6 ways to remember content
Study tips - Remembering the work you studied
Knowing how to go about studying, planning your study sessions properly, and looking after your health during study periods (like test or exam week) is super important – but as important is actually remembering what you’ve studied! It’s all well and good that you’ve planned your time and covered your content, but it’s no good you’ve done all that work if you can’t remember any of it when you’re sitting in the test or exam venue! So, we’ve compiled a few handy tips on how to remember what you’ve studied so that all your effort doesn’t go to waste. But first, let’s quickly have a look at what memory actually is, and how it works, as this will help you understand why and how these tips work.
What is memory, and how does it work?
Memory, as we all know, refers to stored information. Information can refer to any stimulus or sensory input, like seeing a painting, hearing a friend talk about their day, smelling a pretty flower, tasting a new dish or touching an interesting texture. Despite being able to form a memory from any kind of sensory input or information, we make that sensory information into a memory through one of only 3 ways: we encode that information visually (giving the memory an associated image), auditorily (giving the memory an associated sound), or semantically (giving the memory an associated meaning). Encoding information in these ways helps convert the information from short term memory into long term memory. Information stored in short term memory lasts for about only 30 seconds, so it’s crucial to convert it into long-term memory, which can, theoretically, last a lifetime.
Techniques to help you remember your studying material
Reading out loud
This may sound silly at first but reading your work aloud can really help you remember what you’ve studied! This is because you’re repeating the information to yourself, thus and absorbing the information in two different ways, and consequently reinforcing it. More specifically, this is known as the 'production effect'. According to a study, conducted by Noah Forrin and Colin MacLeod in 2017, ‘the dual effect of both speaking and hearing helps encode the memory more strongly’ (Ferro, 2017). According to the same authors, hearing your own voice is more effective than hearing others say the same information, possibly because people find hearing their own voice so strange that the information ‘sticks’ more, due to how unique it is. Either way, reading and hearing information simultaneously/in conjunction with one another is better than simply quietly reading information to yourself. It might also be helpful to record yourself saying the information (while concentrating on what you’re saying), and then playing the recording back to yourself. Most PCs and smart devices have some kind of built-in recording function but there are also websites and apps you can use for that purpose.
Also known as the ‘learning-by- teaching effect’, teaching others information you have just learned helps consolidate it, for multiple potential reasons. Firstly, it could be argued that by verbally teaching others, you’re speaking out loud and we’ve discussed how that helps you remember the material in the previous point. But by teaching others, you also test your own understanding of the work, and that complex grappling with information is what helps it stick, rather than just reading it over a couple of times (this is referred to as meaningful learning). A new study by Aloysius Wei Lun Koh has suggested that learning by teaching works because it forces the teacher to retrieve memories they’ve already stored, which is simply another form of the ‘testing effect’, which refers to remembering what we’ve already studied. It is this remembrance that helps strengthen memory. It’s a little bit like weight-lifting – the more you use the muscles, the stronger they get. Likewise, the more you retrieve memories, the longer they stay. If you have no classmates to teach, try ‘teaching’ inanimate objects. Whether your audience is receptive to the information or not is largely irrelevant – it’s the performance of the action that is important here. Importantly, you need to be able to teach your audience without referring to notes or a script, otherwise, you’re just cheating your own ability to retrieve that information.
Mnemonics, also known as memory devices, are a great way of remembering information you’ve studied. Remember how we said your brain creates memories by encoding information visually, auditorily or semantically? Mnemonic devices work directly with this principle. In essence, they’re ‘shortcuts’ through which we attribute an image, sound or word to information, thus creating an association between the two, kind of like ‘tagging; the information with a smaller piece of information. When we recall that ‘tag’ (that image, sound, or word), we consequently retrieve the information that was tagged. Repeating the mnemonic over and over is key to its success. There are a whole host of mnemonics, so we’ll cover just a few here. (it might be helpful to know which learning style is most appropriate for you, in order to decide which mnemonic device or devices will work best for you.)
