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.
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.