Skip to main content

EPY 101 - Educational, Career, and Personal Development: Memorization Techniques

Memorization Techniques


Once you get focused, then you can start retaining the info

 - November 20, 2013

Ah, exam time. Everyone's favourite time to hit the books. (Danny Abriel photo)
Ah, exam time. Everyone's favourite time to hit the books. (Danny Abriel photo)

With the end of classes in a couple of weeks, it’s important to brush up on your study skills so you can write your exams feeling prepared and confident.

Before you can start some serious studying, you need to concentrate. Minimize or eliminate as many distractions as possible, including both internal (daydreaming or composing mental to-do lists) and external distractions (friends, roommates, noise, cell phones and social media) in order to fully focus on the task at hand.

Related: Check out some more study tips.

If you’re having trouble minimizing distractions, use the checkmark system. Each time you lose concentration, make a check on a scorecard you keep on your desk. Count the number of checks at the end of your study session. Set a goal each time you study to reduce the number of checkmarks.

It’s only once you have an appropriate study space and a focused mind you can start memorizing your information. Try these five techniques:

  1. Assign meaningfulness to things. Elaborate on what you’re learning and apply the knowledge to something important to you: an example your prof used, something you saw in a documentary, or an everyday experience. You probably don’t remember what you wore last Friday, but you can remember what you wore to prom. New information is most strongly encoded when you relate it to information you already know, and encoding is deepest when you assign meaning to new information. The more logical connections you can make to the new information, the stronger the memory.
  2. Learn general and specific later. This method helps with retrieval: if you know a piece of information falls within a broader category, it’s easier to access.
  3. Recite out loud in your own words until you don’t need to refer to your notes.
  4. Teach someone else. Teaching the information to someone else is one of the best ways to learn. If you don’t have a willing listener like a parent or a friend, you can teach the wall (best done behind closed doors!).
  5. Use memory devices. There are many different devices you can use to help memorize information, including:

Acrostics e.g. “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nachos” (planets)
Chunking: remember larger numbers in smaller chunks.
Method of Loci: visualize a familiar place and associate objects to it.
Flash cards: good for specific facts. Shuffle cards and recite out loud. Put a question on one side, the answer on the other.

Additional Tip

Practice questions. Whether they’re already in your textbook or you have to make them up yourself, try to do as many as possible. Rather than just reciting information, questions ask you to apply your knowledge, ensuring you actually understand the information.

Everyone has a different approach, so find out what method or combination works best for you!

Memorization Techniques

You never forget. With the exception of injury and disease, the brain never loses anything. Forgetting is either 1) the failure to store information in the first place, or 2) the inability to retrieve the information, or 3) the failure to store it in such a way that it can be found when needed. Remembering and forgetting are fairly big issues in academics. Experiments suggest that we forget all kinds of information all of the time. Although there are several theories which attempt to explain forgetting, much about the neurobiology of the brain remains unknown. What is known about memory is that it works more effectively when conscious effort is required vs. more peripheral routes to learning. Intention, motivation and interest are critical. That is also why novel information is more easily recalled.

Short term memory has a limited capacity and information disappears fast unless you can shift it into long term memory. Most of the information that we receive is not stored but quickly lost - probably at least 50% almost immediately and around 20% after 24 hours. Review quickly and repeatedly to improve your retention.

Memory has two parts: Concentration (you have to get it before you can forget it) and Recall.

It is a natural tendency to divide our attention, e.g., driving in the car while listening to the radio, but when we can focus exclusively on material we are attempting to learn, we have a better chance to complete the memory task quickly and accurately. Memory is strengthened by association, e.g., by adding new information from supplemental reading or placing the material in a hierarchal network. Memory is also reinforced when logical connections are made, e.g., while learning the bones in anatomy, visualize the connections and see the pathways as in a computer program. Draw on information from your background for pictures or a mental image. This helps you to utilize both the left and right hemispheres of your brain, which have certain specialized functions.

Ideal Conditions to Improve Concentration and Recall

In class and while studying:

  1. Pay attention to get information right the first time. It's difficult to replace wrong information with the right information
  2. Make certain that you understand a concept - its very difficult to recall what is fuzzy. Read and then reread before class, ask questions and try to explain the concept to someone else during your review session.
  3. Use chunking, there are limits to how much we can recall, but these limits expand when the material is meaningfully organized, e.g., what are the three key concepts of the chapter and how are ideas grouped under these key ideas. Cluster ideas around a heading or category. One item may serve as a cue to another during the exam.
  4. Be selective - condense and summarize. This helps to make the time requirements more manageable. Remember: Memorization Secondary to Comprehension.
  5. Mnemonic devices can serve as organizers for new information, either classic acronyms such as Every Good Boy Does Fine to represent the lines on the musical staff EGBDF, or individualized ones that you design for yourself. Be sure to memorize completely as a small error will create difficulty when utilizing these techniques.
  6. Create a peg on which to hang the information you want to remember. It might be a rhyme, an unusual image or maybe a sequence, e.g., remember your grocery list by visualizing going through the aisles in the market.
  7. Eliminate distractions:
    1. Use a "cue" - e.g., when you are wearing a certain baseball hat, you are not to be disturbed. Use your desk to read, review, write letters but use your bed only to sit on for a relaxing break.
    2. Remove obstacles, a sound or visual background which is unobtrusive may help to screen out distractions.
    3. Have all of your equipment available before you begin, lamp, pencil, good comfortable chair, books and paper clips, etc.
    4. Record stray thoughts on a note pad, but don't act upon them. Call this your worry pad, e.g., personal tasks that need to be completed. Make your to do list for the week before you start, or as a study break, to get random thoughts out of your head.
  8. Check your concentration as you go - generally toward the end of every other page, but more often if the reading is dense in terms of facts, definitions, equations, etc. Test yourself on identifying the main idea, restate in your own words.
  9. Use all of your senses, e.g., draw on the board, trace it over and over, look for unique visual patterns, talk it out to somebody, rehearse it in the mirror.
  10. Erase to remember. Write out what you need to recall for an exam completely in pencil. Progressively erase words as you commit them to memory. (Thanks to Dr. John Tenny for this idea).