Improving memory retention and recall - my top 10 tips
Effective revision requires a lot of self-motivation, organisation, and good old-fashioned hard work. It means making a long-term commitment to study and putting the work in even when you don't feel like it. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.
But sometimes it feels like it really isn't worth it when you keep covering the same topics time and time again and none of it is sinking in.
In this article I'm sharing my top 10 tips for improving memory and recall, so that time spent on revision is as effective and rewarding as possible.
Don't just read it
When we're reading, the words pass through our head for long enough to string sentences together, and then pass straight back out again. What we retain might be a general picture in order to keep a story together, but not much more. It is very rare to read a text once and be able to quote it back afterwards, unless it was really meaningful to you.
What helps to move that information from short-term to long-term memory is doing something more with it, which can be as simple as writing it down.
But that doesn't mean copying it word for word - that takes very little brain work and so doesn't retain the information. Turn it into bullet points, a table, a mind map, a list, etc.
Make it meaningful
While we don't fully understand the way the mind works yet, we know it is capable of some astonishing things.
Have you ever seen Derren Brown's memory feats? I'm sure revision would be a breeze for him.
While studying isn't about memorising facts without understanding, it does help to make the most of your memory and recall.
And we can recall much better facts and events that meant something to us.
Can you think back to an event from your childhood that had an impact on you? Can you recall specific details about sights, smells, sounds?
Having a feeling associated with something helps to keep it in our long term memory. We spend more time processing it.
So when Derren Brown connects standard playing cards to people in his life, he's giving them personal meaning, and they stay in his memory.
You don't need to go to these lengths, but spend some time thinking about the content your learning, and what it means to you, how it relates to other things you've learned, and if it can be connected with something you enjoy to make it more memorable. Like a mnemonic.
Be the teacher
Take it from me - nothing helps you understand something like trying to explain it to someone else. Be the teacher for a moment and try teaching a friend or family member. Even the dog! They don't have to take an exam.
To do this, you'll need to think about the key points to cover in your lesson, the way the topic builds from the basic principles to apply the content, and how to explain it to someone with no prior knowledge. It's a great way to cement your understanding.
Put it into practice
When you've processed some new information, it is important to then put that learning into practice with worksheets or practice exam questions. Not only does this help you to see how much you have remembered, but it is also a great way to further knit the knowledge into your brain so it sticks.
You can find lots of example questions with a quick Google search, but it is good to ask your tutor to double-check they are relevant to your course. You don't want to be battling more complicated questions than you need to!
How does this fit into your existing knowledge?
Your school curriculum, believe it or not, has a story to it. There's a method to the madness! It is designed to provide a series of interlinked topics building an understanding of the subject as a whole, with some tier systems to build in the foundations of the next level of learning for those wishing to take it further.
The idea is that the topics will be taught in an order to build that story in your mind, and ultimately you will be able to piece them together.
So when you're revising a topic, can you see how it relates to other things you have learned?
They don't have to be in the same subject - many subjects have crossover or connections between them.
Or does it relate to something you've learned outside of school?
It is a sign of a developed learner that they can develop their understanding of learned content beyond the curriculum. And it also makes it more interesting if you can see how it relates to your world.
Paint a picture
Memories aren't all about words. Do you ever see images and faces when you're thinking about something? These are part of your memories too.
We can create visual memories to help us remember things, and it is a lovely way to get creative with our notes. You might already have pictures and graphics in your textbook to help create these memories.
When you're re-processing your learned content, can you make it into some sort of graphic, picture, table, graph, etc? Bonus points if you can stick it up on your wall!
This provides extra opportunities for learning - when we read the information, when we process it to create the poster, and every time we see it after that.
I used to have a drawing of the photosynthesis equation stuck on the back of my toilet door. When I'd be sat there I'd have nothing better to do than look at it! (I didn't have a mobile phone then...). I have never forgotten it.
If something's really catching you out, give this trick a go!
Set up a dedicated study area
It is important to be able to focus the mind when studying. The brain can't multitask so if you keep getting distracted, you aren't revising effectively.
You will need a quiet place to work, or some noise cancelling headphones. If you have to, ask your household to give you space during your study time, and agree it with them ahead of time. Perhaps you'll need to revise at school or in a library to be free from distractions.
Set up a comfortable work space. Balancing your books on your knee while sitting on the floor might be alright for 10 minutes, but not for prolonged study periods each day. You'll end up with sore joints and study doesn't need to be any more painful. Set up a comfortable chair at a desk or table, with everything you need around you and plenty of light.
Listening to music can be helpful, as long as that isn't stealing your attention. I can't listen to my favourite music when I'm really trying to focus on my work. It has to be something bland with no words to sing along to. There's lots of options for study or concentration music online. Classical music is often recommended, but see what works for you.
Free yourself from distractions
If your physical space isn't distracting you, is your mental space any better?
Are you thinking too much or worrying about something that you just can't get your mind off of? It'll be difficult to focus on your studies if that's the case.
It can help to talk to someone who understands what you're going through. If you don't feel like you do have anyone to talk to, why not visit Young Minds. They're dedicated to supporting teens with their mental health struggles.
We all have periods where we struggle with our thoughts and feelings. It doesn't make us broken. It's just another part of our health that we need to take care of.
Preparing for exams can be a trigger for these sorts of feelings. If you're finding stress and worry stops you from focusing on your work, make sure you talk to someone who can help you to work through your worries and support you. There's no overestimating the value of a supportive ear when you need one.
But even smaller burdens on the mind can build up and become distracting, which is why it is good not to make a habit of commiting things to memory that you don't need to.
Why try to remember your schedule for the day when you can keep a diary?
Don't bother memorising a shopping list when you can write it down.
If you have regular things to remember weekly/monthly put them on a recurring calendar entry.
Lots of things to do? Write them all down and schedule them for later, and then put them out of your mind for now.
Clear your mental desk so that you have the space you need to work.
Sleep is one of the most important elements of a great study schedule and seems to be the first thing to go out the window when stress kicks in. And do you know what happens then? Stress levels go up, focus goes down, and its a vicious cycle.
Make sure you keep as close as possible to a regular sleep schedule, and get 8-9 hours a night. Teenagers need more sleep than their parents, especially if they're studying or exercising lots. And it is a lot easier to get those hours of sleep in if you go to bed at the same time each night, Your body likes routine, and you'll find it easier to go to sleep.
If a busy mind stops you from drifting off, try listening to some soothing sounds, or a bedtime story. They aren't just for babies - I listen to these on Calm when my mind won't shut off. It helps to drown out the noise and quieten the mind into sleep.
Alternatively, when there's just too much going on in there, keep a notebook by your bedside and write down everything that's going through your mind when you can't sleep. Letting it all out can help you to leave it on the paper and go to sleep.
Change things up
Variety is the spice of life, a change is as good as a holiday, all work and no play, etc. Basically, don't make it boring.
If you're really finding revision isn't working, mix things up a bit.
Work somewhere different.
Use someone else's notes.
Try a different technique.
Change your schedule.
Trying something different makes things more interesting, and it also means you're thinking more about what you're doing, which is always a bonus when studying.
I'd love to be able to help build your confidence for your exams, which is why I'm running an advent challenge in my free Facebook group through December. Come and join us to help reduce your stress and build your confidence for exams in 2021.