Everyone who has ever taken an exam is familiar with that sinking feeling: why can’t I remember what I study? This is especially the case when you’re looking at a question you’re sure you know the answer to.
Struggling when remembering information and study material is a common problem faced by people all over the world (especially students with high-pressure exams). Fortunately, it has nothing to do with memory loss (despite what I had convinced myself of at university). However, trying to memorize and remember everything by reading and re-reading textbooks isn’t the only answer – or the most effective.
Apart from a variety of techniques and methods, like the Zettelkasten method for growing and managing your knowledge, or particular apps useful as educational tools, there are a few tricks you can teach yourself to help you remember the information you learn.
In this article, we’ll delve into how your memory works, how you learn and retain information, and how you can turn your brain from a sieve into a suitcase with tips for remembering what you study.
How Does Your Memory Work?
The process of making memories consists of three steps:
Encoding is the process of learning new information. This is how information is received, understood, and altered to facilitate storage. The information we remember is typically encoded using one or more of the methods listed below:
1. Visual encoding (how something looks)
2. Acoustic encoding (how something sounds)
3. Semantic encoding (what something means)
4. Tactile encoding (how something feels)
While information is typically entered into the memory system via one of these channels, the form in which it is stored may differ from the original, encoded form.
Storage refers to how, where, how much, and how long information is “stored” in our memory system.
There are two kinds of memory: short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM).
Encoded information is first stored in short-term memory, then, if necessary, in long-term memory. It has been suggested that acoustically encoded information is primarily stored in our short-term memory and can only be maintained there through constant repetition. If information stored in STM is left unattended for an extended period of time, it may be forgotten. Because short-term memory only lasts 15 to 30 seconds, it must be repeated and exercized on a regular basis to improve memory. Furthermore, STM only stores between five and nine items of information at a time.
Long-term memory, on the other hand, has a large storage capacity and can store information indefinitely. LTM is primarily used to store semantically encoded information. However, LTM also stores information that has been encoded visually or acoustically. Just like STM information, exercize matters with LTM information. Information must be recalled and exercized regularly (or at least semi-regularly) in order to improve how well you remember what you study.
This retrieval process frequently determines how well students perform on recall-testing assignments.
Retrieval is the process by which people access information that they have remembered (or “stored”).
Information stored in STM and LTM is retrieved differently due to differences in their capabilities. STM data, for example, is retrieved in the order in which it was stored (e.g., a sequential list of numbers).
In contrast, LTM is obtained through association (e.g., remembering where you parked your car by returning to the entrance through which you accessed a shop).
We can split memories into two types: declarative/explicit and nondeclarative/implicit.
Declarative or explicit memories usually refer to the process of deliberately storing information for a specific reason. Non-declarative or implicit memories are those we make subconsciously. For example, the ability to tie our shoelaces or navigate a grocery store.
Creating and storing memories is a complex process using many areas of the brain. It’s influenced by all our senses, as well as the emotions connected with the initial experience.
Tricks for Learning and Remembering
It’s important to note that there is no particular foolproof memory trick to remember what you study. As the brain has a number of memory triggers, activated by various stimuli, everyone responds differently. This is of particular importance for students looking for how to study and remember fast.
Students are a great example of a group of individuals who must learn, store, and remember vast amounts of information (most of the time in quite stressful time conditions). Due to this, students can have difficulty memorizing and recalling information. This can leave many with the feeling of “I can’t remember anything I study.”
Learning good study habits and memory techniques can help you avoid the negative consequences of not remembering what you study, such as frustration and low self-esteem. Knowing how to take smart-notes, for example, is a good technique to practice how to remember everything you study.
While learning and re-learning information works up to a point, there are a number of other life hacks when it comes to how to train your brain to remember almost everything.
We’ve put together a short guide with some examples of the best ways to remember what you study. It may take some time to learn how to trick your brain to remember almost anything, but hopefully, you’ll find something that helps you make the most of your brain’s abilities.
1. Try to Understand the Information
It may seem obvious, but understanding what you’ve read makes a significant difference in determining how to remember what you study.
It is easier to remember information that is organized and makes sense to you. If you discover that you don’t understand the material, spend some time learning it before attempting to memorize it.
This also helps in connecting the information you’re trying to remember to something you already know.
Material that is connected to other concepts is much easier to learn and remember than those that aren’t. If an obvious connection doesn’t exist, get creative and create a crazy one. Sometimes the best way to remember what you study starts with something crazy.
2. Use Your Mind’s Eye
Most people have a “mind’s eye”. In other words, the ability to imagine pictures and visuals in general. When learning how to remember what you study, using images to help us remember information is a very effective method.
