Many people find it easier to recall details if they are attached to a diagram showing the structure or process being learned.
You can put detailed labels onto diagrams, especially in science subjects, and have them on your wall until you can recall the sets of information with your eyes shut.
You can show the steps in a process (like a flow diagram) and label the stages and keep them in view until you can recall each step and its place in the sequence.
Charts and tables
Charts usually summarise sets of facts about two or more theories and models (or a group of characters or even unicellular organisms). Making a chart enables you to visually recall the number of facts about a concept, where a particular one has special features, and how many differences there are between it and the others.
For more on creating charts, see note-taking methods.
Mind maps can be used to enhance your memory as they present a picture of a topic and all its parts.
Being able to recall a mind map - its shape, the number of branches and sub-branches - provides you with the keywords relating to that topic and the framework showing how these are interconnected.
To be useful, they have to:
- be detailed
- be tidy and easy to read
- have things that enhance memory such as
- little diagrams/icons
- your own examples
- show links between and within branches
You can also use mind maps to show all the connections for a particular term/person/theory. This allows you to get a very clear understanding of the term, how and when and why it is used. As this type of mind map clarifies and connects concepts, it enhances your memory of them.
Make them during semester as each topic is completed, or during the first rehearsal stage of a topic at exam time.
- Commit them to memory by learning each branch. Help yourself by linking a branch to a colour (the red branch is…), position (the top left branch…), or size (I know there are 10 key words for this one…).
- Test yourself by seeing if you can replicate the mind map quicker and quicker. Move to another topic, and then test your recall of the mind map again.
- The hardest thing about using mind maps is turning them back into connected writing. This needs practice. Use a recalled mind map as the basis for:
- talking aloud about a topic.
- writing about a topic: did you do this fluently? If not, go over the mind map again focusing on what you left out.
- writing a compare and contrast answer for two branches of a mind map.
- At the exam, as soon as reading time is finished, draw the mind maps for any of the topics that you studied that are there on the exam paper. Add to these if you remember more branches or key words as you work through the paper. Alternatively, draw your mind map at the top of the page before you start to write your essay answer.
- Use these mind maps to help you structure your answer in the exam. Don't cross them out until you have finished answering the question. They can earn you marks if they contain accurate information which you have not had time to put into the body of your answer.
For more on mind maps, see mind maps.
Imagery (the link method)
Pictures can be recalled more easily than verbal descriptions alone. Also, concrete images such as car or boat are easier to remember than abstract concepts such as intelligence or love. One imagery method you can use to enhance retention and recall is the link method.
If you need to remember bananas, carrots, lemonade, and honey, you could imagine a monkey eating bananas, while planting carrots, and watering them with lemonade. The sweet syrup in the lemonade attracts bees who use the syrup to make honey (a ridiculous image, but a memorable one!).
This technique can be employed for learning vocabulary: the French word for snail is escargot; it can be imagined or illustrated as a snail loaded on a boat - in other words a snail as cargo.
The Roman room strategy extends the location/association technique with a visualisation strategy that usually involves the rooms of a house.
You need to be able to conjure up the room and all its parts and furniture in your mind easily. Links are then made by associating sets of information with each part of the room, the furniture and furnishings. The more novel or silly the association the easier it is to remember and therefore the better this technique works. It requires effort to set up the association but this means it is also effective once created.
Organise all your notes about a particular topic, unit or section of a subject area. Break the topic into sections and organize these so that you have all the important information - definitions, characteristics, uses, applications, examples, theories and theorists in a set. Next:
- Visualise a room that you are very familiar with.
- Recall all the furniture in the room - you can include bookshelves, chairs of different kinds, and windowsills.
- On each piece of furniture, place one set of information. Try to visualize the link in some way to enhance the memory. If you can make the link funny or incongruous, it will be easier to remember.
- Practice recalling the set of information on each piece of furniture.
- Practice visiting the room - visualize the furniture, and use the links to recall the sets of information relating to the topic in the room.
- Repeat the process using another room for another topic.
Students report that once the effort is made to get sets securely in place, visiting the room brings excellent recall.
