Memory and Recall – Top Revision Tips
Mind like a sieve? Can’t get those last few facts to stick? Are you daunted by the sheer volume of information you need to learn? Do not despair. Memory, like any other cognitive skill, can be developed and strengthened. There has been a lot of research done on the most effective ways to recall information. I’m sure your teachers will have shared this information with you. But are you actually taking their advice?
Let’s clear up one important obstacle to memorising things before we start. You don’t know better than your teachers, educational psychologists or neuroscientists. If they have told you to use certain techniques that are known to work well THEN USE THEM.
Unless you happen to be one of the tiny percentage of the population who was blessed with photographic memory, you will have to adopt some strategies to encourage your brain to load up and regurgitate the facts you need to pass your exams. Just accept that and stop fighting it.
The Science of Forgetting
Memory is a three step process; information has to be encoded, stored and retrieved. The information could be about past events; we remember a favourite book or an exciting holiday. But is also future directed in that we have to remember to take our dog for a walk or to go to a doctor’s appointment.
Memorising things doesn’t take place in isolation. Your memories are placed inside a framework built from your prior knowledge and understanding. If you always take your dog for a walk after dinner every evening it becomes a habit and is harder to forget. If you rarely visit the doctor and someone else made the appointment for you it will be easier to forget. You need to encode your memories within your existing framework.
Memorising gibberish is much harder than memorising things that make sense because your brain is less able to put the nonsensical things into the wider framework of your understanding. Nonsense can’t be placed alongside similar facts and your mind will find it harder to accept it.
Memorising things for school exams is more difficult if you don’t understanding the topic because it feels like you are cramming gibberish into your head.
Hermann Ebbinghaus did a study of how well people would retain gibberish in 1885. The results are not good for anyone who thinks forces and motion is just gobbledygook. Ebbinghaus memorised different made up words such as “WID”, “ZOF and “KAF”. He tested himself over and over again after longer and longer times had passed to see how much he could remember. Being a scientist, he plotted the results in a graph, which is now referred to as Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve.
It’s an exponential decay curve. You can recall 100% of gibberish immediately after cramming it, but then the amount you remember drops very rapidly. If you revise a subject you don’t understand well the night before an exam, only about 30% will still be in your head at 9AM the following morning.
We need to find a way to beat this dramatic drop in fact retention. Fortunately scientists nowadays have a much better understanding of how to do this than they did in 1885. It is all to do with remodelling neurons and synapses. The stronger the synaptic links the easier it is to store and retrieve information. It all boils down to encoding memories in your neurons.
The Science of Memory
Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York shared the 2000 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work on how memories are made in the brain. Prof. Kandel has shown that short-term memories, like cramming for an exam when you aren’t sure of the facts, involve relatively quick and simple chemical changes in the brain. These changes occur at the synapse which are the nodes that link neurons together. These simple chemical changes don’t last long, they are a bit like a plastic cup, use it once then throw it away.
Fortunately Prof. Kandel also found out how to build a memory that lasts much longer. For this to occur the whole structure around the synapses have to change to be more efficient. New proteins have to be made and neurotransmitters must work more efficiently to connect the small groups of neurons involved in making a particular memory.
The more often a particular bundle of neurons is triggered, the more efficiently they communicate with each other and therefore the easier it is to recall something. Repeated use of a neutron bundle will lead to the remodelling that is necessary for long term memories. Once the remodelling has occurred the change is pretty much permanent, or consolidated in psychology-speak.
How to Stay Ahead of the Forgetting Curve
By putting these bits of information together and you can see how we beat the drastic drop in recall from cramming facts into our heads. You need four crucial things; time (you cannot do this overnight), understanding (you remember things which fit into a sensible framework), repetition (the more often a bundle of neurons is activated, the greater priority your brain gives to remodelling it) and sufficient stimulation (the variety of ways in which a group of neurons is activated will also encourage remodelling into a more efficient and long-term structure). Your brain adapts to the specific demand you place on it by strengthening certain synaptic links. Its like the SAID principle in sports training.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
At first glance this seems to be a great thing! But then you realise its not just the components of a circuit you have to remember, but all the energy stores, the parts of an atom, the life cycle of a star, and then there’s biology, chemistry, French, maths…It’s not too long before you realise topping up alone will take up every hour of the day unless something else kicks in to help. Something else does, you can relax.
The amount you can remember steadily increases and holds at a higher position. You are not Dory from Finding Nemo, you don’t go back to zero each time. The rate at which you forget the facts gradually slows down as your brain starts to expend energy remodelling these neurons. You are using them a lot so your brain figures they must be important.
