Queen's University Logo
--IMPORTANT NOTICE-- Up-to-date COVID-19 information Click Here

Simple ways to improve your memory

By Sunny Zheng, 2nd-year Life Sciences student

While studying, do you ever feel like there is just way too much to remember? Are you forgetting things you just learned? Want to give up and throw it all away?

I’ve certainly felt like this before. It is very overwhelming when professors bombard you with lists of equations, vocabulary, or numbers and expect you to remember it all.

Memorization takes a lot of effort, so this year I’ve started using new strategies to help make the process easier. Here are some methods that I have found very effective, and I’ll include the cool science behind it all.

Review regularly

One of the best ways to drill material into your brain would be to review regularly. The Curve of Forgetting is a graph showing how well we retain the information we learn. The second day after a lecture, if you do not look at your notes again, you will forget 50-80% of the material. If you wait 30 days to pick up the lesson again, you will only retain 2-3% of what you have learned. However, if you review for just 10 minutes within 24 hours of the lecture, you will be able to refresh your memory and raise that curve up to 100% again! By increasing the number of times you are exposed to the material, your brain starts to realize that this information is important and will hold onto it for safe keeping. Setting aside some time each weekend to review is a great strategy for knowledge retention. I tried this last semester and it really helped me become better prepared for exams!

Credit: Counselling Services at University of Waterloo (https://uwaterloo.ca/counselling-services/curve-forgetting)

Photo credits: Counselling Services at University of Waterloo (https://uwaterloo.ca/counselling-services/curve-forgetting)

From short to long

Learning is all about transferring information from your short term memory to your long term memory. There are three ways to do this: acoustically, visually, and semantically. I like to use all three methods when studying. First, I try to understand and think about the meaning of the material. This helps with semantic encoding. Experiments have shown that subjects who think about the definitions of a list of words remember them better compared to subjects who only think about the sounds/appearances of those words. However, thinking about those sounds and appearances (acoustic and visual encoding) would help with the learning process too. Thus, for extra reinforcement of class material, I like to read notes out loud and make mind maps. If you like learning visually, but mind maps aren’t your thing, try some of our other graphic organizers.

Cheats for cramming

Sometimes, you are just tight on time and need some quick ways to remember what you learned. For those situations, you could try these “cheats” that I like to use.

  1. Record your voice reading out the material and replay it before bedtime until you fall asleep. When you wake up in the morning, the first thing you remember will be whatever was on the recording.
  2. Write what you have to memorize onto sticky notes and stick them on things you’ll often use (e.g. fridge, bathroom mirror, wall above the toilet paper…etc.). Every time you use those things, read over the sticky note to review. This increases your exposure to the concept and will reinforce it in your memory.

Sufficient sleep

In order to help your mind retain new information, it is important for you to get enough sleep. Experiments on memory have shown that when 2 groups of mice are taught a new skill, the sleep-deprived mice formed fewer neural connections compared to the mice that slept well. Even though the sleep-deprived mice were trained for longer, they performed worse when tested. For this upcoming midterm season, try your best to spread out your studying instead of cramming late into the night before. Your brain will form more neural connections and you will recall information better during the exam. So forget that double half-soy organic chocolate brownie hazelnut caramel venti latte with two shots of espresso for the late nights and just hit the pillow!

In order to remember what you learned in class better, it is important to review regularly, understand class material, and to get enough sleep. We offer much more information on memory online.

Confidence, however, is the most important to good memory. People who are persuaded they cannot remember are most likely to forget. So believe in yourself — you can do it!

Sheldon gif credits. Hard drive photo courtesy of DijutalTim under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.