If you’ve ever left your research project in the library, searched unsuccessfully for your English essay, or blanked out during a biology test – the right memory strategies can turn that all around!
Memory and academics
Having a strong academic memory is essential to making it through college! But if you’re not so interested in a course or are “burning the candle at both ends,” it can be difficult to focus and pay attention in a way that gets the job done!
So, you need to be very strategic about getting your own attention in order to remember academic material! The good news is that neuroscience tells us exactly how to do this!
The Gross and Funny Factor
Why do some experiences “stick” in our brains and some experiences just slip away! The more connections we make between the material we’re trying to remember, the easier it will be to recall it when we need it – during a test for example.
One of the strongest connections we can use is to make the information more meaningful in some way. Introducing emotion into a dry subject forces the brain to think the information you’re trying to remember is important.
So…how do we get more emotion into the situation when we’re trying to memorize lots of dry material? Well, we find creative ways to make the information interesting, unique, scary, funny, gross, urgent, impossible, competitive, cute, outrageous, dynamic (involve changes in shape, size or position) – you get the idea. This turns on the brain!
No matter whether the things we think about are funny and pleasant or scary and gross, neuro chemicals in the brain are pressing the “save” key for your memories.
The bottom line is this: find creative ways to make the information you want to remember *pop* using the techniques in this article. Use the gross and funny factor to your advantage, and your grades will skyrocket!
Classroom Visualization Technique
This technique is a variation of the loci method that you may be familiar with. In the loci method, information that needs to be remembered is mentally “stored” in physical locations that you vividly imagine in your mind.
The classroom visualization technique works by creating an association between specific places in the classroom and the exact information you want to retrieve during the test!
Example: How to ace your biology test!
Start by picking 5-15 specific locations in the classroom (or wherever you’ll be taking the test). Perhaps you choose the entry door, the teacher’s desk, the fire alarm, a poster on the left wall, the teacher’s coffee cup… Weird locations are great for getting your brain’s attention!
At home, as you study the material you’ll be tested on, in your imagination, visualize a specific location in the classroom, let’s say the coffee cup. Now mentally imagine yourself storing specific information in that location.
Let’s say the goal is to remember information for a biology test covering the types and functions of RNA. Using this technique, you would store information about messenger RNA on the teacher’s mustache, information about transport RNA on the teacher’s coffee cup, and so on!
As you’re studying, continue to store the remainder of the information in the other classroom locations.
Now on the day of the test, while sitting in the actual classroom you visualized so vividly while you were studying, simply look at one of your locations, and the specific information you’ve “stored” there will come into your mind!
Where You Study – Change it Up!
You can use the tendency of the brain to remember information based on where it was learned to your advantage if you find creative ways to change where you study.
Try studying science in one location, math in another, English in yet another location, etc. For example, study science in your room, math at the library, etc.
If you can’t go to different locations, then do something to get your brain to feel the situation is unique. Maybe you can change chairs or sit on the other side of the table.
This might sound weird, but your brain is now making a strong association between the material you’re learning in a class and a specific location in which you’re studying the information.
This works to your advantage during a test. Simply think about the place you study that particular subject, and your brain starts trying to remember only that subject! Try it, it can really help!
Capitalize on the ability of the brain to latch on to geometric shapes by creating mind maps that show the connections among ideas. For many people, a mind map makes information easier to remember.
Mind maps are easy to make. Just get a piece of paper and write your topic anywhere on the page, perhaps in the center. Now just brainstorm important ideas and write them anywhere on the paper. As your ideas come, just connect them to the idea they are related to.
Make the information easier to remember by drawing geometric shapes around the ideas and color coding in a meaningful way.
Key Word Method + Stories
One of the most effective techniques for remembering vocabulary words for English class or foreign language class, is the sound-alike key word method. In this technique, you associate the word you’re learning with other words that the vocabulary word sounds like.
For example, when trying to remember the meaning of the words “atrophy” and “flippant,” we first think of one or more nouns that each word sounds like. Atrophy sounds like “a trophy,” and flippant sounds like “flip” + “ant.”
Now we write a sentence or short paragraph associating the vocabulary words and their meanings. To make the association even stronger, we make the story as goofy as possible because this provides even more structure to remember the information (gross and funny factor)!
Now flippant means disrespectful and atrophy means to wither or decline. The story we develop could involve an ant that flips over to show its disrespect when it wins a trophy because the trophy grows smaller and smaller until it disappears!
One great way to make dry material more interesting is to think up interesting connections that make the dry information more meaningful and personally relevant to your own life!
For example, when memorizing the cell organelles, think of the cell as a city and connect the name and function of each organelle to aspects of a city. For example, the mitochondria is the power plant, the cytoplasm is the lawns, and the endoplasmic reticulum is the highway system.
