It’s that time of the year again!
Exams are just around the corner, and you’re trying to cram a semester’s worth of knowledge into your brain — but to no avail. Don’t worry, though: it’s normal to feel like you’ve run out of memory space in the midst of finals. We’ve all been there!
That said, there are several memory techniques that you can use to your advantage when memorizing new information, whether you’re still in high school or have moved on to college.
Whether you’re preparing for a big exam, or you simply want to improve your memory, these memory study techniques will help you learn more effectively.
1. Use memory palaces
Memory palaces, also known as the method of loci (loci meaning ‘spaces’), are a memory technique that dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Essentially, this method allows you to encode your memories by turning them into mnemonic images and placing them in a mental location. People tend to use familiar spaces which they know well to create a memory palace, such as a building or town. Once you’ve selected your location, start by planning your route around it.
For example, go through the door, leave your keys on the side table, walk to the kitchen, check the fridge, move to the living room, etc. Then, make a list of items that you want to memorize, and begin assigning one or two at a time at a specific location within your memory palace. The idea is that you can mentally walk through your memory palace and recall memories based on the space you’ve assigned to them within it.
The more vivid you make these mental images, the easier it will be to recall the items on your list. A good way to achieve this is to exaggerate the images and make them more memorable. For example, say you have created a memory palace for your grocery list, and the first item on your list is broccoli — imagine a large broccoli opening the front door for you as you follow your route through your memory palace. This will help you remember the item more accurately.
2. Practise spaced repetition
Spaced repetition is a proven technique for learning and memorizing.
Spaced repetition is often achieved by using flashcards, a system where you write down a question on one side of a piece of paper and the answer on the other. The purpose of this is to create a stack of flashcards which you can flip through and quiz yourself on. As you go through these, and you begin to memorize the information, you can start eliminating flashcards which you answer correctly, focusing solely on those you got wrong.
Another great thing about using flashcards is that they facilitate active recall, meaning that you’re not passively reading through information. Instead, you’re training your brain to recall information by actively testing your knowledge.
With spaced repetition, you’re training your brain by regularly visiting information through spaced out intervals. This, in turn, allows for the long-term retention of a piece of information. Try it out in preparation for your next practice test!
3. Use expression mnemonics and acronyms
An acronym is formed by the first letters of individual words. The purpose of this technique is to help you remember a list of items by organizing them in memorable sentences and words which can then be broken down. For example, the acronym HOMES is often used to remember the Great Lakes in the US (Lakes Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior).
To use this mnemonic device, list the items you want to remember, and use their first letters to create a real or even a made-up word.
There are also other similar expression mnemonics you can use, such as:
- Rhyming mnemonics: The end of every line rhymes to create a song-like pattern which you can remember easily.
- Music mnemonics: Remember the alphabet song your first-grade teacher taught you? Or have you heard of the periodic table song? Both are great examples of music mnemonics, which help you remember and recall information with ease.
4. Sleep on it
The one thing I always did on the night before a big test or exam is that I would read through my notes one last time before bed. This memory technique is especially useful for theory-heavy subjects that require lots of recall, as it helps your brain consolidate information better.
There’s a science behind this memory technique. Indeed, sleep researchers believe that while the acquisition and recall of information can only occur when you’re awake, memory consolidation happens during sleep, which can significantly improve your ability to recall memories.
“The sleeping brain, with greatly reduced exposure to external stimuli, provides optimal conditions for memory consolidation, which strengthens and integrates new memory into existing knowledge networks,” says consultation psychiatrist Dr Alex Dimitriu, MD.
So, the night before your exam, make sure you give your notes one final peek before tucking yourself into bed.
5. Try chunking
If you’re trying to memorize large amounts of information, chunking might be a good memory technique to utilize. Essentially, chunking is about grouping and organizing information in smaller sets. This allows our short-term memory to retain information better.
For example, instead of attempting to remember a 12-digit phone number by memorizing each number individually, you can chunk the numbers into three groups of four.
