Throughout history, human memory has been a topic of great interest and fascination for scientists and the general public. Although severe problems with memory are extremely rare, you’re in good company if you find that your memory occasionally lets you down, especially if you’re nervous or stressed or when grades depend on immediate recall of what you have read, heard, or written.
So, how can you improve your ability to store information in your brain for future use? Psychologists and learning specialists have conducted research on memory and have developed a number of strategies that you can use as part of a study-skills regimen. Some of these strategies might be new to you, but others will be simple, commonsense ways to maximize your learning. You may have heard these ideas before, although perhaps not in the context of improving your memory.
The benefits of having a good memory are obvious. In college your memory will help you retain information and ace tests. After college the ability to recall names, procedures, presentations, and appointments will save you energy and time and will prevent a lot of embarrassment.
There are many ways to go about remembering. Have you ever had to memorize a speech or lines from a play? How you approach committing the lines to memory might depend on your learning style. If you’re an aural learner, you might choose to record your lines as well as lines of other characters and listen to them on tape. If you’re a visual learner, you might remember best by visualizing where your lines appear on the page in the script.
If you learn best by reading, you might simply read the script over and over. If you’re a kinesthetic learner, you might need to walk or move across an imaginary stage as you read the script.
Although knowing specific words will help, remembering concepts and ideas can be much more important. To embed such ideas in your mind, ask yourself these questions as you review your notes and books:
What is the essence of the idea?
Why does the idea make sense? What is the logic behind it?
How does this idea connect to other ideas in the material?
What are some possible arguments against the idea?
Mnemonics (pronounced “ne MON iks”) are various methods or tricks to aid the memory. Mnemonics tend to fall into four basic categories:
Acronyms. New words created from the first letters of several words can be helpful in remembering. The Great Lakes can be more easily recalled by remembering the word HOMES for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.
Acrostics. An acrostic is a verse in which certain letters of each word or line form a message. Many piano students were taught the notes on the treble clef lines (E, G, B, D, F) by remembering the acrostic “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.”
Rhymes or songs. Do you remember learning “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. All the rest have 31, excepting February alone. It has 28 days time, but in leap years it has 29” or a similar ditty? If so, you were using a mnemonic rhyming technique to remember the number of days in each month.
Visualization. Visualization is used to associate words, concepts, or stories with visual images. The more ridiculous the image, the more likely you are to remember it. So use your imagination to create mental images when you’re studying important words or concepts. For example, as you’re driving to campus, choose some landmarks along the way to help you remember material for your history test. The next day, as you pass those landmarks, relate them to something from your class notes or readings. A white picket fence might remind you of the British army’s eighteenth-century approach to warfare, with its official uniforms and straight lines of infantry, while a stand of trees of various shapes and sizes might remind you of the Continental army’s less organized approach.
Mnemonics works because it makes information meaningful through the use of rhymes, patterns, and associations. It imposes meaning where meaning might be hard to recognize. Mnemonics provides a way of organizing material, a sort of mental filing system. It’s probably not needed if what you are studying is very logical and organized, but it can be quite useful for other types of material.
Although mnemonics is a time-tested way of remembering, the method has some limitations. The first is time. Thinking up rhymes, associations, or visual images can take longer than simply learning the words themselves through repetition. Also, it is often difficult to convert abstract concepts into concrete words or images, and you run the risk of being able to remember an image without recalling the underlying concept. Finally, memory specialists debate whether learning through mnemonics actually helps with long-term knowledge retention and whether this technique helps or interferes with deeper understanding.
To prepare for an exam that will cover large amounts of material, you need to condense the volume of notes and text pages into manageable study units. Review your materials with these questions in mind: Is this concept one of the key ideas in the chapter or unit? Will I see it on the test? You might prefer to highlight, underline, or annotate the most important ideas or create outlines, lists, or visual maps.
Use your notes to develop review sheets. Make lists of key terms and ideas (from the recall column if you’ve used the Cornell method) that you need to remember. Also, don’t underestimate the value of using your lecture notes to test yourself or others on information presented in class.
A mind map is essentially a review sheet with a visual element. Its word and visual patterns provide you with highly charged clues to jog your memory. Because they are visual, mind maps help many students recall information.
In addition to review sheets and mind maps, you might want to create flash cards. One advantage of flash cards is that you can keep them in a pocket of your backpack or jacket and pull them out to study anywhere, even when you might not think that you have enough time to take out your notebook to study. Also, you always know where you left off. Flash cards can help you make good use of time that might otherwise be wasted, such as time spent on the bus or waiting for a friend.
Writing summaries of class topics can be helpful in preparing for essay and short-answer exams. By condensing the main ideas into a concise written summary, you store information in your long-term memory so that you can retrieve it to answer an essay question. Here’s how:
Predict a test question from your lecture notes or other resources.
Read the chapter, supplemental articles, notes, or other resources. Underline or mark main ideas as you go, make notations, or make an outline on a separate sheet of paper.
Analyze and abstract. What is the purpose of the material? Does it compare two ideas, define a concept, or prove a theory? What are the main ideas? How would you explain the material to someone else?
Make connections between main points and key supporting details. Reread to identify each main point and the supporting evidence. Create an outline to assist you in this process.
Select, condense, and order. Review underlined material and begin putting the ideas into your own words. Number what you underlined or highlighted in a logical order.
Write your ideas precisely in a draft. In the first sentence state the purpose of your summary. Follow this statement with each main point and its supporting ideas. See how much of the draft you can develop from memory without relying on your notes.
Review your draft. Read it over, adding missing transitions or insufficient information. Check the logic of your summary. Annotate with the material you used for later reference.
Test your memory. Put your draft away and try to recite the contents of the summary to yourself out loud or explain it to a study partner who can provide feedback on the information you have omitted.
Schedule time to review summaries and double-check your memory shortly before the test. You might want to do review with a partner, but some students prefer to do so alone. Some faculty members might also be willing to assist you in this process and provide feedback on your summaries.
mind map A review sheet with words and visual elements that jog the memory to help you recall information more easily.