Improve your memory
Did you know that memory can improve by practicing and using effective strategies? Our “Improve your memory” resources are thorough and will help you develop your memory with a series of activities, self-reflection and tools.
Looking for something short and sweet? Read our quick tips on memory and current neuroscience research.
If you prefer using shorter tools or if you already know what strategies you want to learn about, feel free to open one of the following tools.
If you would prefer anything in .docx or another accessible format, please email us and we can send it along.
Learning and memory are closely linked. The modal model of memory includes several stages that depend on paying attention and being mentally engaged:
Acquiring information (Working or Sensory memory)
- Try thinking about the material (comparing, analyzing, processing), to keep the material in your conscious mind
Storing information for later use (Short-term and Long-term memory)
- Try organizing material, so it can be “found” in your mind
- Repeat, visualize, rehearse information for better retention
- Information needs to be in long-term memory before writing an exam!
Accessing memories when required (Retrieval)
- Try practicing using the memorized material, which leads to fast and accurate retrieval, and reduces forgetting
Neuroscience research has determined:
Memory for an event or information is most likely if there is a heavy emotional component or there are multiple exposures to the material (i.e., it becomes familiar).
Tip: Preview information before class, make notes, review after class.
Quiet time for “consolidation” is required for memories to move into long- term storage.
Tip: Study or read 50 minutes, then take a 10 minute break. Repeat, take a longer (15 min) break.
Our need for sleep increases during times of intense learning and memorizing.
Tip: Get 8-9+ hours sleep during exams or other high-demand periods.
Drinking even 1-2 alcoholic drinks can impair all stages of memory, especially the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory.
Tip: Drink moderately, avoid binging, don’t party during the week or exams.
Recall of material is improved by mimicking your learning environment.
Tip: Consider your eventual “working” conditions (e.g., exam hall or clinical setting, your desired mental or psychological state) when you are learning.
STRATEGIES AND TOOLS
TO IMPROVE YOUR MEMORY
Subjective Memory Questionnaire
|How would you rate your memory overall?||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|How often do these present a problem for you?||Always||Sometimes||Never|
|Where I put things (e.g. keys)||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Performing household chores||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Directions to places||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Phone numbers I have just checked||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Phone numbers I use frequently||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Things people tell me||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Keeping up correspondence||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Personal dates (e.g. birthdays)||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Forgetting what I wanted to buy at the store||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Taking a test||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Beginning something and forgetting what I was doing||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Losing my train of thought in conversation||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Losing my train of thought in public speaking||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Knowing whether I have already told someone something||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|As you read a novel, how often do you have trouble remembering what you read?||Always||Sometimes||Never|
|In opening chapters, once I’ve finished the book||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Three or four chapters before the one I’m now reading||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Chapter before the one I’m now reading||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Paragraph just before the one I’m now reading||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Sentence just before the one I’m now reading||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|How well do you remember things that occurred …||Poorly||Fair||Well|
|Between 6 months to 1 year ago||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Between 1-5 years ago||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|Between 6-10 years ago||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|When you read a newspaper or magazine, how often do you have trouble remembering what you read?||Always||Sometimes||Never|
|In the opening paragraphs, once I have finished the article||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|3-4 paragraphs before the one I am currently reading||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|The paragraph before the one I am currently reading||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|3-4 sentences before the one I am currently reading||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
|The sentence before the one I am currently reading||1||2||3||4||5||6||7|
Scoring: Add up all the numbers you have circled.
200+ = minimal subjective memory difficulties. Move onto advanced memory skills training.
100-200 = you are noticing a moderate degree of memory challenge. Spend more time on developing basic memory skills before moving to the advanced memory skills training.
Below 100 = you have a greater self-awareness of memory difficulties. It would suggest that memory training will be a greater challenge, so it’s important to take your time. You might also consider contacting a health care professional or expert about your concerns.
Objective Memory Test
This test assesses your current learning & recall abilities. Instructions:
- Study the following words for up to 1 minute.
- Do not write anything down.
- Recall them after a 20-minute break.
The filing cabinet of your mind
Created by Anneke Timan, Physics student, Queen’s University, 2007
Reasons for forgetting
The people who are convinced that they cannot remember are most apt to forget. You must have confidence in your own abilities.
When material is not learned well enough, it will be easily forgotten. If something is to be retained, it must be correctly learned first.
Forgetting through disuse is both normal and unavoidable. Material is most rapidly lost upon initial learning. To retain material requires ongoing review and application.
