Study Skills

Memory techniques

A blog in my study skills series.

I’ve said this before, but when I think of my own school and undergraduate learning, I can hardly believe the expectations that we would somehow know how to do things simply by being told we must do them. I know now how much I could have benefitted from the type of support that I have been trained to provide. It seems to me quite incongruous that I could have completed postgraduate teacher training without either being taught study skills that could improve my own learning or learning how to equip my future students with these techniques.

This is particularly frustrating in the case of memory…

Memory techniques have been documented going back 2000 years, to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The word mnemonic comes from Greek, meaning ‘of memory’. It describes any technique that uses words to help us remember. Here are a few examples:

Acronyms

Many teachers use these, and if there’s a familiar one that already works for you, don’t waste time ‘reinventing the wheel’. However, making up your own acronyms can really help you to remember short sequences. For example:

  • the notes in spaces of the treble clef F – A – C – E
  • the notes on the lines of the treble clef E-G-B-D-F

It’s not quite the same, but a popular one in our house is the following sentence to remember the first few digits of pi “May I have a large container of coffee today?” (3.14159265…)

Acrostics

This technique is useful for remembering sequences

  • My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas
  • Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto

It is also helpful for memorising tricky spellings. I recommend using the word itself to start – it’s one less thing to remember. Some people find it beneficial to make a reinforcing sketch, too.

  • Could old uncles lie down (could – adapt for sh-ould and w-ould)
  • Why hate yaks? (why)

Rhymes, chants and ditties

Again, there are plenty already in use, but you can make up your own. So, Henry VIII’s wives, in order:

  • Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived
  • Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Kathryn, Katherine

There is no right or wrong when it comes to making your own mnemonics – the important thing is that they should work for you. You can add actions and/or images; use rhymes, alliteration and onomatopoeia; make things sad or funny and of course use rhythm to help you remember your composition.

What works for you?

If I ask you to describe your day, do you imagine it in words, like a story, or do you see events as pictures? Understanding this about yourself can help you decide whether to use word techniques such as the ones described above, or whether visualisation techniques could work better for you. Some techniques lend themselves especially well to certain subjects, so you may find you prefer one strategy for a particular topic or type of information, and another for something else. For example, imagining or drawing ‘scenes’ for your learning is especially good for history, geography and some aspects of science.

Memory walk

This is also called the journey method. It can be a useful technique for learning a poem, a list of facts, names or dates, a mathematical or chemical sequence, a piece of music. Start by mapping out a path around a familiar location (e.g. around your house, route to school) – the order is important! You need to give each location a name e.g. front door, then you can assign part of the sequence you need to memorise to each location. So, you could either walk the route (physically or in your imagination) and learn each associated part or make up a story and incorporate the names/dates, etc.

Roman room

This is very similar, but uses the objects in a room rather than a route. Key things you need to remember are linked to specific items. The room could be a real one, or a picture that you are already familiar with. Some actors use this method, starting by physically attaching copies of the lines of a script they need to learn to pieces of furniture in a room or set, and gradually needing to just look at the object or imagine it.

Linking

This is perhaps less logical seeming than some of the methods already discussed, but it can be a useful way to remember lists. This might include anything from facts and dates to recipe ingredients and experiment prerequisites, or even a shopping list. Because you create the links for you to remember, they only need to make sense to you. Many people find that the bigger, bolder and sillier these are, the more memorable they become.

Storify

Build on the linking idea to create a story or an image. You can have fun with this, but, as with the linking technique, remember that it’s a better way to recall isolated lists of items, facts and dates rather than more complex information. You don’t want to get your silly stories confused with what you’re actually trying to memorise!

Simplify

Highlight and note down key words, aiming for 10% of the original text. As well as (obviously) reducing your notes by 90%, this provides a framework for related exam essays. A technique for practising this is to:

  • first, identify and highlight the key words from something that you need to learn;
  • next, note and learn the key words;
  • then, write a short passage using the key words and what you have learnt, and
  • finally, go back and check your writing against the original.

This can show you where the gaps are in your knowledge and help you improve your selection of key words.

Before you start!

It’s a good idea to begin with a clear space, an empty page in your book or a clean sheet of paper. Put away non-essentials, so your desk or table is uncluttered. This is because distraction can mean we spend up to 80% of our time imagining what we need to do or what we will be able to do after study time is up. That means that we might only get 10 minutes solid revision done in a whole hour! A clear space avoids this and means twice as much could be learnt in half the time. There’s a section devoted to timing in the revision blog.

Tech can help

We are armed with gadgets and apps, so make the most of them! Use timers and calendars and sync them across platforms – your school or university (or work) timetable and calendar is likely to be built (on or compatible with) Outlook, Google Calendar or iCal. Apps like OneNote and EverNote can help you keep track of communication, documents, images and almost anything else you need, too.

More blogs related to study skills can be found here.

You can share this blog using any of the buttons below.

Further reading:

Bircher, R. (2014) Revise GCSE: Study Skills Guide. London:Pearson.

Hargreaves, S. and Crabb, J. (eds) (2016) Study Skills for Students with Dyslexia: Support for Specific Learning Differences, 3rd Edition. London:Sage.

Kirby, A. (2013) How to Succeed in College or University; a Guide for Students, Educators and Parents. London: Souvenir Press.

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