Dr. Julia Shaw, a psychologist and scientist at University College London, advises people to go for “juicy mental images” that engage all their senses and evoke strong emotions. In her book, The Memory Illusion, Dr. Shaw explains that visual memories stick better when they trigger an intense emotion, sometimes even an unpleasant one. By tying data to images, the process of memory retrieval comes more easily.
3. Learn in Bite-Sized Chunks
It is common sense that it’s easier to remember things when they’re broken down into smaller, more manageable sections. This rule applies to all kinds of information, from phone numbers to lists of vocabulary or grammar rules.
A sequence of numbers, for example, can get broken down into sets of four, which could then be attached to images. By combining the numbers with the images, you create an association between the two, and this helps your memory retention.
4. Clench Your Fists
Research has shown that clenching your fists has a stimulatory effect on your frontal lobe, making it easier to memorize and recall information.
Clenching your right fist increases the activity in the left hemisphere of your frontal lobe while clenching the left has a similar effect on the right hemisphere.
5. Use Your Nose
Many people have experienced the jolt of remembrance that occurs when they cross paths with someone wearing the same perfume as a relative or other acquaintance. The ability of a scent to conjure up almost-forgotten memories is extraordinary.
Our sense of smell is one of the more powerful senses. Using this as a study hack can require a bit of creativity, but it’s guaranteed to be effective.
6. Take Smart Breaks
How to study for a test and remember everything you’ve learnt starts with how you treat your brain, and thus yourself.
It can be very easy to feel that the best way to remember what you study is to force yourself to study for hours at a time. However, while this approach may work for some, for the rest of us, it is not a reliable nor a healthy method of remembering information.
Just as a normal computer can overheat when used to excess, so too can your brain. You may be sporting a fantastic operating system with great processing power, but at some point, it’s advisable to take a break to let your system “cool down”. And not just any break, learning how to take a “smart” break is a great habit to get into if you want to learn how to remember things you study.
Drinking plenty of water, eating healthy (rather than snacking on junk food), and engaging in meditative and breathing exercises are all excellent ways to improve your overall memory recall. When learning how to study and remember, exercize, especially cardio and resistance training (i.e. weights), has been proven to be very beneficial. Exercizing has been shown to improve our memory and learning abilities because it helps create neurons in memory-related areas. It can take a bit of training (and perhaps willpower) to get into such a study rhythm. However, finding the best “smart” break method for you can have long-term benefits for your overall health and memory.
For me, setting up a healthy break routine is the best way to remember what you study.
7. Build a Memory Palace
The concept of a memory palace or mind palace first used thousands of years ago, has recently regained traction and can actually work. It’s certainly a creative and impressive skill to have when looking at how to remember things you study!
The premise is similar to that of using mental imagery to store and sort through learned information and other memories. This process is just a little more elaborate and comprehensive.
“Memory athletes”, who participate in fierce contests of mental ability, often use a memory/mind palace to make encoding and recollection easier. Using a familiar environment to store information can be extremely effective, no matter how offbeat it sounds.
A memory/mind palace can be any place that you know well, such as your house or apartment, your bedroom, or even the workplace. By walking through the space (mentally), you can place pieces of information in different locations, allowing your mind to link the two together and make recollection easier.
8. Have a Good Night’s Sleep
The all-nighter is definitely a trope that students know well, especially during the lead-up to a big exam. However, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that getting enough good quality sleep is beneficial when it comes to learning and remembering information.
What many of us don’t know, however, is that you can use sleep to strategically boost your memory. A study has shown that people who had a good sleep straight after learning a number of names and faces had better memory retention and recall than those who didn’t get some shut-eye.
The role of sleep in learning and remembering information comes into play both long-term and short-term. Busy schedules that lead to feeling chronically sleep-deprived have a negative impact on concentration, and the ability to remember information. In the short-term, it’s proven that strategic naps can improve the retention of material just learned.
9. Use Mnemonics
Mnemonic devices work by connecting the information you need to remember to another phrase, image, or other data. Using a memory that already exists as a link to newly learned information makes learning and retention easier.
One example is the mnemonic used by music students to remember the sequence of sharps and flats in different key signatures.
The sentence, “Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’ Father,” represents the order of flat notes in any given key signature. Reversed (“Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle”), the saying refers to the order of sharps in any given key signature.
10. Talk to Yourself
Although this tip sounds a bit eccentric when looking at how to study to remember, research has shown that talking out loud when learning information improves encoding and recall by up to 10%.
Studies have also suggested that speaking aloud helps cognitive engagement in a more general sense. Research participants looking at a screen could pick out a specific object faster when they said the name out loud.
The bottom line is this: Your brain remembers things when there is an association attached, and learning doesn’t have to involve committing huge volumes of text or endless facts to memory.
Knowing how to trick your brain into remembering what you’re studying may take a little practice. But in time, you’ll see the results in action. Habits are formed through repetition. Remember: Don’t break the chain!