Why Memory Methods Matter
Taking a college class means learning a lot of new information. It can often feel like there is too much being thrown at you for you to keep it all straight in your head. Learning memory techniques that work for you can help keep new information manageable and improve your recall.
There are many different memory techniques used to increase retention and recall of information:
Here are a few tried and true academic methods to improve your memory.
- Take pen and paper notes. Old school note taking is better for memory retention for two main reasons. First of all, pen and paper eliminates the opportunities for distraction and actually gives you something to do, so you can focus more. Secondly, most people can’t write as fast as someone can speak, which means more mental processing of the information takes place. Since you have to pick and choose what to write, this processing helps you retain more information.
- Rewrite your notes. After you have hopefully taken good notes, you will likely need to use them to review. Most pen and paper notes need to be reorganized after the fact. The process of rewriting your notes not only gives you some good review, it helps you organize the information to create greater comprehension.
- 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!).
Consider these methods to hack your brain. They may not seem natural, but they will save you so much time and energy. You’ll be amazed how much you can remember. Many of these techniques might remind you of elementary school, but you know what? They worked. You might be older and “too mature” to sing songs about science, but your brain still works the same way. Don’t be embarrassed, but embrace how effective these devices are in helping you remember things.
- Acronyms: Using initial letter of facts and developing a word.
- Examples: The Great Lakes = HOMES – Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior Cardinal Directions = NEWS – North, East, West, South
- Acrostics: Using initial letter of facts and developing a sentence.
- Examples: Sheet Music (EGBDF) = Every Good Boy Does Fine Taxonomy (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species) = King Phillip Came Over For Great Spaghetti
- Rhythms, Rhymes, & Jingles: Sayings that stick.
- Example: Alphabet Song “i before e, except after c.”
- Associations: Ideas linked together, thinking of one will remind you of the other.Examples: 23 = Michael Jordan Memory Palace technique (see below for more details)
- Story Lines: Stringing concepts together and make a goofy story.
- Mapping: Connecting pictures and/or words using lines to connect main ideas to supporting details
Also known as the Method of Loci (MOL), the memory palace technique is a bizarre but highly effective technique to help you remember large amounts of information. It is so effective, that every competitor and champion of the USA Memory Championships uses the memory palace technique to memorize large amount of information in a short amount of time. Simply, this technique involves imagining a familiar place such as a home or a college campus and placing different pieces of information along your route as you mentally walk through this area. To retrieve the information, you simply re-imagine walking through this location and finding these items in order as you walk through.
More Information: Building a Memory Palace – Scientific Article by Eric L. G. Legge, Christopher R. Madana, Enoch T. Ng, & Jeremy B. Caplan
Break a large amount of information into smaller groups (or smaller chunks) in order to more easily remember the information. For example, a 10 digit phone number is harder to remember as 4745430576, but 474-543-0576 is easier to remember.
More Information: Chunking: Learning Technique for Better Memory and Understanding – A video explaining the concept
This effective strategy is incredibly simple. Most people know that repetition is key to remembering something, but what most don’t know is the importance of repeating the information after short intervals of time. For example, when learning a new word in a foreign language, it is more effective to use the word 10 times over the course of a 30 minute conversation, rather than repeating the same word ten times fast.
More Information: Spaced Repetition – Psychology Article by Angela K. Troyer
Cognitive Load Theory
An overly simplistic explanation of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is basically this: your brain only has so much mental processing power (much like a computer). When you overload your brain with too much information at once, or more commonly, with too many distractions at once, your brain’s processing power is slowed down or often rendered useless. Have you ever sat through a class where the professor is moving so quickly that you give up on trying to understand? Have you tried studying but distracted yourself so much with text messages, music, and social media that you didn’t get anything done? This is CLT gone wrong.
More Information: Cognitive Load Theory – Psychology Article by Mind Tools
Tips for Improving Memory
Below are some tips to help you improve your overall memory.
Get in the Zone
Ideally, the entirety of your mental processing power can be devoted to one task. When you are so completely focused on the task at hand that you lose awareness of space and time, this is known as being in a “state of flow” (or being in the zone). This is CLT (see above) done well. This often takes discipline to turn off or leave your phone at home, remove all other distractions, and focus your energy on studying the subject in front of you. When a state of flow is achieved, you can accomplish a great deal of work and memorize a large amount of information efficiently and effectively.
More Information: 8 Ways To Create Flow – Psychology Article by Mike Oppland
Engage Multiple Senses
Have you ever smelled something and had a memory come flooding back to you? Oddly enough, your sense of smell has the strongest connection to your memory out of the 5 traditional senses due to the placement of the olfactory nerve within the limbic system. Naturally sight and hearing are also strongly connected to memory. The more senses that can be engaged in the learning process, the easier it is to retain and understand new information. This is why learning by doing is always the best way to learn.
Getting more sleep is often easier said than done in college. However, prioritizing sleep in college is incredibly important to academic success. An ever increasing body of research shows how important a good night’s rest is in improving memory and moving information into long-term memory. Rather than staying up too late to study, you might be better off going to bed. Your mind is far less efficient when you are sleep deprived and you are less likely to remember information when studying without sleep. Many studies have even shown equivalencies of certain amounts of sleep deprivation with levels of blood alcohol content (BAC). In one study, going more than 19 hours without sleep is the equivalent of 0.05% BAC! As much as possible, get some good rest and manage your time and energy to study while you are well rested and alert.
More Information: How Sleep Improves Memory – Research Article by Katya Trudeau Potkin Cognitive Impairment from Moderate Sleep Deprivation – Journal Article by A. M. Williamson & Anne-Marie Feyer
A healthy lifestyle plays an important role in mental processes and improving memory. According to this Harvard study, specifically aerobic exercise, something that gets your heart rate up high, has a strong correlation to improved memory.
More Information: Exercise Improves Memory – Harvard Health Article by Heidi Godman