New material tends to interfere with old materials. In other words, what you are currently learning may cause some forgetting of previously learned material. This is particularly true if the material is similar. The greater the similarity between present versus past learning, the greater chance there is for forgetting, confusion, and inaccurate learning. Mental overcrowding can prohibit learning. It is difficult to learn one subject if your mind is on a number of other things. For example, it would be difficult to learn your history chapter if you are watching TV, thinking about other course, or worrying about personal problems Also, continuous study without a break (reading one book after another), may cause fatigue and boredom, thereby reducing the ability to concentrate.
You may have all of the information you need stored away in your mind but be unable to recall it if the right cue is missing. In other words, if you study the material one way and the test question is presented in another manner, you may be unable to remember. It is important that you put the material you are studying in your own words to make sure you understand it, thus improving your ability to recall the material.
Lack of attention and effort
The art of memory is the art of attention: attending to the material wholly. Moreover, there must be effort and intent to remember. The possibility of forgetting the material, because of any of the previously mentioned reasons, will be greatly reduced.
Solutions to use before a test
Overlearn: Get to the point where you can say it “in your sleep.” Why? During an exam, anxiety increases. Anxiety can block the ability to recall what has been recently learned. Recalling what we have “overlearned” is a much easier task and may be accomplished even when anxious.
Review daily: At least 10 to 15 minutes each day go over notes from class. Carry study note card with you always; study them whenever you have the chance – like when you are waiting for a friend or standing in line. Why? It is practice for the test. After learning the material, you essentially “forget” it while doing other activities. By reviewing, you go through the process of activating and retrieving that idea. This strengthens the “pathway” to the ideas. Each time you “forget” and “retrieve,” you reinforce the pathway. Daily reviews work to promote recall.
Say it out loud: Don’t review content just to read or listen to the material. Talk about the material. Bore your roommate or explain it to a study buddy. Why? A new and different memory of the material is constructed for each different method – seeing, hearing, saying, etc. The more memories, the better the chance of finding the information again in memory.
Draw a picture or diagram: Make an outline, create an image or associate a technical word with its meaning. Why? When you translate ideas into diagrams, outlines, matrixes, or other formats, you decide what information to select and how to represent it. You remember decisions better than seeing and saying. You can more easily recall memories about decisions.
Make up practice tests: As you review your notes, write test questions down on 3×5 cards with answers on the back. Why? Same idea as #4. You decide on the question, how to phrase the answer, what answer was. On a test, you can use memory of decisions to construct an answer.
Construct connections between ideas: Don’t “pigeonhole.” Try to see the big picture. Take some concentrated study time to think about the web of knowledge you are constructing. Why? It is easier to recall main ideas. If we have make connections, we can recall main ideas and then recall or reconstruct details. We forget unconnected ideas quite easily.
Flag cue words: Circle words in practice questions that cue the answer. Write synonyms for the circled words. Go backwards when you study – from answer (response) to a question (cue). Why? Test question are often worded differently than practice questions. With one cue, we have only one entrance to the memory. If we have practiced recalling using several cues, we increase our chances of answering.
STRATEGIES AND TOOLS
TO IMPROVE YOUR MEMORY
Pegging and creating lists
Pegs are like the TABS on a file folder: they allow you to retrieve new things at a glance. You might also visualize a peg as a HOOK on a wall or in a closet, where you hang a jacket.
Pegging takes new information and pegs (connects) it to information you know well. This makes recalling new information easier because it is related to something we already know. Simply put… Take something you know (the peg) and put it together with some new information.
How do I use pegs?
- Create your pegs. Choose something simple and familiar: rooms of your house, etc.
The Body List (as described in Mega Memory)
- Toes = 1
- Knees = 2
- Muscle = 3
- Rear = 4
- Love handles = 5
- Shoulders = 6
- Collar =7
- Face =8
- Point =9
- Ceiling = 10
*Mega Memory author, Kevin Trudeau, chose these words to correspond with consonant sounds in English. He has done this so you can peg complex vocabulary, an advanced memory skill.
- Memorize your peg list. Stand up. Touch the body part and say it out loud: Number 1, toes. Number 2, knees, etc. Continue doing this until the list is memorized. It must be committed to memory before pegging. These 10 body parts are now PEGS.
- Create a vivid image of the new information.G. You need to remember to hand in an assignment at 4 pm. Imagine the colour, shape, size of your assignment. Imagine a huge clock reading 4 pm.
- Connect the peg image to the new information image IN A VIVID, NONSENSICAL WAY.
