To do well in school, you need to know how to use your memory well.
Top students use a variety of memory techniques and tools to memorise information and recall it quickly during exams.
Of course, memory isn’t a substitute for understanding.
You’ll need to understand the topics you’re studying, if not you won’t be able to perform well.
But there are many techniques that will help you to memorise more of what you study.
Here are 23 of the best memory techniques for students.
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Memory techniques for studying
As you prepare for your next exam, try out a few of the following memory techniques for students.
I’m confident that you’ll find them useful!
1. Use images
The human brain processes images faster than words.
In fact, 90% of the information that our brains process is visual. We also process visual information 60,000 times faster than words.
So it’s no surprise that we remember images better than words.
That’s why turning words or equations into images is an effective memorisation technique.
Take a fact that you want to remember and convert it into an image. But not just any image – try to make the image funny or exaggerated.
The more ridiculous the image, the easier it will be to remember.
For example, to remember that cations are positively charged ions and anions are negatively charged ions, you could…
- Imagine a cat, and think about the fact that cats have paws. “Paws” reminds you of “positive”, so cations are positively charged.
- “Anion” kind of sounds like “onion”, and onions can make you cry. Crying is generally considered to be a negative event, so anions are negatively charged.
Here’s another example.
Let’s say that you want to remember that Neil Armstrong was the first human to step on the moon.
You could imagine a man walking on the moon with a nail (“nail” sounds like “Neil”) in his muscular arm (to remind you of the word “Armstrong”).
Images are powerful as a memory technique, because they’ll enable you to retain more information while spending less time studying overall.
2. “Match” information with sounds or letters
Sometimes words sound the same or have similar spelling.
And some words are just difficult to spell.
For example, here’s how you can use sounds or letters to remember these facts:
- “Grey” is used in England, whereas “gray” is used in America
- “Necessary” has one “c” and two “s’s”, just as a shirt has one collar and two sleeves
- Stalagmites (a type of rock formation) grow from the ground, while stalactites grow from the ceiling
3. Use acronyms and mnemonics
Acronyms and mnemonics are also useful memory techniques for students.
An acronym is an abbreviation formed from the first letter of a series of words.
For example, PEMDAS is an acronym for remembering the order of operations in math:
A mnemonic is a short phrase used to remember a rule or a principle, such as “i” before “e” except after “c”.
This mnemonic reminds students that the letter “i” usually comes before “e” when spelling various words – as in “lie,” “belief” and “pie”.
The exception is when “i” comes after “c” – as in “receive” and “ceiling”.
Here’s another example.
My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us Noodles is a mnemonic you can use to remember the order of the eight planets in our solar system:
In addition, “May I have a pillow?” is a mnemonic you can use to memorise the value of pi: 3.1416 (“may” has 3 letters, “I” has 1 letter, and so on).
It also helps that the first two letters of “pillow” form the word “pi”.
4. Create a story
Another effective memory technique is to build a story around the facts that you’re trying to memorise.
Let’s say that you’re trying to learn the formula for gravitational potential energy (P.E. = mgh).
You could make up a story where you’re having a PE (physical education) class, when suddenly you see your mother (m), grandmother (g) and a horse (h) standing together.
Or maybe you’re trying to memorise the formula E = mc2 .
You could imagine an elephant (E) walking towards a monkey (m) that’s holding a square-shaped cracker (c2).
5. Connect the information to something that you already know well
Research shows that it’s easier to learn something new if you can link it to something you already understand.
For instance, if you’re learning about electricity, you could compare electricity to water using this analogy:
- Charge = water in a water tank
- Current = flow of water
- Voltage = water pressure
This isn’t a perfect analogy, but it will help you to learn concepts related to electricity faster.
Here’s one more example.
Let’s say that you’re learning about Ancient Rome, and you already know a lot about Ancient Greece. You could connect the two areas of knowledge by noting that:
- Both the Greeks and Romans relied on agriculture as an important part of their economies.
- The Greeks were eventually governed through democracy, while the Romans were governed through a mixture of democracy, monarchy and oligarchy.
- The Greeks colonised, while the Romans conquered.
- The Greeks spoke Greek, while the Romans spoke Latin.
By forming these connections, you’ll retain more of the information you learn about Ancient Rome.
6. Study in different locations
Many people will tell you to do all of your studying in one place.
The idea is that this will enable you to study more effectively, because you associate learning with that one place.
But research shows that this isn’t always the case.
In a classic experiment, psychologists gave college students a list of 40 words to memorise.
The students memorised the list in two different rooms. One room was windowless and cluttered, while the other room was modern and had a nice view.
These students did far better when they were tested, as compared to other students who studied the same list of words twice, in the same room.