Look at that green line! By topping up your knowledge at regular intervals you can keep the amount of data remembered at an impressively high level. This means revision starts the second your lesson finishes and is a process which should be on going throughout the year. If you haven’t looked back over your notes since you wrote them you are going to need a month to six weeks before your exam to get retention up to >80%. Did anyone say revision plan? That’s what they are for.
You cannot recall things which make no sense to you, your brain is very reluctant to waste energy trying to fit nonsense into your head. Understanding the material you are trying to memorise is the cornerstone of your revision, it must come first. This is VITAL. You cannot correctly encode a memory from a poorly understood concept.
How do you improve your understanding? Firstly identify what it is you don’t get. Is it how the wire conducts electricity, you don’t get the concept of current? What the heck is potential difference? No idea how to carry the amount of gravitational potential energy from a fall over to a calculation of kinetic energy? Using your specification will help you identify your weaker areas of understanding.
Now see if you can solve this problem by reading through a textbook or reliable science webpage. Often reading about the same topic from several different directions can make something click. You need to find the explanation that sits most comfortably within the framework of your brain and what you need to do that may be different to your friend or different to your teacher’s style.
Try asking another teacher within the science department, they may have a way of explaining it which makes sense. Try asking an older student or relative who has done this subject at a higher level. Hire a tutor, maybe just for one or two sessions to work through problematic topics. Watch videos on You Tube of animations or demonstration of the science bits you don’t understand yet. All these resources are available to you to track down a suitable explanation. You do have to do the leg work though because it will not be delivered to you on a silver plate.
This is pretty self explanatory, you have to revise each topic more than once. As little as 10 minutes a day is sufficient to start the remodelling process. Working too long on one thing will actually tire you out and stop your brain working efficiently. Take lots of breaks, maybe every 20 minutes, and chunk things up into pieces. Once you have spent a week revising 10 minutes a day you can start to leave longer intervals between revision periods on this particular topic. Revision timetables or plans allow you to divide your course content over a sensible timescale (a few months) and ensure you can cover all the material you need.
This is the final important stage to memorising effectively. It is easy to do this well but frequently ignored by students who believe they have found the one and only method which works for them and refuse to ever try anything else. That is silly. Even if you aren’t a “diagram” person, your brain will pay way more attention to a subject you have tried to draw a diagram of BECAUSE you don’t normally do that.
The path of least resistance in studying is the path of least progress. Remember that!
Multisensory learning is most effective. This means you have to stimulate several senses and try various modes of retaining information to get the brain to wake up and take notice. Read, highlight, annotate and then transform into something else. A picture, comic strip, timeline, diagram, mind-map, memory prompt card, summary table, story, recording on a dictaphone perhaps even deliver a presentation to your bemused cat. Try 3-4 different ways to encode facts you are struggling with. Link things together. I remembered the key code to get into a secured door by realising it was in the form of a date and looking up to see what happened on that day in history. It was a famous historic battle. I never forgot the door code after that.
- Write lyrics to a song you know that summarise the key facts.
- Revise to the sound of a song you like and only use that song when revising that topic, then hum the song (quietly) in the exam room. You will remember more.
- Recite things out loud to a rhythm: “kinetic energy is half mass times speed squared” ki-ne-tic (pause) en-er-gy (pause) is half-mass-times-speed-squared.
- Read your prompt cards out loud.
- Get someone to quiz you and answer verbally.
- Pinterest a topic.
- Create a mood-board to summarise something including drawing or printing out images that fit and sticking them on.
- Build up a mind map using colour codes for specific topics.
- Make charts and posters and pin them up in your living space.
- Use little cartoon images on prompt cards or notes.
- Use colour when writing your notes to highlight, underline or write out specific things. All definition can be blue, all equations red etc.
- use hand movements to shape out what you are revising. A clenched fist for a nucleus, the other hand pointing to knuckles as protons and neutrons.
- Walk around as you read or recite your notes.
- Writing is an action, moving your hand across the page encodes movement memories.
- Use plasticine to build little models, while you recall collisions and transfer of momentum for example.
- Try acting out experiments or demonstrations from your course.
- Check out Dance Your PhD to see how far you can take designing your own movements to go with a topic.
For more information on memorising techniques you can look up the following articles. Now go forth and revise.
Ed Cooke is a memory competition winner and has written several articles in The Telegraph about how to develop memory techniques.
Several universities have revision guides online to aid students
Some articles from the Times Educational Supplement and Guardian on revision
Teaching Resources on Revision – mostly free