Remember, remember: memorising information for your exams

Ever wished you had a memory like Sherlock, with a whole host of facts and information at your fingertips? Here are some techniques you can try when revising, to help you memorise the information you’ll need to remember in your exams. We can’t promise you’ll turn into Sherlock by the end of the week, but some of these may be just the ticket…

  1. Test yourself, and again and again…

Just reading over your notes won’t cut it! Also known as ‘spaced repetition’, this method is often done by creating flashcards with information and testing yourself. If you get the answer right, move on. If you get it wrong, put the card back in the box and try again another time. This was one of my favourite methods, especially for learning vocabulary. If you need to learn a few key quotations for your exams, keep writing or reciting them over and over (not just reading them) until you’ve learnt them by heart.

  1. Simple mnemonics

If you grew up in the UK you’re probably familiar with the mnemonic Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain to remember the colours of the rainbow. It’s “a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations which assists in remembering something” (OED Online) Take the first letter of each word you need to remember and make a sentence or word out of it. Try it for chemical formulae, lists where the order is important or even spelling tricky words – for POTASSIUM just remember one tea, two sugars.

  1. Rhyming

Make up a rhyme and recite it in your mind while you’re at the bus stop or brushing your teeth (reciting out loud may result in strange looks from fellow bus passengers or getting toothpaste everywhere!)

  1. Set it to music

Taking rhyming to the next level, if you’re musically minded you can set the information you need to memorise to a tune, either one you’ve made up yourself or a catchy song. For me, this worked for patterns of verb endings.

  1. Use visuals

Mind maps are a great way of dealing with themes and larger amounts of information, like historical themes or answering open questions. Group related items together and use colours to help you visualise the mind map when you’re sitting in the exam room. This is also a great technique for practising essay plans as each branch of the tree can represent a paragraph. You can do it the old-fashioned way on paper, or using software like MindJet MindManager.

For learning dates, drawing a timeline can really help, while diagrams can help you visualise links in anatomy, for example.

  1. Make up a story

You can link facts, figures and information by making up a story that ties them together and picturing it in your mind. The more odd the mental image, the more likely you are to remember it!

  1. Peg objects to a number

This is more complicated, but if the position of information in a numerical list is important, you could give it a try. First, think of words that rhyme with numbers e.g. sun for one, shoe for two and so on. Once you’ve got this list memorised, associate the information you need to remember with its number counterpart. So for Newton’s second law of motion, you might picture the force acting on a shoe. This page from the Memory Institute tells you more about the pegging system.

  1. Mind palace

The method used by Sherlock and in the classical world, this involves picturing somewhere you know well, like your house, and mentally placing information around it. This newspaper article gives some examples of how it works.

My final 3 tips

Here’s my A,B,C of tips to help when trying out these memorising techniques:

A is for… Approach – remember there’s more to exams than just regurgitating facts and quotations, so take a rounded approach. Don’t forget to revise other things by doing past papers, practice essays and questions to practice applying your knowledge.

B is for … Be kind to your brain – take regular breaks and get a good night’s sleep while revising and before your exams to help consolidate the memory formation.

C is for … Concentration – distractions get in the way of memorising, so no Facebook or cat videos until break time!

Image: Almost Midterms/Brian Turner/CC BY 2.0

Got any tips for fellow students about memorising information? If so, share them in the comments!

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