Everyone who has ever taken an exam is familiar with that sinking feeling: the total blank triggered by a question you don’t know the answer to. 

Struggling to remember study material is a common problem faced by people all over the world. Trying to memorize information by reading and rereading textbooks, however, 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.

How does your memory work?  

The process of making memories consists of three steps: 

    1. Encoding
    2. Storage 
    3. Retrieval

We can split these 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 to help memory retention

Tricks for Learning and Remembering

Students need to learn and recall information on a regular basis, especially around exam times. Many, unfortunately, have difficulty memorizing and recalling information, which can lead to negative effects such as frustration and low self-esteem. Knowing how to take smart-notes is thus a good technique to practice.

While learning and relearning information works up to a point, there are a number of other life hacks that can make the process a little easier. 

We’ve put together a short guide with some examples that can help you make the most of your brain’s abilities. 

1. Use your mind’s eye

Most people have a “mind’s eye”. In other words, the ability to imagine pictures and visuals in general. 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 emotion. 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. 

2. 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 with 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.

clench fists to help memory retention

3. 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.

4. Use your nose

Many people have experienced the jolt of remembrance that occurs when we cross paths with someone wearing the same perfume of 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. 

5. 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! 

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. 

sleep is good for memory rention

6. Have a good night’s sleep

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 ability to remember information. In the short-term, it’s proven that strategic naps can improve the retention of material just learned. 

7. 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. 

8. Talk to yourself

Although this tip sounds a bit eccentric, 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!


Image credits from Gabrielle Henderson,  Fadilah N. I., Lux Graves via Unsplash.

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