Principles of good memory
The one skill that students regularly suggest they could improve is their memory skills. No pills, potions, or poultices will ever help you learn material in some magic way other than doing the work. In addition, there is NO substitute for practice, practice, practice or, more appropriately, revision, revision, revision.
One principle that you need to remember is that there is no single memory method that suits all situations. You know that the way we try to remember a shopping list differs from the way we go about remembering a particular theory. Therefore you will need to utilise different memory techniques for different tasks.
These pages will detail some quick methods for organising yourself, your environment and your material for study to optimise your memory of the information. There are also techniques that can enhance your ability to improve your ability to remember more details.
Storing and recalling information relies on five key principles:
Memory is context dependent, which basically refers to the place where you learn. For example, studying in a similar environment to the one in which you will be tested increases your ability to recall information.
Your study space should:
- Be free from too many distractions.
- Be a suitable temperature with adequate ventilation.
- Have adequate light.
- Have appropriate furniture for study.
You should also ensure that you are content without hunger pains or thirst during your study session. The main thing is to make sure the environment you are in is conducive to study.
Mood impacts your ability to recall the information you have studied. When studying, a little anxiety is quite normal and can enhance your focus and attention.
However, being too anxious leading up to or during your tests and exams will hamper your ability to recall material. If you do have problems with test anxiety, contact the Health and Counselling Service for tips on improving your wellbeing and anxiety and stress management.
Taking regular breaks when you are learning material enhances recall. Combined with regular revision, you will find that you will retain information far better! One common suggestion is that you study in periods of 20-40 minutes, with a break following, but find out what time periods suit you best.
Study small portions of material, take a break, and then study some more.
We retain a great deal more if we learn in small manageable portions, than when we attempt to learn a great deal of information at once. Make these breaks mandatory even if you are enjoying your reading or studying because breaks not only aid recall, but they also prevent fatigue and loss of concentration. Therefore, you can study longer.
If you don't understand it, you won't remember it!
Try to understand the basic principles and then work your way up to the more difficult concepts or examples. Sometimes, introductory textbooks allow you to grasp the basic concepts that underlie a more complex idea. If you can't understand even after finding an easier source of information, you need to decide what else to do. You could ask a lecturer, ask a peer, or even decide to omit that topic and focus on the ones you understand much better.
Don't just read over material and assume that you will absorb the information ‘like a sponge’ – that approach is too passive. Do something with what you are trying to remember, and engage with the material:
- ask yourself questions
- think about the topic in relation to your own experience
- put theories into your own words
- discuss issues with class members
- Put a question into a discussion forum
- Work through some examples
- Write a summary: a list, a chart, some flash cards, or a mind map
- Don't just try to memorise words on the page, do something with what you are reading!