you are able to stay focused in another environment more easily. Another source of distractions may be personal concerns, which can be more difficult to control. If you find that this is your greatest study distraction, you may wish to talk with a counselor on campus to try to find ways to reduce or resolve your personal concerns.

Conditions that are conducive to studying (i.e. chair, desk, temperature, and lighting)

The chair used for studying should be comfortable enough that you can sit for 45 - 50 minutes at a time. Sitting at a desk or table that provides adequate space for your materials to be spread out is important. The lighting in the room should not cause eyestrain and the temperature should be comfortably cool.

Materials needed for studying being present

It's important to make sure that you have everything that you will need for a particular study session present when you begin. If you're going outside your room to study, think through what you will need with you to accomplish your study goals and take it with you.

Another set of variables that contribute to the success of time spent studying are focused on your structure for study sessions.

Develop realistic goals for the study session

Having a specific, realistic goal for all study sessions is essential. Expecting to accomplish too much in the time you have leads to discouragement. Setting, and achieving, goals leads to a sense of accomplishment. This is also critical for reducing stress and meeting deadlines. Underestimating how long a task will take is likely to result in having less time to do another task, which causes stress.

Decide on the order that tasks will be completed

This makes your study plan more specific. It's generally best to begin with difficult or boring subjects. Your ability to concentrate will be highest when you begin studying and the task is more likely to take less time if you are studying at your “best time of the day.” It's easier to find the motivation to do things you like to do, even when you are tired or have less energy.

Plan a reward

Planning to reward yourself when you have finished your study session can be very effective for helping you accomplish the tasks you need to do, but only if you use restraint and don't allow yourself the reward until you've finished your studying for the day. Rewards might be things like watching your favorite TV show, talking with a friend, going to a movie, or anything else you enjoy doing. Make a list of the things you could use as rewards so you don't have to spend time thinking about your reward each day when you are planning your study period.

Memory Basics

Creating conditions for better concentration is likely to improve the quality of your studying; however, it is also necessary to implement skills that will enhance your ability to remember the material you are studying.

Four skills that can improve memory:

  • Organizational skills
  • Using your body
  • Using your brain
  • Including time for recall

Learn main ideas first, then details

At the beginning of the semester, preview each chapter of your textbook to get an idea about what you will be learning in the class. Prior to reading each chapter, preview that chapter to gain an understanding of the topics that it will cover and what you will be expected to learn. This will provide a framework for understanding the details you will learn as you read the chapter.

Make the information relevant

Try to make connections between what you are learning in class and your everyday life or future career. Making the information meaningful to you will make the information easier to learn and remember.

Connect the information you already know with new information. Creating associations also makes information easier to learn and remember. Information is stored in our brains according to a scheme. Creating these associations helps to fit the new information into the schemes that already exist in your brain.    

Use your body and your senses to help build memory

It has been said, "people remember 90 percent of what they do, 75 percent of what they see, and 20 percent of what they hear" (D. Ellis, 1997, Becoming A Master Student, 8th ed.). Learning actively can involve your whole body. You can stand up and talk aloud as you study, using your arms, legs, eyes, ears, and voice. Getting your body involved puts energy into the study process and makes it less boring. Maybe you have already used this strategy when preparing for a speech; however, it can work for learning other materials as well.  


Have you ever been unable to recall information in a test situation, but an hour later could remember the information with clarity? This may suggest that you were not relaxed during the test. Relaxation allows more blood to flow to the brain and thus allows us to think more clearly. Our brains are alert when we are relaxed and this will enable us to perform more effectively and efficiently.

Use visualization

The more visual you can make the learning process, the easier it will be to recall the information. Be creative and use your imagination. Create mental images that you can associate with the information you are trying to learn.

Overlearn the material

Short-term memory is not very effective in test situations. Our short-term memories have limited capacities and do not respond well under stress. Long-term memory is much more reliable in stressful situations and long-term memory has an unlimited capacity.  Moving information from short-term to long-term memory requires time, energy, understanding, and repetition. When you are studying material, study it multiple times using different study techniques. Also, vary the order in which you study the material. The "recency effect" says that we remember what we heard or learned to last the best. The "primacy effect" says that we remember what we heard or learned first the best. If you always study material in the same order, it is likely that you will be unable to remember the information covered during the middle of study sessions, so it is important to study this information first or last during different sessions.

Adjust your attitude about learning

If you find a subject boring or uninteresting, it will be harder to learn. If you are taking flying lessons to become a pilot, you will tend to pay close attention to the instructor because learning the material is very important for your safety. While classes do not present the same life or death concerns, try to have a positive attitude about your classes – it will enhance your ability to recall the information. If you believe something is going to difficult and think that you will never learn it, it probably will be difficult to learn the material. Wanting to learn the material and believing that you can, will contribute to the ease with which the material is learned.

Practice multiple study techniques for each class

Use a variety of study techniques to learn the material. If you are trying to learn how to solve math or engineering problems, do the problem, talk yourself through the problem to ensure that you understand how you got from Step A to Step B to Step C, and then review the process with a friend. If you are trying to learn material from a chapter in a sociology book for a test, use SQ3R to read the chapter, review your class notes periodically, write new terms on note cards that you carry with you, and review when you have a few idle minutes. There are many techniques that can be used for different classes. Using the same techniques is probably not the most useful strategy for all of your classes, so it is important to decide what techniques to employ, given the type of material you must learn for each class. 

Regularly plan time for review

It's actually better if review methods vary. For instance, you can review your notes silently, read them aloud and listen to yourself, write down main points from your notes, create ways to apply the information, test yourself on your notes, or teach the information to a friend. Using various methods for review will help you gain a deeper understanding of the material. More active (versus passive) review methods will also help you retain the information more fully.

If you can’t remember something, brainstorm

Not being able to recall information is a part of the learning process. The trick is to create connections between the information you are trying to learn and the information you already know. So, if you are unable to remember something, brainstorm the information you do know that is related to the topic. If two concepts are similar and you remember information about one of them, recall this information and you may find that you are able to recall the information about the other. In the learning process, try to create examples to help you recall information. If the professor used examples in class, recall his/her examples. Making connections between the material you know and the material you are trying to learn will help you recall the less familiar material when you need it.

Take a moment to reflect on the strategies that have been offered for improving memory and concentration. Write down the strategies that you want to use over the next few weeks to try to improve your memory and concentration abilities. Pick only a few. Things tend to become overwhelming when trying to make lots of changes at one time, so choose a few that you find easiest to remember and practice them each time you study.