Toes (peg) & Assignment (new info): Imagine kicking your assignment all the way from your house to the prof’s mailbox. Knees (peg) & 4 pm (new info): Imagine a huge clock strapped to your knees with the number 4 on the dial.
Pegging for remembering numerical sequences and equations
Many students need to remember sequences of number and formulae. Pegging can help.
How to peg numbers
- Memorize 10 simple, specific visual images, one for each of the 10 digits.
- Create a picture for the equation. Here‘s a simple one using the Body List from above:
2 X 4=8
- Use the pegs to create a story: “I am walking along the street and all of a sudden my knees being to tickle. I look down and notice a big pick mosquito buzzing around my knees ready to strike. I swat it away and what does he do? He lands on my rear. I swat it away and he goes to my face. I slap my face, but I miss and he goes back to my knees. We keep chasing each other till my knees, rear, and face burn from slapping myself.”
For numbers beyond 10, create more pegs! Either expand your present list or create an entire new list (e.g., The Reach List is all the stuff you can easily reach on your desk: pen, stapler, highlighter, paper clips, tape, phone, lamp, in-tray, etc.).
With a trained memory, it takes about 30 seconds to create these pictures and commit them to memory. Obviously, if you’re just starting out, you won’t be at this level immediately.
Try it yourself!
Peg your social insurance number or another sequence of numbers you use regularly. Did it help?
Small, G. 2003. The Memory Bible: An innovative strategy for keeping your brain young. NY: Hyperion.
Trudeau, K. 1997. Mega Memory: How to release your superpower memory in 30 minutes or less a day. NY: HarperCollins.
The Major System: Remembering very long numbers
Step 1: Learn the Body List pegs. Each body list peg begins with a different English consonant. Then learn the consonant sounds represented in the body peg.
H and W are missing because they belong to a different class of sounds.
|1. Toe||T, d, th|
|5. Love handles||L|
|6. Shoulders||Sh, ch, j, dg/dz|
|7. Collar||C (hard c), g, ng|
|8. Face||F, v|
|9. Point||P, b|
|10. Ceiling||S, z, c (soft c)|
Step 2. Take a 2-digit number you need to remember and create a word (preferably a noun or an action word) from the consonants.
e.g., The number I need to remember is: 050923
- 05: s/z + l = sill, zeal, soul, sell, sole
- 09: s/z + p/b = zap, zip, sip, sap
- 23: n + m = name, numb
3-digit numbers are also possible (e.g., 400 r + c + c = races).
Step 3. Take the words and chain them into a sentence or story. Make the sentence as animated, crazy, colourful as possible to help make the memory enjoyable so you can remember better.
05 zeal, 09 sip, 23 numb = With great zeal, I sip very hot tea and my tongue goes completely numb.
You can memorize these memory words, or create new ones as you go. However, it is faster if you have a bank of some words memorized (e.g., words representing 1-20).
Now try a really long number (e.g., Pi to 11 decimals: 3.14159265359. Try to use nouns whenever you can. Verbs are more difficult as they require tense. However, with a 3-digit number, verbs can work well (e.g., 141 = dared (past tense)).
- 141: t/d + r + t/d = dared/dart/tarred
- 59: l + p/b = loop/lop/lip/leap
- 26: n + sh/j/dg = nudge/knock
- 53: l + m = lamb/limb/llama/lama
- 59: l + p/b = loop/ lob/lip/leap/lobe/lube
Using the major system and chaining a story together, I can remember Pi as: While I dared to leap into the air, I nudge the llama which I am trying to loop with a rope.
Remembering written passages
To learn verbatim text:
e.g., You need to learn the lyrics to the Canadian national anthem, “Oh Canada.”
“O Canada, our home and native land. True patriot love in all thy sons command. With glowing hearts we see thee rise, the True North strong and free. From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee…”
- Chunk the lines:
- (O Canada) our home and native land
- true patriot love (in all thy sons command)
- glowing hearts (we see thee rise)
- True North (strong and free)
- far and wide (O Canada)
- stand on guard (for thee)
- Convert key words/phrases of each chunk into vivid pictures.
For example, for chunk a), imagine the picture of a “home” and “land.” For chunk b), imagine a true or false quiz for “true,” a heart for “love,” a boy for “thy sons,” etc.
- Now you can either chain them together or peg them to one of your Peg List.
- Repeat the passage out loud verbatim while you go through your story or peg list.
Source: Trudeau, K. 2001. Mega Memory: How to release your superpower memory in 30 minutes or less a day. NY: Harper Collins. 310-311.
