Breast self-examination (BSE) behavior was analyzed in 89,835 participants in the National Breast Screening Study (NBSS) of whom 64,619 were eligible for annual rescreening and 25,216 were followed by mail after a single screen exam. Among those eligible for rescreening, BSE competence scores based on seven BSE criteria significantly improved over time and correlated directly with reported BSE frequencies. Among all participants, the proportion reporting BSE frequencies of greater than or equal to 12/year increased over time from approximately 20% on entry to 50% to 64% at final screen. Similarly, reports of zero frequency diminished from 50% to 10% to 15%. Variables such as educational status, age (fifth versus sixth decades), eligibility for mammography, smoking history, and ethnic origin had negligible or no influence on BSE competence. However, women with first-degree relatives with breast cancer had significantly higher BSE scores. NBSS experience suggests that most women who enter screening programs will upgrade their BSE skills if subjected to brief episodes of repeated BSE instruction.