These results have also been observed in other similar experiments.
So why would it aid in memorisation to study the same material in different locations?
Studying the same material in different settings forces the brain to make multiple associations with the material. In other words, the different settings create more “mental scaffolding” that you can “hang” the new material on.
To take advantage of this effect, try changing your studying environment. Do some of your studying at home, some in school, and some at the library.
But remember that for this technique to work, you need to be studying the same material in different locations.
7. Go to sleep after learning something challenging
You probably know that not getting enough sleep will negatively affect your memory. If you’re wondering what things top students do differently, getting enough sleep is certainly one of them.
But did you know that going to sleep shortly after a study session will improve your recall of the material you just studied?
Research shows that students who went to sleep within a few hours of a learning session were better able to remember what they just learned.
So if you need to learn something that’s especially challenging, do it a few hours before you go to sleep.
8. Go for a walk before trying to memorise information
Exercise is good for both your body and your brain.
In a study conducted by James T. Haynes IV, participants who walked on a treadmill for 15 minutes before the learning period were better able to remember two lists of 15 words.
To take advantage of this memory technique, go for a short walk before listening to a recording of a lecture, studying flashcards, or memorising definitions or equations.
9. Say the information out loud
This technique is based on research conducted at the University of Waterloo.
The research shows that we are more likely to remember information that we have read aloud to ourselves, compared to information that we have only read silently.
This phenomenon is based on what researchers call the “production effect”.
The explanation for this effect is that words read aloud are more distinctive to our brain than words uttered silently. This distinctiveness aids the process of encoding the information in our memory.
So when you want to memorise a certain piece of information, read it out loud.
10. Understand the information fully before you try to memorise it
One common mistake students make is trying to memorise information without understanding it.
This type of rote learning doesn’t work.
It’s difficult to memorise content when you use rote learning. This is because when you don’t understand a topic, you won’t have any mental “pegs” on which to hang the new information.
This goes back to the idea of “mental scaffolding”, a concept that I mentioned earlier.
Let’s look at an example.
The trigger for World War One was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a 19-year old named Gavrilo Princip.
You could try to memorise this fact on its own, but it would be hard to do so.
Imagine if you also learned these related facts:
- Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia
- Bosnia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire
- Serbia wanted to take control of Bosnia
- Gavrilo Princip was a Serbian nationalist
- Austria invaded Serbia because it felt threatened by Serbian nationalism
- Serbia had a treaty with Russia
- Austria had a treaty with Germany
- Russia mobilised its forces to support Serbia, and Germany mobilised its forces to support Austria
These additional facts put the original fact in context. As such, it gives you “pegs” on which to hang the original fact.
Here’s another example.
Let’s say you want to learn Pythagoras’ theorem: in a right-angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
If that’s all you learn, it will be difficult to memorise the theorem.
But what if you also learn that – using this theorem – you can find the length of the third side of any right-angled triangle, if you know the lengths of the other two sides?
You’ll then understand why the theorem is useful, which means you’ll find it easier to memorise.
11. Teach other people about what you’ve learned
Research shows that when people learn material and then teach it to others, their comprehension increases significantly.
So an effective memory technique is to teach others about what you’re learning.
Doing so will increase your comprehension and retention of the material.
Plus, it’s always good to help others and teach them the material if they don’t understand it!
You’ll start to realise that knowledge is meant to be shared and not hoarded, which will increase your motivation to study.
12. Use colours
Colours capture our attention. What’s more, they work as a kind of mental shorthand.
Colours give context to the material you’re studying, and help you to process it more efficiently.
As mentioned earlier, the brain processes visual input – such as colours – 60,000 times faster than text.
This means that when you colour-code information, it allows your brain to pre-process the information before you actually study it.
Here are some tips for using colours to help you to learn better:
- Colour-code after you’ve taken notes, not while you’re taking notes. (This is because colour-coding while taking notes will interrupt the flow of your study session, and you may also end up overdoing it.)
- Use highlighters, multi-coloured pens and multi-coloured sticky notes.
Use a consistent colour code across all your subjects and topics.
For example, you might decide to use a system like this:
- Blue = key fact
- Green = key explanation
- Red = key example
Or you might use colour codes for sub-topics like this:
- Blue = main causes of World War 2
- Green = main events of World War 2
- Yellow = main consequences of World War 2
A word of caution: When using colours as a study aid, don’t go overboard. If too much of your study material is coloured or highlighted, you’ll become confused.
13. Write out the information you want to memorise
Studies have shown that within two days of hearing or reading new information, we forget 60% of it.
But if we write out the information, our recall increases significantly.