You can follow a similar approach with different subjects by splitting information into units that you can memorize in groups rather than individually.
6. Teach to learn
Have you ever tried to explain a concept to someone and found that you understood it better yourself afterwards? This is called the protégé effect, a psychological phenomenon whereby you can improve your understanding of something by teaching it to someone else. Indeed, research has shown that student tutors are more likely to understand, recall and apply the information they teach more accurately.
So, how can you use this study tip to your advantage? Start by the way you approach and learn your study material; learn it as if you’re going to teach it to someone else afterwards. You may also go as far as to put it into practice and teach it to a friend, peer or family member as a way to revise.
However, if no one is willing to listen to you talk about the Napoleonic Wars, you could also just pretend you’re teaching someone and explain the material to your imaginary pupils out loud.
In fact, talking to yourself out loud is another useful learning technique, also referred to as self-explaining. Indeed, a University of Waterloo study found that when you read information out loud, and proceed to ask and explain this information to yourself, it can lead to better, long-term memorization.
So, if you can’t teach it to someone else, teach it to yourself! (But maybe steer clear of the library’s silent study area when doing so!)
7. Write, don’t type
In a lecture room, there’s usually two types of people: those who type and those who write. However, it seems that the pen is mightier than the keyboard (and less distracting while we’re at it).
Scientists have found links between writing and memory acquisition. While typing may be a lot more efficient (and easier on your carpal tunnel), psychologists and neuroscientists state that writing could play a key role in effective learning as your brain processes information in more depth when you’re handwriting your notes. It also allows you to digest information better, understand it more thoroughly and retain it for longer.
You might be hesitant to trade in your MacBook Pro for a pen and a notepad, but you could be pleasantly surprised by the results!
8. Try color-coding
Colour-coding is another tried-and-tested study hack. The use of color can have a positive impact on how you process information, as it allows your brain to organize and differentiate between different materials. Indeed, humans process visual elements better, and studies have found that, due to this, colors can enhance memory performance.
By using colorful highlighter markers to separate your research, for example, or colorful pens to write your notes based on chapters or sections, your brain will begin associating each color to different information, thus helping you organize and recall this information with ease.
You can also use colored labels to group different tasks within a project or essay. An important step here is to also create a list of legends, each describing what each color represents.
9. Use your senses
Your sensory memory relies on your five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.
When it comes to exam revision and general learning, we mainly use sight and hearing, but by engaging with more than just these two senses, we can improve the way we perceive and memorize information.
For example, smell is a powerful memory tool, as certain scents can trigger memories quite vividly. When it comes to studying for exams, you could spray an unfamiliar smell like a new perfume or cologne, or an essential oil, while revising, and then do so again right before your exam or test. Just make sure not to pick an overpowering smell!
Likewise, with taste, our brain can create vivid taste-memory connections. A good way to utilize this to your advantage is by chewing on an unfamiliar-tasting gum, both while studying and during your exam.
Touch-memory can also be used to improve the study process. By having a sensory gadget, such as a fidget spinner, you can improve your focus and attention, and thus also process new information in more depth, leading to better memory retention.
10. Make some lifestyle changes
Your lifestyle can have a major impact on your memory. So, while the aforementioned memory techniques for exams could certainly be a game-changer, you may also need to adopt some healthier habits to bolster your efforts.
Primarily, you should consider three elements: sleep, diet and exercise.
Lack of sleep can negatively affect your performance, meaning you’ll be unable to learn and retain as much information as you would when you’re well-rested. While exam season often flaunts cliché notions of all-nighters and late-night cramming, you’re actually better off calling it an early night and starting your revision in the morning.
A healthy diet also plays a key role in good memory. In fact, certain brain foods that are rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and micronutrients, such as salmon, nuts, blueberries and dark chocolate, can enhance your memory and boost your brain performance.
As for exercising, multiple studies have found that low-impact exercising, such as going for a walk before revision, boosts your cognitive function and memory retention. Before sitting down for your next study session, take a short walk or, perhaps, do a small workout at home — but make sure to keep it light; otherwise, you’ll be too tired to study!
