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Improving Memory for Better Grades

Even if your teachers and professors implore you to “understand, not memorize,” your memory abilities are still crucial to get better grades in most cases. Whether you’re trying to keep track of all the characters in a Tolstoy novel or struggling to name every branch in zoological nomenclature, having great memory can make a big difference. Here’s how to add some edge to your memory – and maybe a notch or two to your grades.

How Memory Works

Unfortunately, your brain is very different from a computer; you can’t just store all the data you lay your hands upon. In fact, just reading a page of information most probably won’t be enough for you to recall half of it for a test the next day.

Making the most of your built-in capacity to memorize takes more than mere reading. You have to turn all that information into bits and pieces that your brain can both easily store and quickly retrieve. There are many techniques to help you do this, but the extent and effectiveness of each one varies from person to person.

In the end, it all boils down to three things:

  • how you organize the information to be memorized
  • how you take in all that information, and
  • how you ensure that you retain what you memorized

Once you’re able to give time and practice to all three, you’ll notice a significant increase in your memory and – hopefully – your grades.

Memorizing by Organizing

Effective memorization always starts with your putting all the information into logical order. Information isn’t stored in discrete, fixed units like building blocks you pile one over the other; it’s best viewed as a jigsaw puzzle where every fact and figure is a piece that somehow fits into another piece. Organizing information makes memorizing easier because you can better recall one fact based on its relationship with another.

You could, for example, arrange information into logical groups. Find a common theme among multiple elements and then focus on memorizing them by theme, not individually. Say you had to memorize a list like

  • Javanese Tiger
  • Snow Leopard
  • Silver Shark
  • Thomson’s Gazelle
  • Boa Constrictor

It seems difficult because the elements look unrelated at first glance. But aside from the fact that all of the items are animals, you can further subdivide them into groups. You could, for example, clump them as endangered (the first three items) and non-endangered (the last two items) species. Alternatively, you could group them into predators and prey. The advantage of grouping information is even clearer with larger sets of data.

The human brain, although it’s quite inefficient at storing information per se, is good with recognizing and recalling patterns. Grouping the facts you have to memorize gives your brain a pattern to remember, essentially a framework to help you recall things later on.

Another effective strategy is to put things in a logical progression – that is, you order them from largest concept to the smallest detail, from abstract to concrete, and so on. For example, if you’re studying for a chemistry test on carbon groups, you’d do well to study the properties of carbon as an element first. From there, you can branch out to individual groups and their respective properties and characteristics.

Regardless of the test topic, arranging things in a logical progression is effective because the larger ideas are often easier to remember than the nitty-gritty. In turn, you can recall the smaller facts faster thanks to their association with the more general concepts.

Methods for Memorizing

Now that you’ve prepared the materials you want to memorize, it’s time to get down and put them all in your head. Again, the whole paradigm of haphazardly stuffing information in won’t fly here. You have to be methodical and efficient with the way you memorize.

Start by finding out your learning style, if you’re visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Visual learners, for example, get to memorize best when they prepare visual aids like flowcharts and bulleted lists. Auditory learners, meanwhile, will benefit more from techniques like memorizing aloud, which better suit their learning style. Haptic or kinesthetic learners will be aided by creating physical associations for all the items to be memorized.

Another great way to help you recall is to put the information into your own words. The way things are phrased can have a huge impact on recall. Imagine yourself as a teacher and you’re presenting the material to a class. By rephrasing the information, recalling is easier because you’re remembering the sentence structure and the phrasing you typically use. That is, it’s technically your information that you’re trying to memorize.

The added value of rephrasing information is that you also get to process all the data as you memorize. This kind of analysis – the “understanding, not memorizing” that your professors want – ultimately make recalling much, much easier because you understand the underlying concepts and related ideas.

Last – and perhaps most effective – is to create memorable associations. If you’re trying to memorize raw facts and data, associate each chunk with a memory or an image that’s very strong in your mind. Remember your family’s last trip to Arkansas when studying the Civil War, or what you were eating as you watched that show on endangered animals on Discovery Channel. It’s these little things that make recalling a lot easier for you.

Ensuring Recall

Perhaps the most critical part of this process is actually remembering everything you memorized when you need them the most, such as during the test itself. After you’ve gone through all the information at least once using your memorization methods, it’s time to reinforce the memory work you just did.

Teachers and parents will often nag you to practice, practice, practice – and there’s a point to all the reminding. Practicing what you memorized by listing all the information again from memory or taking a sample test is the surest way to recall what you studied for test day. Each practice session is as good as another round of memorization because you jog your mind through all the information all over again.

Another good strategy is to make a reviewer or cheat sheet from the ground up. Besides giving you something to review at the last minute, making the reviewer or cheat sheet is good brain exercise because you’re making your mind recall and organize everything you just memorized. In psychology terms, this is called consolidation and is seen as a major aid in recall and memory.

If you’ve got a friend who’s taking the same test, you may want to discuss the material with him or her – or your whole class, for that matter. Discussion has the same effect as rephrasing the material or making a cheat sheet: you run through all the information, and you’re forced to put it into logical and coherent order.

Memorization is often hard, but it need never be as impossible as the way many would see it. As long as there’s method to the way you memorize, you should be able to easily ace all those tests in school and give your grades a major boost. It’s a matter of knowing how to memorize efficiently and effectively, and practicing those methods regularly.