The act of doing this forces us to evaluate and categorise the new information. This process helps to consolidate the new information in our memory.
Of course, it isn’t possible to write out all the information contained in your textbooks – that would take way too much time.
So write out only the key information, equations, definitions, etc. that you need to memorise.
14. Draw tables and diagrams
Many of the memory techniques for students discussed in this article help to create more “mental scaffolding”. This enables you to store new information in your brain more easily.
Another way to add more mental scaffolding is to present the new information in the form of tables, diagrams, and mind maps.
For example, you could draw a simple diagram to explain the carbon cycle.
Or you could draw a Venn diagram to compare the characteristics of birds and bats.
Or you could draw a mind map to illustrate the causes of the Second World War.
By using tables, diagrams, and mind maps, you’ll remember the concepts faster as compared to if you just tried to memorise chunks of text.
15. Whenever possible, use hard-to-read fonts
Princeton University and Indiana University researchers discovered an interesting effect. Test subjects had better recall when the information was presented to them in hard-to-read fonts.
One explanation for this is that hard-to-read fonts (like Comic Sans MS) make us think about what we’re reading more deeply. This is in comparison to easy-to-read fonts (like Arial).
But the researchers noted that there are limits to this effect.
As fonts become exceedingly difficult to read, the benefits for information recall begin to diminish.
16. Memorise lists with the rhyming peg-word system
You can use this technique to memorise a list of items.
In the rhyming peg-word system, each number is linked to a noun that rhymes with it.
- = Bun
- = Shoe
- = Tree
- = Door
- = Hive
- = Sticks
- = Heaven
- = Gate
- = Wine
- = Pen
Once you’ve memorised these associations, you can then link the noun to an item in a list that you want to memorise.
For example, let’s say that you want to memorise three elements in the periodic table: hydrogen, oxygen and carbon.
Create an image in your mind that links each of the items with the noun from the list above:
- Hydrogen: Imagine a bun tied to a balloon that’s filled with hydrogen.
- Oxygen: Imagine an oxygen tank falling on someone’s shoe.
- Carbon: Imagine a tree soaking up carbon from the ground and the air.
17. Apply the method of loci (memory palace)
Legend has it that the Greek poet Simonides invented the method of loci, also known as the “memory palace”.
Simonides was attending a dinner banquet when the building suddenly collapsed. He was the only survivor.
The bodies were crushed beyond recognition. But Simonides was able to identify the bodies by remembering where each person had been sitting.
He later realised that this technique – of associating information with places (or loci) – could be used to memorise all kinds of information.
Here’s how to use the technique.
Let’s say you have a list of 10 grocery items that you want to memorise:
- Cooking oil
- Curry powder
- Coffee beans
Visualise yourself opening the front door of your house and realising that the doorknob is actually a banana.
Then imagine that as you open the door, a flood of milk comes pouring out of the house.
You walk down the hall into the kitchen and find that the kitchen table is covered in cooking oil.
Then you see a large fish in the kitchen sink.
Next, you look out the window and see broccoli growing in your garden.
And so on.
You can use the method of loci to remember items, points that you want to cover in a presentation, or tasks that you need to complete.
18. Practise active recall
Active recall is a memory technique that takes advantage of what is known as the “testing effect”.
This is the tendency for your memory to improve when you devote some of your learning to retrieving the information in an active way.
Active recall is vastly different from passive recall.
In passive recall, you learn the material in a passive way, e.g. reading notes, listening to an audio recording of a lecture, watching a video about a science concept.
In contrast, in active recall you practise retrieving the information.
You can do this by answering questions about the material or taking quizzes and tests. You can also try the Feynman technique.
Passive recall is a necessary part of learning, but I recommend that the majority of your learning consist of active recall.
19. Make flashcards
Flashcards are a popular study tool.
If you’re already using flashcards, are you using them in the right way?
Here’s a technique for getting the most out of flashcards.
- On the front of the card, write the term, concept, word or name of the equation that you want to learn.
- On the back of the card, at the top left corner, write the explanation, definition or full equation. As far as possible, use your own words.
- At the top right corner, write the category or topic that the term belongs to. If it’s a vocabulary word, you could write the type of word it is, e.g. noun, verb, adjective. If it’s a concept or an event in history, write the topic or upper-level category that it belongs to.
- At the bottom left corner, write a sentence or example that contains the term.
- At the bottom right corner, draw a picture, diagram or graph that represents the term.
Not all the steps listed above will be applicable in every single situation.
But it’s a good practice to apply as many of the steps as you can, because this will aid your learning.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say that you want to learn about π, the mathematical constant.
- On the front of the card, write “π”.
- On the back of the card, at the top left corner, write “π = 3.1416″.
