The students, who study a lot, realize that what they learn tends to be stay longer in memory if they space out learning sessions between rest intervals.
The researchers have discovered how this so-called "spacing effect" is controlled in the brain at the level of individual molecules.
Lead researcher Professor Yi Zhong has found that a protein called SHP-2 phosphatase controls the spacing effect by determining how long resting intervals between learning sessions need to last so that long-lasting memories can form.
The discovery can lead to treatments for learning and memory deficits.
"Although there are many theories that explain the spacing effect at the psychological level and hundreds of studies that back them up, there has not been any understanding of this phenomenon at the neurobiological level," said Zhong.
"We have shown for the first time that the spacing effect has a genetic and molecular basis," Zhong added.
The research team has also found that the duration of the resting intervals can be manipulated for achieving better memory by genetically altering SHP-2 phosphatase.
"This ability to exploit the spacing effect's molecular control to enhance memory could be useful in a wide range of settings such as education, advertising, and most importantly, in treating learning and memory disorders," said Zhong.
The study appears online in the journal Cell.