Time Management Tips

If you’re still an enrolled student, you know that the academic life isn’t as easy as it looks. With so many demands and things to do, you virtually have to squeeze 36 hours of work and effort into just 24. That’s why time management is so crucial, particularly in college; with so much work and so little time, it’s a skill well worth learning.

Plan Each Day

A well-made schedule is key to successful time management, especially if you’re on the collegiate roller coaster. Try to predict how much time each task for the day will take and then see if all the things you want to do can fit in a day. Routines make planning much easier because you start each day with standard tasks that you’re sure will get done.

It’s a good idea to keep your schedule in one place, such as a planner, desk calendar or PDA. You’re going to find it easier to consult just one reference each time you want to check what comes next in your day.

Of course, a schedule that’s well-made isn’t necessarily a tight one. As good as it looks on paper, planning a day that goes non-stop from 6AM to 11PM is unrealistic. Not only will adjacent events tend to infringe on each other’s time, but you’ll also be extremely tired by the end of it all – assuming you manage to get to all those events.

When setting your schedule for the days ahead, give a time allowance for things like traveling and wrapping up whatever it is you’ll be doing. Because you likely don’t teleport, give yourself anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour for travel time, and an additional 15 to 20 minutes to conclude each task for the day. Also, be sure to end at a reasonable hour, or at least give yourself some rest time throughout the day.

Never forget to give yourself time to eat and sleep. Even 15 to 30 minutes is enough for the eating part; what’s important is that you have time to sit down and take a breather. On the other hand, you should never give yourself less than 6 hours (at least 8 is best) to sleep. Even if you think you get more time by staying up late, being tired and stressed will mean that you work less efficiently and thus do less in the same amount of time.

Learn to Refuse

Jotting down a schedule in a planner or on a calendar is only half the battle, though; you still have to follow your schedule, and that’s where learning to say ‘no’ comes in. You’ll most probably get all sorts of additional things to do like extra hours at work or a party invite during the week. When you say no to all these unplanned events, you help keep your schedule on the right track, especially when you’re really short on time.

Yeah, you’ll most likely seem like a party pooper and chances are good that your boss at work won’t be happy. Remember, though, that it’ll be worth it if you use the time to do more important things instead like working on your academics. Never forget that you have long-term goals to achieve that should take priority over short-term activities.

Set Rewards

At the same time, you also shouldn’t sentence yourself to an ascetic lifestyle just because you have a GPA to maintain. Reward yourself every so often, especially right after times of intense, non-stop work or study.

Going full steam ahead with work and academics is the surest road to a burnout period. Remember, you’re only human and there’s a limit to what you can do. There will come a point that mind and body will simply be too tired to function and will refuse to do any more. Rewarding yourself with, say, a movie or some retail therapy helps refresh the mind and mitigate any risks of burnout or exhaustion.

Be strategic with rewarding yourself. You could, for example, plan a nice dinner out with friends or call for a night on the town right after stressful periods like exam week. That way, you get maximum gains for your time while at the same time setting something to look forward to while you’re slaving away.

Work Regularly

As much as cramming is a standard part of the student lifestyle at any school, but that doesn’t mean you should make it a habit. In fact, crammed or rushed work is most often very shoddy and results in a lower-than-usual grade for the output. Try to minimize your cramming by setting regular studying and work hours, as well as dividing coursework into smaller and more manageable bits.

Chances are good that you’ll get a few classes which have a major requirement given at the start of the semester, to be submitted at the very end of the course. In cases like these, the best plan is always to start working as early as possible so that you’re not cramming a large chunk of the project at the eleventh hour.

One more reason why you’d want to do schoolwork on a regular basis is that distributed or staggered learning is more effective than cramming. If you compare, for example, four half-hour practice sessions to a single two-hour review, you’ll likely get better scores for the former. You get tired as you study, and you’re less effective at learning when tired. The marathon method of review means you spend more time tired and less effective.

Part of working regularly is also maintaining a good workspace. That is, your study area and the area around it should be relatively clutter free and provide easy access to review materials. Making a neat workspace a habit means that you waste less time fixing up the place before studying or looking for that cheat sheet you made last week.

Too many students fail to optimize study time. If you know that you’re at your sharpest at 6 in the morning, you should try to do as much of your studying as possible then. Shape your study schedule according to when and where you tend to work best so that you get maximum returns on your study time. You may also want to prioritize harder subjects first so that you get to understand them while your mind is still fresh and ready.

Multitask

You’ve probably read somewhere that multitasking is bad, but that’s not entirely accurate. Doing two similar tasks simultaneously is counterproductive because your brain has to repeatedly switch back and forth between them. The efficient kind of multitasking is you combining two jobs of completely different natures.

Waiting is a standard part of daily life. You wait at the bus stop. You wait for the train to reach your station. You wait for your clothes to finish at the laundromat. Although those events don’t take up a lot of time individually, they add up. All your laundry sessions for the month, for example, could be worth at least around four hours. You should make the most of all those little pockets of time by doing whatever work or study you can.

Instead of waiting for your roommate to finish with the shower, for example, you could review the notes from yesterday’s lecture or do some last-minute studying for the test later in the day. Finish your assigned readings on the bus or highlight important passages while waiting for the train. All things considered, you could actually do quite a bit of extra studying; just bring some review materials around with you everywhere.

As you can see, getting everything done for school and work isn’t as much finding more time as it is finding more efficient uses for your time. You’re actually given a considerable amount of time each day; even with 10 hours alloted for eating and sleeping, you have 14 hours left over to maximize and use wisely.