STRATEGIES AND TOOLS
TO IMPROVE YOUR MEMORY
The distribution of practice effect
Research has shown that memory is improved by distributing the practice over time and immediate rehearsal of what has been learned, called “distributed practice.” It consists of two parts: spacing and immediate rehearsal.
Learning is more efficient and effective when we study the same material over several session, spaced out over time. Not only does it improve recall, but the time it takes to learn something is also reduced. For example, a task that would take 30 minutes may take only 22 minutes (total time) if the learning is spaced out over two days. A 30% time saving and you’re more likely to remember it!
2. Immediate Rehearsal
If you test yourself and can recall the correct answer, your memory for those facts will be considerably strengthened compared to simply being told the information.
Try out this strategy
- Say the new information out loud.
- Self-test or rehearse immediately (i.e., within the span of your short-term memory).
- Leave this item and go to the next item—learn and rehearse this new item. This gives you a short break (spaced practice) from the first item.
- Go back to the first item again. Rehearse again.
Source: Rose, C. (1985). Accelerated Learning. NY: Dell Publishing
Using eye movements to reduce stress and improve recall
When a person is retelling a personal story, a lot of emotions arise. If you look closely at the person‘s eye movements, you will notice that s/he is periodically looking upwards. This involuntary action functions to reduce the stress associated by these emotions. When the stress is reduced, the mind can open up to more unconscious memory work (see Kevin Trudeau‘s 5 Stages of Information Processing).
Here’s the quickest way to relax and get out of the thinking stage:
- Relax and take a breath.
- Look up to the right and hold for a few seconds.
- Look up to the left and hold for a few seconds.
- Continue back and forth for a few seconds.
Trudeau, K. (1997). Mega Memory: How to release your superpower memory in 30 minutes or less a day. NY: Harper Collins.
STRATEGIES AND TOOLS
TO IMPROVE YOUR MEMORY
Marijuana and memory
This is a good article explaining that short-term memory deficits can persist for some weeks after stopping marijuana. So, it’s a good idea not to smoke in the weeks before exams.
“It definitely fogs your brain,” says Lambros Messinis of the University Hospital of Patras in Greece, on the effects of marijuana. That, of course, is why people smoke it in the first place. What Messinis claims, however, is that it has a more serious effect: he says that long-term users gradually become worse at learning and remembering things.
Messinis and his colleagues compared the mental abilities of 20 people who had smoked dope at least four times weekly for an average of 15 years with 20 shorter-term users averaging 7 years of use, and 24 controls. None of the subjects had smoked for at least 24 hours before the test, and Messinis used a standard psychological method to control for differences in intelligence before they started using marijuana.
The veteran users performed worst in memory tests: asked to recall lists of 15 words they had seen earlier, for example, they averaged seven, compared with nine for the shorter-term users and 12 for the controls.
(Neurology, vol 66, p 737).
Excerpts taken from Blackwell-Synergy.com.
Does alcohol have an effect on academics? YES!
On average, students who drink the most alcohol receive the lowest grades:
- D and F students average 9.5 drinks per week
- C students average 5.6 drinks per week
- B students average 4.4 drinks per week
- A students average 3.1 drinks per week
Alcohol is estimated to be the cause of 40% of major academic deficiencies and nearly 30% of all dropouts. Why?
- People who are out late partying often over-sleep and miss classes.
- Someone who is hung over is more likely to sleep in, or feels too sick to attend class.
- People who party several times a week can fall behind on homework, projects or papers.
Evidence suggests that alcohol can also affect some of the brain functions that affect learning.
The ability to form new memories. A chronic drinker may be able to recall something from their childhood, but may not be able to remember what they ate for lunch a few hours ago. On mental ability tests, chronic drinkers often perform poorly on retention skills.
One of the major tasks of the brain is to distinguish the difference between concrete, obvious and surface reasoning and abstract thinking such as word puzzles and interpreting stories. Abstract thinking is more difficult for chronic drinkers.
Problem solving often involves using different strategies and reasoning skills. We also need mental flexibility, the ability to switch strategies and approaches to problems in order to solve them. Often under testing, heavy drinkers find themselves taking a lot longer to find solutions because they get stuck in one particular method of problem solving.
Attention and concentration
There is some evidence that chronic drinkers have a hard time keeping their attention focused and maintaining their concentration. The degree to which these functions are affected depends on how much alcohol is consumed. Chronic long-term abusers of alcohol experience the major effects. However, social drinkers also develop deficits in their mental functioning. The more alcohol a person has when they go out, the more likely the negative effects will develop.
Sourced from: The Bacchus Network
First photo courtesy of Hey Paul Studios under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.