Acronyms are words made from the first letter of the key words relating to a concept or process. They are good for remembering the correct order as well as helping you recall a complete set.
BEDMAS: used by maths students to remind them of the order of operations (it stands for Brackets, Exponentials, Division, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction).
TRACC: business memos should be Timely, Relevant, Accurate, Concise, and Clear.
ROYGBIV: used to remember the colours of the rainbow (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet)
Acrostics are phrases or poems in which the first letter of each word or line functions as a cue to help you recall the words that you are trying to remember.
Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit: used in music to remember notes on treble clef lines.
Betty Brown Runs Over Your Garden But Violet Grey Walks: used in engineering and technology to remember resistor colour codes and their values (Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, Grey, and White).
Rhymes and chants
“i comes before e, except after c or when it sounds like an a, as in neighbour and weigh.”
Rhymes like this are an effective way to learn and recall material because they are more than just words on a page; people remember the rule partly by the rhyme and they also have a song-like quality to them that involves auditory processing as well as visual cues.
Saying or repeating formulas or definitions in a way that has rhythm can help you remember this type of information. You can try a sing song type of ‘speech’ and some people actually ‘sing’ sets of information as this process reinforces their memory. In an exam you often find that you recall it in the same way - i.e with the same rhythm or tune.
Making a narrative
Another association strategy that can help you recall a set of information is the making up a story or narrative that links the information you need to remember in a novel way. The set of information you need to remember is associated within the narrative.
Some nurses have to remember the colour of blood tubes and know what they are for. A narrative might be used to store and recall this accurately: “I have five aunties (anticoagulants). My plain aunt has 4 red dogs called biochemistry, serology, drugs and hormones; Aunt EDTA has 2 purple dogs called haematology and cell count; Aunt Oxalate has a grey dog called glucose, etc.” In this narrative which could be made more elaborate if desired, the colour of the dog is the colour code of the tests and the dogs' names are the purposes for the test.
Stories can even be used to memorise formulas such as the conversion from Fahrenheit to Centigrade (F = 9/5C + 32): “Friday (F) is the same as (=) the 9 to 5 (9/5) drag in college (C); and (+) I've only got 32 minutes to go!” (Higbee, 1988, p.141).
The above set of numbers illustrates chunking as well as rhyme. Chunking involves grouping material together rather than learning each item separately. Short-term memory can only deal with a limited amount of information (around seven items) before old information is ‘bumped out’ to make room for new information. Chunking things together enables people to remember more than just 7 separate items.
The above number comprises 10 digits: 0 8 0 0 8 3 8 3 8 3. But, when grouped into four chunks - 0800, 83, 83, 83 - it is far easier to remember.
Formulae are easily learnt in chunks.
Self-talk or talk aloud
This strategy just involves you explaining a topic to yourself and checking that you can do so without ‘drying up’ or forgetting part way through an explanation.
It should be used after you have reviewed a topic once or twice. It is a good self-test of how well you know a topic. Self-talk is often combined with other methods such as chunking, especially if you are learning definitions, formulae, equations or sets of principles, acronyms and a Roman room. If you can fluently speak about a topic, you will be able to write fluently about the topic.
- Read over the notes of a particular topic or section of a topic. Check that you still understand the topic.
- Use a storage/rehearsal method such as reciting definitions, making short notes, writing lists, labelling diagrams, playing a tape recording, or making and using flash cards.
- Take a break - and maybe even move on to another topic or subject.
- After a break, go back to the first topic and test your recall by giving yourself a lecture on the topic. Talk aloud about all that you can remember.
- Monitor yourself - how fluently can you speak the information? Did you give theory and examples? Did you give differences and similarities to some other concept/s? Did you miss any important bits out or get stuck?
- If there were parts you could not recall, look up your notes, reread these parts and mark them in some way (e.g., with a highlighter or note) so that when you redo that topic you can give them extra attention.
- Another talk aloud method is to turn your notes on a topic into a narrative and remember and recite it as a story with a beginning, middle and end as well as a who, when, where, what, why and how.
References and further reading
Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). Improving memory. https://www.health.harvard.edu/topics/improving-memory
Higbee, K. L. (1988). Your memory: How it works and how to improve it. Piatkus.