For added memory power, create a vivid story about a character in the city who interacts with the city elements you create. This story will cement the information stronger in your memory. Remember to make the story weird in some way to get your brain’s attention!
Capitalize on Your Natural Processing Style
We all have our natural processing style – our unique set of strengths and natural approaches that are our super weapons. The more you identify and use these strengths, the better your memory will become.
Using your natural processing style involves making associations in your mind that stimulate your senses. If you’re a very visual person, you’ll want to create vivid pictures in your mind to act as a framework to remember the information. If you’re an auditory person, you’ll want to use songs, jingles, and rhymes. If you’re a kinesthetic person, you’ll want to put movement into your mental images.
The tactile sense is the sense of touch, so if you’re very influenced by how things feel, you’ll want to incorporate that into your mental images. And the olfactory sense is the sense of smell. If you’re very good at this sense, then putting scents (both pleasant and unpleasant!) into your mental imagery will be beneficial in forming new memories.
Generally, the more of these sensory factors you put into your mental images, the stronger the associations you’re building in your brain and the more triggers – the equivalent of breadcrumbs – you’re leaving in order to recall the information.
All of the memory techniques work better when combined. This is called using a multisensory approach. Try a multisensory approach every time you study: say it, write it, read it, draw it, sing it – do whatever it takes.
Use a funny voice, imagine you’re interviewing someone, pretend you’re playing Minecraft, if you’re a dancer – dance while you learn, if you’re a singer – put what you’re learning to music and sing it!
Movement Turns on the Brain!
One of the best ways to stay alert and focused is to find fun and creative ways to put movement into your study time! Start your study sessions with 5 minutes of one of the movements below! And be sure to work movement breaks into your study sessions every 15-30 minutes!
Try a repetitive, low concentration task such as:
- Folding paper
- Squeezing a ball
Try joint compression movements such as:
- Jumping up and down
- Jumping jacks
- Bouncing up and down in your chair
Try balancing and spinning movements such as:
- Turning around several times in one direction and then in the other
- Walking around the room while reading or studying.
- Standing on a balance board that has rockers on the bottom – balancing turns on the same brain centers that control attention.
Try stretching, pushing or pulling movements such as:
- Tug of war
- Stretching a big elasticized band
- Pushing against the wall
Chewing can really be an effective way to focus!
- Crunchy, spicy, salty or sour foods can be effective concentration boosters.
- Try carrot and celery sticks, sugar free gum, pretzels or a small sour candy.
Cross Lateral Movements
Cross lateral movements involve using hand and foot on opposite sides of the body. Try these cross lateral movements for five minutes every hour and you’ll have better concentration and mental alertness!
- Touch hand (or elbow) to opposite knee.
- Lazy 8. Use one hand to trace a large infinity sign in front of your body, following the hand with the eyes. Alternate hands and continue.
- Karate Cross Crawl: Kick while punching or chopping with alternate hand and foot (right hand chops while left foot kicks).
- Cross Crawl Sit-ups. While lying on the back with hands clasped behind your head for support, sit up and touch the right elbow to the left knee. Alternate touching elbow to opposite knee.
- Double Doodle. Draw a design with both hands simultaneously. Be sure the designs are mirror images of each other, rather than facing the same direction.
Self-tests Boost Memory and Recall!
Engage meaningfully with new material the same day it’s introduced, and review frequently until it’s “overlearned.”
Material is overlearned when you can get 100% on self-tests of the same kind and difficulty that you will encounter in the classroom – and you can get 100% on at least 3 self-tests in a row. The more important the grade, the more self-tests you need to take!
Get enough sleep. Memories get stored while you sleep! Don’t short cut on sleep thinking you’ll get more study time or relaxation time if you cut back on sleeping. Nothing can take the place of enough sleep when it comes to having a better memory!
Practice your toughest material again right before going to sleep – it receives an extra push into your brain! Don’t forget to use the gross and funny factor to be sure the information is processed by your brain!
Dr. Kari Miller, PhD, BCET is a board certified educational therapist and ADHD coach who has been educating and coaching adults and young people who have ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, emotional challenges, and other complex needs for more than twenty-five years. She holds a PhD in educational psychology and mathematical statistics, an MEd in Learning Disabilities, Gifted Education and Educational Diagnosis, and a BS in Early Childhood Education and Behavior Disorders. Dr. Miller provides support across the lifespan – to school-aged students with learning and attention challenges, to young adults in transition to college or the workplace, and to women with ADHD who have passionate dreams, but are frustrated by procrastination, lack of focus and difficulty following through.