“Memory is the diary we all carry about with us”, said Oscar Wilde.
But are some people’s diaries more accurate than others? What happens if you can’t naturally remember lots of things? Certain students would be put at a disadvantage because of this, as memory is an important skill needed in order to do well at school. So, can you improve memory? And if yes, what are the best ways to do so?
On average, humans can remember roughly 7 things at any one time in their working memory. This means we sometimes need simple strategies either to work around this fact, or to maximise this limited capacity.
One strategy is to write things down. By doing this, we don’t have to store and juggle lots of information in our working memory; we can store it on a piece of paper and refer to it when we need it. A word of caution: taking notes with a pen and paper is usually a better strategy than on an iPad or laptop.
Sometimes, however, it is not always possible to write things down. In these situations, techniques such as chunking, acronyms and silly sentences can help.
Chunking refers to grouping small bits of information together. For example, it is much easier to remember a number sequence like ‘2, 8, 0, 3, 1, 9, 8, 5’ when it is chunked into three groups (i.e. in a calendar format) like this: ‘28, 03, 1985’.
An acronym is where each letter in a word acts as a cue to remember something else. For example, the ‘Scuba’ in ‘Scuba Diving’ is an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Many maths teachers use SOHCAHTOA as a way to help students remember the sine, cosine and tangent of angles in a triangle.
Silly sentences work in a similar way, with the first letter of each word acting as a reminder for another word. One of the most popular examples of this is the sentence: ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.’ It’s a handy way of remembering the colours of the rainbow: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. Because of their silliness, these sentences are usually more memorable than the information that they actually contain.
When revising, it is more effective to space out your study sessions instead of cramming everything in at the last minute. This leaves you enough time to forget and re-learn: a process that helps you cement and embed knowledge in your memory.
If you are revising with someone else, take turns in teaching each other the material. This is known as the ‘Protégé Effect’ and can boost the teacher’s memory and recall. Teaching someone else requires you to learn and recall information in a clear and organised way. A fascinating study showed that people’s ability to recall information was significantly increased when told that they had to pass on the knowledge to someone else. To benefit from this effect, students don’t even need to teach someone else; they just have to believe that they are going to, in order to improve their memory.
If someone is teaching you something, try repeating out loud what you have been taught. This is an effective strategy to improve recall and enhance memory, more so than just repeating the content in your own head.
Once you have spent time learning the material, it is helpful to test yourself. This allows you to think deeply about the material, and it also has the added advantage of providing practice for performing under exam pressure. This is called retrieval practice, sometimes referred to as the Testing Effect – you can find out more about it on this blog.
One of our favourite techniques to improve memory is to ask yourself ‘why?’. This is what psychologists call ‘Elaborative Interrogation’. One study investigating this had students remember a list of sentences (i.e. ‘the hungry man got into the car’). The first group simply read the sentence. The second group was given an explanation (i.e. to go to a restaurant), and the third group was asked to come up with their own reason why the man got in his car. The results? Students who were prompted to ask ‘why’ remembered 72% of the sentences when tested later, compared to only 37% of the other two groups.
Once you have spaced out your learning, repeated it out loud, taught it to someone else and tested yourself, all you have left to do is repeat. The more you practice something, the more likely that it will become automatic. Once things are automatic, they take up less space in your working memory, meaning you can do it on autopilot (like brushing your teeth - you’ve done it so many times you don’t require much conscious effort to do it).
Psychologist Daniel Willingham, who is an expert on memory and how children learn, offers many tips on how to improve memory. His book Why Don’t Students Like School? is a great read for every teacher. It simplifies and summarises memory research. The tips include telling stories, capturing attention, and encouraging reading.
Telling stories can help students remember information. This is because stories tend to be easy to remember as they are often interesting, emotional and have a familiar structure. The emotional connection that students may develop towards a story can help enhance their memory.
Willingham also believes that ‘memory is the residue of thought’. People are more likely to remember the things that they have concentrated on. That’s what makes capturing their attention so important. If they focus on the wrong things, their memory will be impacted. Ensuring good concentration is hard. There are various tips on what students can do to improve their focus, which teachers can implement in their classroom to help enhance a students’ memories.
One of Daniel Willingham’s other tips for improving memory is to encourage students to read more. He states that "the more you know, the easier it will be for you to learn new things". How do we get students to ‘know’ more things? By encouraging them to read books, newspapers and magazines.
When looking for ways to improve your memory, it is important to consider your sleeping patterns. There is a wealth of research that suggests that sleep plays an important role in memory. Whilst sleeping, new connections form between your brain cells, which aid memory and learning. This not only means that sleep improves our ability to recall information, but it also enhances how well we make links between new and old information. It has even been found that during exams, getting 8 hours of sleep a night leads to better results than staying up all night for last-minute revision.
Another simple way to boost your ability to remember things is to ensure that you are drinking enough water. Not being fully hydrated can have a significant impact on your mood, memory and concentration. Also, it has been suggested that taking water into an exam can further enhance exam performance.
So, there you have it: 15 tips to help improve memory. Some of these techniques work better for some people than they do for others but giving them all a try isn’t a bad idea! It’s often about trial and error when working out which techniques are best for you. To recap, the 15 techniques to improve memory are:
For more help preparing for exams, have a look at our page Best Ways to Revise - where you'll also find links to great blogs with tips on doing your best in exams.