Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Memory Skills

Help with finding, managing and using information from the Wolfson Library Team.

Get in the right frame of mind

As with reading, it is important to create the right conditions to enable you to retain information. Make sure that you have time to give the task your due attention, that you aren't going to be distracted, that you are sufficiently motivated and have the intention to remember. It isn't possible to improve the the hardware underlying our memory. Neural systems can’t be enhanced (yet we can easily damage them). Likewise, any improvement in our attention with agents such as caffeine, usually only work when our memory is impaired, say, owing to lack of sleep. There are tips and techniques that will help make your memory more efficient but ultimately you need application, initiative and persistence to commit things to memory.

Think too about your environment: you need sufficient light, the right temperature, enough space, not to feel hungry, not to be too tired, and the ability to make yourself comfortable.

Not working can be just as important

Taking breaks during study is essential to retaining information. Our ability to remember and recall information tails off over time, with a slight uptick at the end of a session because we tend to remember better things we have just done. If we take regular breaks, e.g. every hour, then we are likely to remember much more than if we had worked through for 3 or 4 hours. This graph, adapted from Tony Buzan's book on Speed Reading, gives us an indication of retention if we work for a long period (blue line) compared with if we take regular breaks (green line).

graph showing memory breaks aid retention

Sleep is also vital to the memory. Our recall significantly improves after the first night’s sleep: you may recall up to 25% more in the morning than on the evening of learning. While this makes it tempting to leave things until the night before, the depth of enquiry at university means you need time to absorb material and make links.

Active versus passive revision

It may feel easiest to revise by rereading notes, highlighting or copying chunks of text. However, there is a lot of research which demonstrates that these passive methods, while reproducing things we need to learn, do not lend themselves to retention.

To improve your retention of material, you need to engage with it actively and creatively. This gets you to think about the material differently and make links so that you can draw on a range of information in an unseen exam setting. Examples include annotation, index cards, mind mapping, repeating out loud, recording and playing back, practising past papers. 

There is an argument that we remember:

  • 20% of what we read
  • 30% of what we hear
  • 40% of that we see
  • 50% of what we say
  • 60% of what we do
  • 90% of what we read, hear, see, say and do

This may not be scientific , but for most people, coding information in a multitude of ways aids retention.

Organisation and memory

The trick to remembering many everyday things is to make them meaningful.

Try this exercise based on an example in Cottrell, S. (2013) The Study Skills Handbook 4th Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave. p215

Look at list A and give yourself 30 seconds to remember all the words. Now say a nursery rhyme to stop you practising! Write down as many words as you can.

List A

Peas

Carbon

Volcano

Non-fiction

Oxygen

Forest

Argon

Drama

Novel

Poetry

Leeks

River

Beach

Sweetcorn

Sprouts

Silver

 

Then try the same with list B.

List B

Vegetables

Forms of literature

Elements

Geographical features

Peas

Poetry

Argon

Volcano

Sweetcorn

Drama

Oxygen

River

Leeks

Novel

Silver

Forest

Sprouts

Non-fiction

Carbon

Beach

 

You will probably have remembered more in list B because they were grouped helpfully by similar items, you knew that there were only four categories, and you'd seen them before.

The more you revise, the more you rememeber?

Hermann EbbinhausHermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) was a German psychologist who pioneered research on memory. He identified, among other things, the total time hypothesis: that the more time that is spent on learning, the more that will be learned. And this we all know. But there are different types of memory encoding that will have more beneficial impact on our ability to recall information.

It is also now widely held that many short periods of revising a topic are better than fewer long sessions. One way to organise this repeated learning is outlined below.

Spaced repetition

If you read books on memory (such as Foster, J. (2009). Memory a very short introduction (online). Oxford: Oxford University Press) you will come across this method of revision.

Ebbinghaus also identified that information is lost as time passes (the forgetting curve). While the shape of this curve varies for different types of events, it is possible to stop ourselves forgetting things if we revisit information and relearn it. If we successfully recall things a short while after studying them, we are more likely to recall them later on.

Spaced repetition is seen as an optimal way to revise. It builds on the idea of leaving a gaps between relearning. What is perhaps novel is that it suggests increasing the gaps of time between each session. Each time is supposed to be at the point when you are just about to forget something. This way the brain has to work hard to retrieve the information, rather than repeating when readily available. And like a muscle, it gets stronger when it works harder.

This graph for spaced repetition (also called distribution of practice) shows how we can boost our memory over a series of revision sessions set apart by several hours, 1 day, 3 days, a week, 3 weeks and so on, should we have time.

spaced repetition graph

Below is a video made by a former Cambridge student. He explains why he uses spaced repetition for exam revision and how he implements it.

Techniques for memorizing

There are lots of ways to make things more memorable. Using colour, patterns, size of writing helps to make sets of note notes more unique and helps them stand out from all your other notes. Here are some approaches that are better for facts, but still have uses for more involved aides such as essay plans. They all aim to make a series of disconnected words meaningful.

  • Loci - have you ever remembered who was at a party by remembering where they sat/stood? Imagine the words you need to remember located around a memorable place such as your bedroom. To recall the words, let your mind wander around the room. Think to yourself: which word is on the bed, which on the shelf, which on the hook, which on the windowsill?
  • Memory hooks or pegwords - This is good for sequences. Assign each item to a number. Each number has an image associated with it e.g. one-bun, two-shoe, three-tree, four-door etc. Then link your words to each image. If the first thing you had to remember was deforestation, you could imagine the bun rolling down a muddy hill surrounded by tree stumps. The more wacky, the easier they will be to remember!
  • Stories from keywords - imagine the words in a short story.
  • Mnemonics. This is a sort of Scrabble from the first letters of a saying or sequence of event. There are two types 1) reduction e.g. to help remember the functions in trigonometry you can use the mnemonic SOHCAHTOA (SOH - Sine = Opposite / Hypotenuse,
    CAH - Cosine = Adjacent / Hypotenuse, TOA - Tangent = Opposite / Adjacent) or 2) elaboration - turn the initial letters into a memorable saying e.g. Some Old Horses Chew Apples Heartily Through Old Age

References

This guide draws on material from:

Abdaal, Ali https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoOae5nYA7VqaXzerajD0lg

Buzan, T. (2010) The Speed Reading Book. Harlow: Pearson.

Cottrell, S. (2013) The Study Skills Handbook 4th Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave

Foster, J. (2009). Memory a very short introduction (online). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McMillan, Weyers, and Weyers, Jonathan D. B. (2006) The Smarter Student: Skills and Strategies for Success at University. Harlow: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Osmosis https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNI0qOojpkhsUtaQ4_2NUhQ

Tracy, E. (2006) The Student’s Guide to Exam Success. 2nd Edition Maidenhead: Open University Press.

©2021 Cambridge University Libraries | Accessibility | Privacy policy | Login to LibApps | Report a problem