The Method of Loci
The method of Loci uses visual encoding. This mnemonic works by imagining a familiar place such as your house, and various locations – for example, the different rooms in the house - or objects within that place. You then mentally attach pieces of information to each location or object. Then, by recalling the place and its locations or objects, you remember the information you’ve attached to them. It helps to use a set order to do this, rather than assigning information in a random order. When the exam or test comes, imagine that place, ‘walk’ through it, and you’ll remember the information as you ‘see’ the objects or locations with which you associated the information.
Acronyms and acrostics
Acronyms and acrostics use semantic encoding. With an acronym, you take the first letter of every piece of information and remember those letters by associating the word with its letter – e.g., if you need to remember the ‘National Basketball Association’, the acronym will be the ‘NBA’. You’ll remember which word each letter stands for by rehearsing it multiple times – for example “’N’ is for ‘national’”. In an acrostic, you do the same thing, but you take it a couple of steps further. You then take that series of letters and create some kind of sentence. For example, if you’re needing to remember the seven colours of the rainbow, take them in the order they appear – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Isolate the first letter of every word – R, O, Y, G, B, I, V. Now, give each letter a word, and have those words make a sentence, like this:
When the relevant question test or exam comes (i.e., ‘what are the colours of the rainbow? List them in order), you’ll recall the sentence and the corresponding information.
Rhymes and musical mnemonics
Rhymes and musical mnemonics use acoustic coding. Replace words in rhymes that are familiar to you (like ‘Humpty Dumpty’ or ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’) with words from the piece(s) of information you need to remember and repeat this amended rhyme several times (as with repeating all mnemonics to remember them, it’s best to repeat them aloud). Alternatively, you can replace the lyrics in a song you know with bits of information. Either way, when you recall the rhyme or the tune you’ve used for your mnemonic, you should be able to remember the information you’ve attached to it!
We briefly mentioned this under point 2 but testing yourself is a great way to remember information. This is because of the ‘testing effect’ (also known as retrieval practise and practice testing). By testing your own knowledge before the actual test or exam, you’re forcing yourself to retrieve the information you’ve already studied, and every time you retrieve it, it becomes reinforced. It also helps you to see what you’re not remembering and to go focus on that when you’ve got the rest down pat.
Taking study breaks
Study breaks are important for various reasons. Firstly, studies have suggested that we can concentrate fully for only 30 to 45 minutes at a time – thereafter we become mentally fatigued and most information that is read isn’t effectively stored. Secondly, your brain needs rest in order to consolidate information – when we doze off or sleep, or brain generates neural pathways, and this is what helps us remember information. Additionally, breaks give us the opportunity to reward ourselves, and rewards can act as a good motivating influence. Lastly, breaks give us an opportunity to refuel our brains with healthy snacks, and to do some exercise, whether that be a gym session or a little 20-minute walk (exercise increases blood flow which consequently improves the body’s delivery of oxygen to the brain, which is vital for optimal cognitive functioning). One way to help you regulate your time is the Pomodoro technique, based on the Italian tomato clock. In this technique, you time approximately 30-minute study sessions, and rest/take a break for 5 minutes in between each session – these intervals are known as ‘pomodoros’.
Often, you’re going to have to study huge volumes of material, and this can be very overwhelming. A great way to study that will also help you retain information is to write and use flashcards. Flashcards are small pieces of paper with written information. Flashcards help you break down large pieces of information into smaller, more manageable chunks. A good way to make flashcards is to write a keyword (or multiple keywords) on one side of the card with a more in-depth explanation of the keyword/s on the other side. In doing so, you’re effectively training your brain to link the detailed information with a small clue. Writing down this information will help you to remember it, too. So when you study with the flashcards, present yourself with a flashcard, showing yourself only the side with the keyword/s, and see if you can remember the information on the other side of it. This way, seeing the clue during the test or exam (such as the clue being in the test or exam question) should trigger the recall of the information associated with that clue.