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Make Your Study Time More Effective with Memory Skills

To succeed on quizzes, tests and finals you generally need to commit a lot of material to memory. The better you get at memorizing formulas, biological diagrams, foreign language vocabulary, and historical events, the easier it will become for you to succeed in school. While some students manage to commit required material to memory with relative ease, others struggle greatly, and they pay a price. I’ve worked with students who spent hours and hours memorizing material for an assessment, cutting into their personal time, their study time for other classes, and even their sleep. 

Many of the students who struggle in this way are using flawed strategies to learn and memorize material; this makes their lives much harder and their study time much less efficient. If you understand how memory works, you can learn a few simple skills that will greatly improve your studying efforts and, most importantly, give you time back for the things you like to do when you’re not studying.

The brain was designed to forget

One of keys to memorization and learning is to understand some fundamentals regarding how the brain works, how memories are made and consolidated and transferred into long-term memory. To begin, the brain was designed to forget and ignore most stimuli. Our senses are constantly bombarded with signals, most of which we need to discard in order to function. If you want to retain something, you need to let the brain know that it is important, worth keeping. You achieve this through reinforcement.

More rounds of reinforcement beat longer study sessions

Every round of reinforcement — remembering and retrieving information — helps cement the content, strengthening the neural connections and embedding it deeper into your long-term memory. We need many discrete rounds of reinforcement to anchor material deeply into memory. 

Cramming is a wildly ineffective strategy for getting material to stick in our long-term memory. The brain needs to see something, and then see it again, and then see it again to ensure the brain “understands” how important this material is. As the neurons keep firing together, they wire more closely together, forming a more durable memory.

Celebrated memory researcher, Herman Ebbinghaus, gave us the forgetting curve back in the 1880s. He studied the natural decay of memory and learned that the more frequently you reinforce material, the longer it remains in your memory. This classic research has very practical implications for you today: it’s ideal to review material the day after you first learn it and ideally a few more times after that to signal to your brain that this content is important. Every round of reinforcement makes the neural connections stronger. 

So, if you have a quiz or test coming up, start thinking about how you can schedule several short review sessions between then and now, instead of just reviewing everything at once the night before. It’s a far less painful and much more effective way to study.

Deeper processing trumps shallow processing

We also know that the kind of review, the type of processing that you do, really matters for the encoding of material into memory. We know that more passive forms of learning are the least effective. For example, If you are just re-reading a passage or repeating key concepts to yourself (“phonological repetition”) it will take a very long time to successfully encode that material into a lasting memory. 

If you want to bind something to memory, you need to interact with the material in a more meaningful way, typically involving generating, creating, integrating, or self-testing. 

Break things down into memorizable chunks

One of the easiest ways to more meaningfully engage with and process content is to break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Memorizing 50 words in a list is much more challenging for the mind than memorizing 10 lists of 5 words. Chunking information down to bite-size segments is a great way to achieve mastery over a larger body of material. 

Make connections and use narratives

While breaking things down is powerful, so is the process of rebuilding and reconnecting things in a way that makes sense for you. Loose bits of information have a harder time embedding into the network of the brain, while bits of information that are connected, bound, and chained to each other will have a better time encoding. 

For example, whenever you can tie information together in a narrative form — a story — that will be much stickier in the brain than decontextualized bits of information. Over eons, our brains developed to pay special attention to stories. If you can connect material to other learned material, make lists, draw diagrams, create visual guides and maps, and actively work with the content, you will have a better chance of embedding it into long-term memory. 

Self-testing is gold

Forced retrieval practice — pulling material from memory, unaided — is one of the most efficient ways to commit things to long-term memory. Every time you forcibly retrieve information from memory, you strengthen the synaptic connections between neurons and make it more likely those same neurons will fire in the same pattern in the future. Testing yourself literally changes your brain. 

You can test yourself by answering questions at the end of a chapter, or taking a quizlet online, or using flashcards or divided notes, or explaining to a friend or even the wall! Forced recall and retrieval practice are powerful ways to retain information longer-term and shift the forgetting curve.

Learn in different physical contexts

When you change physical venues and learn something in different places, the shifting visual cues will lay down slightly different memories. If you review the same material in your room, in the library, and in your study hall, the brain will pick up the cue that this material matters in a variety of spaces and will embed that material more deeply into memory. 

However, it is important that you are able to adequately focus in each of the spaces. Sensory overstimulation can interfere with learning by forcing your brain to inhibit distracting stimuli, which shifts too many resources away from the cognitive task at hand.

More beginnings and endings 

Our brains can handle limited amounts of similar information in a fixed period of time. The interference theory of learning tells us that staying too long on the same learning track will lead to some information competing with and “squeezing out” other information. Interference builds up the longer we stay on the same topic. When we switch topics, there will be less interference. 

So, it’s important to mix up your review. Take breaks and change it up by studying for different classes in different sequences. Have more beginnings and endings of your study sessions and fewer epic study sessions. Again, the name of the game is more, not longer, sessions. 

Sleep is memory’s best friend: Get your rest!

Memory consolidation depends upon sleep. If you want to interfere with long-term memory formation, disrupt someone’s sleep schedule. 

Every night, the hippocampus reboots and replays specific memories — the patterns of neural activation experienced during the day — in a highly compressed manner during slow-wave sleep. This rapid firing of the neural pathways helps the neocortex update and store these memories. During the REM cycle, the transformed/updated/organized memories are stabilized and consolidated. 

In short, sleep is essential to memory consolidation and storage. Students who want to encode material into long-term memory would be wise to attend closely to their sleep hygiene, the regularity of their sleeping patterns, sleep quality, and duration.

These are strategies that any student can learn to master. The key is being willing to try a new approach and work on it until it becomes a habit. Change isn’t easy but the effort involved in making these smart memory tactics part of your study routine will pay off in better grades and more time for yourself. If you’re looking for additional support to identify and learn strategies that work for you, our Executive Function Coaches are here to help.

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or