“Memory is the diary we all carry about with us” so said Oscar Wilde. But are some people’s diaries more accurate than others? What happens if you can’t naturally remember lots of things? That would put certain students at a disadvantage, as memory is an important skill needed to do well at school.
This blog looks at 15 techniques that can help students improve their memory, thus improving their performance. They are divided into 4 sections: working around working memory; what to do when revising; what teachers can do in the classroom; and looking after your brain.
Working Around Working Memory
On average, humans can remember 7 things in their working memory. This means we sometimes need simple strategies either to work around this fact, or to maximise this limited capacity. One such 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 back to it when we need it. It is also interesting to consider that taking notes with a pen and paper is probably 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’ is when small bits of information are grouped 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, Scuba Diving is actually 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 angle 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.
When revising, it is more effective to space out your study sessions instead of cramming everything at the last minute. This leaves you enough time to forget and re-learn: a process that helps you cement and imbed knowledge in your memory.
If you are revising with someone else, take turns in teaching each other the material. This can boost the teacher’s memory and recall. This is known as ‘the Protégé Effect’. 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. Students don’t even need to test someone else to get the benefit; they just have to believe that they are going to.
If someone is teaching you something, try repeating out loud what you have been taught. This is an effective strategy to improve recall, 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.
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 practise 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 (his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, is a great read for every teacher. It does a far better job at summarising the memory research than we could ever do), offers many tips to improve memory. Three of these are telling stories, capturing attention, and encouraging reading.
Telling stories can help students remember information. This is because stories are easy to remember. They are often interesting, emotional and have a familiar structure. You can read his advice about how to weave stories into your classroom here.
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. Our previous blog on what students can do to improve their focus has some simple tips on this. It can be read here.
One of Daniel Willingham’s other tips for improving memory is to encourage students to read more. As he explains, ‘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.
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 increases how well we can recall information, but also how well we make links between new and old information.
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. Recent (albeit, at the time of writing, unpublished) research suggests that taking water into an exam can further enhance exam performance.
15 tips to improve memory. Some of these techniques work better in certain contexts than others. Some work better for some people. It’s often about trial and error working out which techniques are best for you. To recap, the 15 techniques are:
- Writing things down
- Silly sentences
- Spacing out your learning
- Testing yourself
- Teaching someone else
- Repeating things out loud
- Asking why
- Practising lots
- Telling stories
- Capturing attention
- Reading books
- Getting enough sleep
- Drinking enough water
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.