- At the top right corner, write “mathematical constant”.
- At the bottom left corner, write “circumference of a circle = 2πr = πd”.
- At the bottom right corner, draw a diagram of a circle and indicate the radius, diameter and circumference of the circle.
When you’re studying, keep a stack of blank flashcards next to you.
Every time you come across a term or concept that you want to memorise, write it down on the front of the flashcard.
Later, when you’re done reading the set of notes, take each of these flashcards and complete the steps outlined above (i.e. steps 2 to 5).
Study your flashcards at regular intervals. Read what’s written on the front of the flashcard, and then see if you can recall what’s written on the back of the flashcard.
By doing this, you’d be applying the principle of active recall, which we discussed in the previous tip.
20. Use chunking to make the information more memorable
Chunking is a memory technique where you break down a topic into sub-topics, or a list of items into smaller groups of items.
Chunking makes the information easier to memorise.
Here’s a simple example.
Let’s say you have a shopping list that contains the following items:
- Cooking oil
- Coconut milk
You could chunk this list down into four sub-lists based on colour:
- Cooking oil
- Red capsicum
- Coconut milk
It will be much easier for you to remember the items on your shopping list because they’re organised according to colour.
Here’s an example that’s more applicable to students.
You might be trying to memorise the names of the presidents of the United States.
You could chunk the list down by dividing it into five sub-lists, comprising presidents from different periods of US history:
- American Revolution to the end of the Civil War
- End of the Civil War to the start of WWI
- Start of WWI to the end of WWII
- Cold War era
- Post-Cold War era
In these two examples, the principle is the same. You make the information easier to memorise by categorising it into different groups.
This approach provides the neural scaffolding that will enable you to recall the information later on.
21. Use as many of your senses as possible
Have you ever encountered a smell or heard a song that took you back a couple of years to another place?
If so, you’ll understand that your senses play a key role in how we encode memories.
The idea that sensory stimuli like touch, sight, and sound can aid in learning is the basis of the renowned Montessori Method.
The more senses you engage in the learning process, the better you’ll remember the information.
For example, you could use pictures and graphics to summarise key concepts.
You could also play calming classical music during your study sessions, because this has been shown to improve learning.
In addition, you could try out various forms of hands-on learning – such as building models – to enhance your memory too.
22. Review the information using spaced repetition
In the spaced repetition system, students review the same information at increasing intervals over time.
Studies have shown that spaced repetition causes more information to be encoded into long-term memory, as compared to “cramming”.
To implement this tip, try studying the same material over short sessions, separated by intervals that get longer over time.
For example, you could do the first review within a day of learning the new information, then the next review could be three days later, then one week later, then three weeks later, etc.
This might sound tedious, but it will save you many, many hours in the long run!
23. “Mix up” topics through interleaving
Interleaving is a technique that involves learning different related skills or types of knowledge over the course of an hour or longer.
The opposite of interleaving is called “blocking”.
This is where students master one skill or area of knowledge before progressing to the next.
For example, someone who is learning how to play basketball using the blocking approach might focus only on dribbling.
Only after he has mastered dribbling will he move on to learn how to perform a chest pass. And only after he has mastered the chest pass will he move on to learn how to perform a bounce pass.
In blocking, you’d learn Skill A before Skill B, and Skill B before Skill C.
But in interleaving, you’d learn different skills or types of knowledge concurrently – or almost concurrently.
For example, in interleaving, the same basketball player might perform 15 minutes of dribbling drills, followed by 15 minutes of chest pass drills, followed by 15 minutes of bounce pass drills.
This cycle might be repeated 2 to 3 times over the course of a training session.
For many years, educators believed that blocking was the best way to study. But recent research has shown that interleaving produces far better outcomes.
In one study, interleaving resulted in a 25% to 76% improvement in learning.
To take advantage of this memorisation technique, try to mix up your study topics within a given subject over the course of a study session.
For example, if you’re learning geometry, don’t just practise questions related to circle geometry. Do some questions on circles, then some questions on triangles, then some questions on quadrilaterals.
By doing a mixture of somewhat related questions, your overall understanding and recall will improve.
Which memory techniques will you try first?
I know… in this article I’ve discussed a lot of memory techniques for students to use.
There are definitely too many for you to use all of them at once!
I encourage you to go through the list once more and pick out 2 to 3 techniques that you feel would be most beneficial for you.
Once you’ve used those 2 to 3 techniques consistently for several weeks, go back to the list and choose another 2 to 3 to put into practice.
Over time, I’m confident that you’ll see a huge improvement in your ability to recall information – and I’m sure you’ll start to get better grades too!
(Try some of these test-taking strategies to help you maintain your composure during exams.)
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