11. Use images
An intensive research paper by Carnegie Mellon University illustrated that many scientific studies had come to the same conclusion: that the human brain recalls images more easily than mere words. One simple explanation is that an image can be remembered in two different ways. It has all the vivid visual detail, such as color, shape, texture, etc. that helps stimulate the brain, as well as the accompanying words that describe it.
Simply imagining a balloon when 'balloon' is a vocabulary word is simple enough. Memory experts suggest more exaggerated imagery for complicated themes, however. For example, think about how you would remember which U.S President offered programs titled “The New Deal” and which “The Fair Deal”.
Perhaps you had a cat named “Harry”, and you picture a colorful cartoon version of him sitting in the Oval Office with golden scales of justice on his desk. This memory technique can help solidify the fact that President Harry S. Truman offered “The Fair Deal” into your long-term memory and help you ace your history test.
12. Study in different locations
Experts often suggest that remote workers can increase productivity by breaking up monotony and working in different locations. That same advice, it turns out, is also a useful study technique. Take the same calculus formulas you've been studying in the library every day, and work on them in the park or a coffee shop.
The interesting thing about memory is that your brain will tie those formulas to your setting, like the low lighting, low whispers of your fellow students and the dark wood furniture. When you move to a different environment and study the same material, your brain is forced to make new connections, and that process embeds the information more firmly in your memory.
13. Compare with what you know
Many things that we study have similarity to things we already know. Rather than starting from scratch on new material, see how it matches up with facts, processes, and themes from what you've previously learned.
You may need to study the novel Emma by Jane Austen, for example, after previously learning about her novel Pride and Prejudice in a previous class. That experience means you already know that Austen tends to have strong female main characters, and uses sarcasm and satire to comment on classism and misogyny.
These comparisons can help you more easily remember the themes you are currently studying. Noting contrasts, that Emma makes mistakes through social meddling and Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth errs by judging people solely on first impressions, adds additional context that helps you recall the information more easily.
14. Don't narrow your focus
Sometimes, the study techniques we think are working for us actually have an opposite effect. This was proven by a memory study using art, where both the participants and researchers believed that memorizing one artist's collection at a time was the correct study method. In fact, participants were much more successful identifying an artist's work when they had originally viewed it in a group with five other artists' pieces.
It may seem counterintuitive, but narrowing your focus to a single artist, style of equations, or only French vocabulary and not pronunciation can create a sense of monotony and complacency. Attacking a subject from multiple angles forces the brain to work harder, making connections and identifying differences. Research has shown that making your study sessions more challenging is a key component to recalling that information later.
15. Understand before you memorize
Let's say your film studies professor used your next class to show the third episode of the second season of a TV show you'd never seen before. On a pop quiz the next day, there are questions about the plot of the episode, character motivations, and overall theme of the show.
You likely wouldn't remember some of the character's names, let alone which one led each of the four subplots.
Now think about how your answers would be different for an episode of a series you've seen from the beginning. Knowing the characters and their story so well, it would be much easier for you to recall details of this single point in their journey. The same is true of any material you study. If you don't understand the full context of something, you're stuck trying to strictly memorize a string of facts, plot points, numbers or equation symbols.
If you need to know the date of an important treaty for a history test, for example, learn the whole story. Why was the treaty signed? Who were the interested parties? What war or economic event triggered it? This additional information helps your brain make connections to other dates and events you already know. Creating those connections is an effective strategy to solidify that precise date in your long-term memory.
By incorporating some of these healthy habits, you won’t only improve your memory but also boost your mental and physical health!
There are numerous methods to improve your memory. While you may find some more effective than others, these proven study strategies won’t only help you remember better but also make studying more enjoyable (or, at the very least, tolerable) for you!
Here are some other study hacks you might find useful:
Have you ever tried any of these memory techniques for studying? Can you recommend any others? Let us know in the comments section below!
Article originally published on 12 December 2020 and updated by writer Valerie David.