Top 5 memory techniques for exam preparation
(Last updated: 13 May 2021)
‘Don’t cram for that exam!’ If you’ve ever tried to improve your exam revision strategy, you’re probably well acquainted with this ‘golden rule.’ It’s true, leaving exam revision to the last minute is unlikely to yield first class results.
When we don’t prepare for an exam, our memory (or lack thereof) becomes a source of frustration. We waste valuable exam time wondering what would be - if only we could just remember that vital piece of information.
Does it sound familiar? Thankfully, studies have shown that it doesn’t have to be this way. If we learn to exploit our memory for all it’s capable of, it can become one of our greatest cognitive assets!
1. Association, Association, Association
Revising topics in isolation is an ineffective strategy. Studies show that if you associate new knowledge with existing knowledge, the new knowledge sticks! Why should this be?
Think of your existing knowledge as a ‘road map’ in your mind. When you revise new information, you’re constantly cementing new ‘roads’ onto this map. When it comes to recalling the new information, your brain can tap into multiple pathways to access the information.
Create a ‘mind map’ – Write down all the topics you want to memorise and draw ‘links’ or ‘pathways’ between them to show how each topic relates to the other. Crucially, add topics that you already know in-depth to your mind map. This will enable you to forge solid links between old and new knowledge.
2. Sleep solidifies memory
Students are not often told they should sleep more! However, studies have shown that good quality sleep is important for solidifying memories. Our dreams may even have a role to play in this process! The phrase ‘Let me sleep on it’ indicates that a good night’s sleep can do wonders for helping us sort, arrange and store information.
Plan a revision schedule – Once you know the date of your exam, try to plan ahead so you’re not pulling ‘all-nighters.’ It’s better to do 1 hour of revision per day for 20 days than 2 hours of revision per day for 10 days. This will ensure new information is processed effectively and you’re well rested for the day of your exam.
3. Stories help cement memories
You may have noticed that, when a friend tells you about a memory from their past, they’ll spend a lot of time focusing on the narrative (i.e. what happened, how it happened, why it happened). Studies have shown that, when recalling memories, people find it easier to recall memories if they are able to tell them in the form of a complex story. As a student, you can use storytelling to help you cement and recall exam material!
Write a revision story – the more the ridiculous the better. In your story, imagine a house where each character in each room of the house embodies a theory or concept you need to remember. The personality of your characters., and their actions, can become symbols of the theories you need to remember. This technique works well because it exploits your visual and spatial memory too!
4. Rehearsal is vital
It’s tempting to just ‘power-through’ pages of your textbook to make revision headway. However, this is a counterproductive strategy. Studies show that rehearsal– going over the information you’ve already revised - is crucial for determining what you really know. Once you’ve determined the ‘gaps’ in your knowledge, you’ll know where to focus your revision.
Try group study – They say you never truly know a topic until you’ve taught it to someone else. In a group, take it in turns to ‘teach’ each other about the topics you’ve revised. Encourage your friends to ask you a few difficult questions to test your knowledge!
If you can’t find a study group, you could try reciting your knowledge of a revision topic. Record your ‘mini-lecture’ on your phone and play it back afterwards. Does it sound convincing?
5. Meditation can improve memory
Recent studies have shown that meditation and mindfulness can significantly improve memory. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but it may be because meditation improves visualisation skills and concentration skills (both vital for memory!) In addition, meditation can improve relaxation in general, so may be useful in the run-up to the exam period!
Try a guided meditation – These are available for free on many apps. Try a ten-minute guided meditation in the morning, or before studying, and see if you notice a difference in your concentration levels.
Some students are put off using memory techniques for revision because they seem to require a lot of mental effort. Whilst some effort is involved in these techniques, they do make revision a lot more efficient.
Psychologists say that it takes about 30 days to change a cognitive habit. Try these memory techniques for 30 days and see if revising efficiently becomes second nature!
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