We use a range of things to help us store memories and recall them when they're needed, including pictures and colour, language, organisation, repetition, emotions, spatial awareness, and all five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.
The techniques below make use of these features. Using them should help you concentrate, understand and remember what you're learning
The recency, primacy and chunking effect
Studies have shown that most people who try to remember a list of 30 words, will recall some words from the beginning of the list and some from the end, but very few from the middle.
This effect is known as:
- primacy (first, i.e. the words from the beginning of the list), and
- recency (most recent, i.e. words from the end of the list which were seen most recently).
It is also easier to recall the words if the list is divided into a number of short meaningful lists. This is known as chunking.
To apply the recency, primacy and chunking effect:
- Divide your study time into chunks of about 30 – 45 minutes with a five minute break between each chunk.
- Make sure each chunk or section you study forms a meaningful whole, with a beginning and an ending.
This will help you to optimise your study time by studying in chunks, and building in lots of beginnings and endings.
A mnemonic (pronounced 'nemonic') is a device, such as a pattern, rhyme or picture, which is used to help you remember things that may otherwise be difficult to remember.
A simple mnemonic to remember a list of things is to make up a sentence where the first letter of each word is a cue for the items you have to remember.
For example, if you have to remember the order of the planets from the Sun Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto). To help you remember this, make up a sentence where each word starts with the same initial letter, in the same order. For example: Most volcanoes expel mulberry jam sandwiches under normal pressure.
It's ridiculous, but that makes it more memorable. And if you turn it into a picture, it'll be even easier to remember.
Peg systems are mnemonics that use words, letters, pictures or shapes (or pegs) that are associated with numbers.
These pegs are then linked to a list of things to be memorised.
More about mnemonics and peg systems
Simple peg systems: remembering numbers - Brainsmart BBC website (YouTube video, 3:36 min. opens in new window)
Kinds of mnemonics - Wadsworth Cengage Learning website (opens in new window)
We use our senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) to take in information about the world around us. Most of the time we don't passively accept the information we obtain from our senses, we use our thoughts and imagination to make sense of the information and to remember it.
This can be applied to helping you remember what you're studying.
Our brains like pictures. Often we think in pictures, we dream in pictures, so using pictures and visualisation can help you remember. For example, you could:
- Really look at what you are studying then try to see it as a picture in your mind's eye.
- If it's a page, you could try to see the headings and where the different bits are on the page.
- If it's a picture or diagram, try to reproduce it in your mind or look at it and copy it.
- Try to create a picture, or series of pictures, in your mind or on paper, to illustrate what you're learning. This could be a mind map.
Recite your work
- Recite your work aloud and listen to yourself or record yourself and play it back.
- Walk around while studying and recite your work aloud to the rhythm of your footsteps.
Have you ever had the experience of a scent reminding you of something that happened long ago?
Make this work for your studies. For example, you could suck a lemon lolly while studying something you must remember and try to associate the taste and smell with what you have to remember. Then take a similar lolly into the exam room and use the taste and smell to jog your memory.
Use your finger to trace out the letters of something you have to remember. Think about what the surface feels like and try to remember the movement and the shape of your letters - this will help you remember them.
Our imagination uses things like stories, humour, symbolism, colour, and exaggeration, so use them to help you remember what you're studying. For example:
- Make up some private jokes about your studies or turn them into comic strips.
- Use symbols like a big ! next to something you must remember or } to show things should be linked, or an —> to show progression. Whatever you use, make sure they are meaningful to you and serve as cues to help you remember.
- Use different colour pens or highlighters to make things stand out.
- Use larger letters than usual or CAPITALS for very important facts.
A story that links a number of facts is much easier to remember than a list of facts. This is because as each part of the story leads on to the next, each fact you remember is cue to help you remember the next. The story links them together and helps trigger your memory.
The more memorable the story, the easy it is to remember the things you have to learn. To help with this, try to see the events and interactions in your mind’s eye as you’re telling yourself the story.
An example of how to use the story method
To remember the names of the Seven Dwarfs in the fairy story Snow White, you can make up a story to help you:
I’m usually Sleepy when I wake up at seven in the morning, but today I was wide awake and Grumpy because I knew I had to visit the Doc. I’m normally quite Bashful about going, but a friend told me not to be so Dopey, as I had an allergy that was making me very Sneezy. After went, and was given an antihistamine really very Happy!
More information about memory
Memory and recall: 10 amazing facts you should know - PsyBlog website (opens in new window)
Using memory effectively - Study Guides and Strategies website (opens in new window)
Making it stick: Memorable strategies to enhance your learning - LD Online website (Opens in new window)
The link method of remembering – BBC (You Tube video, 5.33 min, opens in new window)