Memory

Have you ever met someone with an amazing memory who can recall facts, dates, and names easily? Do you know classmates who seem to remember course content with little difficulty?

Although it is easy to feel envious of such individuals, it is important to realize that, for most of us, the foundation of good memory is actually having a solid understanding of the subject matter. With practice and a few strategies, such as the ones that follow, it is possible for you to improve your memory skills and comprehension.

Organize Material

Improve your memory by organizing information into categories. This will help you see connections between ideas so that you understand them better. Try organizing concepts or topics in large categories, and then study the details from there.

For instance, if you were learning American Sign Language, you would organize the topics into these categories:

  • signs for common words
  • reducing your signing accent
  • making your signs flow
  • finger spelling

Breaking a large subject into small categories helps you organize your thoughts. Once you have developed your categories, study each section individually and then look for the connections between ideas.

Relate New Material to What is Already Known

You have a better chance of remembering new information when you relate it to something you already know. Next time you are studying something new, ask yourself what you already know about the topic and connect the new information with the old.

knowwantlearn

One simple way to do this is to use the K-W-L chart.

  • Know (What do I already know about the topic?)
  • Want (What do I want to learn about the topic?)
  • Learn (What did I learn about the topic?)

This simple strategy will help you to make learning connections clearer because you can identify what information is already known, what you would like to know and what new information you just learned.

Recite to Remember

When we recite information, it helps us to transfer information from short to long-term memory. Short-term memory is the place where we store temporary information, like phone numbers we just looked up in the Yellow Pages®. Information in short-term memory is easily forgotten. In contrast, long-term memory is more stable. It is the place we store important details, like our course content, for a lengthy period of time.

When we recite information, we are transferring it from short to long-term memory. Talking out loud uses more of our senses – speaking and hearing – and that helps move the information into our long term memory. But “recite” can mean more than just “saying” something. It can also mean writing, typing, and drawing out information. Use as many strategies as possible to help you to transfer new information from your short to long-term memory.

Review Regularly

Short, regular review sessions are more effective than one night of cramming. Review reinforces understanding and improves our memory skills by giving us time to interact with the material frequently and to digest it thoroughly.

Try to fit in regular review sessions as often as possible:

  • Make short review periods part of your daily study routine – allow 20–30 minutes for each new lesson.
  • Use spare moments of time to reinforce learning. For instance, you could have a short review session while you are waiting to pick up your children or sitting at the doctor's office.
  • Set aside weekly review periods to pull together material from a unit.

Learn from General to Specific

Once you have organized your study notes, it will be possible to split the general information from the specific. For variety, study the details and then the general information to improve how much you remember. For example, if you were learning about the organization of living things, you might visualize some pyramids. The first pyramid would teach you the general categories in the taxonomy system, and the second pyramid would help you apply the theory to the specific species, dog.

Now you can work from the general kingdom on down to the specific species. Or, you can work from the specific species back up to the general kingdom.

Acronyms and Sentences

Acronyms

Acronyms are popular memory tricks. In fact, much of our daily language is infused with acronyms since they are often easier to recall than a full list of words. Basically, an acronym uses the first letter of each word in a list to create something memorable. Consider the following examples:

  • AUPE is an acronym for the Alberta Union of Public Employees.
  • NHL is an acronym for the National Hockey League.
  • SCUBA is an acronym for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.

Acronyms are valuable memory techniques since they act as triggers for our brains, helping us retrieve lists of information.  Students commonly use acronyms to remember lists of information in their studies. Look at these examples:

  • Math students use BEDMAS to remember the order of operations for solving mathematical problems. Note: The order in this acronym is important.

    bedmas

  • Science students use ROY G BIV to recall the colours in the rainbow (in order).

    roygbiv

  • Law students use COPPERBOAT to recall the fundamental freedoms in the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms:

    copperboat

The good news is you can make your own acronyms to suit your needs. The number of acronyms you can create is endless. However, be careful! Acronyms are simply tricks. Using them does not ensure you understand the material. Be thorough in reviewing your material before applying a mnemonic strategy. Also, avoid the temptation to create too many acronyms; otherwise, you may accidentally start mixing them together!

To create and use your own acronyms, use these steps:

  • Take the first letters of the words from a list you need to memorize.
  • Decide if the order is important.
  • Rearrange the letters to create a word (real or nonsensical) with the letters.
  • Review the acronym frequently to help commit it to memory.
  • On exams, record your acronyms when you first get your test. Then, you can easily refer to them if you happen to forget the information when you need it.

The examples above show how acronyms can be enhanced by adding colour and visual images. Consider the following memory trick created to recall types of symbiosis (a close relationship between two species). Initially, a simple acronym MCP was used to recall the three types of symbiosis: Mutualism, Commensalism, and Parasitism. However, by adding hand gestures, the acronym became even more powerful!

memorytools1

Check out this Acronym Creator to help you make your own acronym.


Sentences

Sentences can be used in much the same way as acronyms by creating a sentence instead of a word from the first letters in your list. Look at these examples:

  • Music students use the sentence, "Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle," to remember the order of musical sharps.
  • Math students use the sentence "King Henry Danced Boldly Down Centre Main" to remember the conversion between units in the metric system.

    sentences-memory

Chunking

Your brain remembers better when you "chunk" information together since by grouping items, your brain doesn't have to recall as many individual items. Chunking is often used to help in the recall of numbers.

  • For example, phone numbers consist of ten digits. These digits would be hard to remember if you considered each one separately:

    4 – 0 – 3 – 5 – 5 – 5 – 3 – 4 – 9 - 2

    However, people tend to group numbers together:

    403    555    34    92

    By chunking the numbers, the brain only needs to recall four pieces of information.

  • Chunking can work with letters or words, too. Look at the following list:

    CNCXNSCFBOBTASN

    This list would be a challenge to recall on its own. However, by chunking letters together into meaning units, it becomes easier.

    TSN    ABC    CBS    FOX    NBC

For more tips on grouping ideas together, check out our Happy Chunking video.

Visualization

Another memorization strategy to try is visualization. As you study, try to visualize pictures in your mind that help you to remember the material. Alternatively, add pictures to your notes to help the words come to life!

For example, if studying photosynthesis (the process of converting light energy to chemical energy), use visualization to help you. Imagine pouring water and carbon dioxide into one end of a plant cell and watching the carbohydrates and oxygen flowing out the other end. Picture the letters CDW (carbon dioxide and water) on the left side of the plant cell and the letters CO (carbohydrates and oxygen) on the other side.

photosynthesis

Association

If you find visualization study strategies helpful, try using association. In this strategy, you memorize lists of items by associating them with a familiar place. Here’s how:

  • Begin by visualizing a place you know well, such as your living room or bedroom.
  • Then, picture the major features and items there and associate each with something you need to memorize.

Here’s an example, to remember the process of photosynthesis:

  • Visualize your living room.
  • Bring to mind the major features of the room.
  • Associate each element of the photosynthesis process with a feature in the living room. You could connect water with a fish tank, carbon dioxide with the TV (because it emits energy), carbohydrates with the couch (because they start with the same letter), and oxygen with the window (where there is fresh air).

The advantage of this strategy is that it uses familiar information – the contents of your living room – and associates it with new information –the elements of photosynthesis. This works better than trying to memorize new information in a random manner.

For another example of using association for remembering, check out this video.


For more information on how our minds work, check out the Crash Course on Psychology for an overview of "How We Make Memories" and the processes of "Remembering and Forgetting".