6 Memory Hacks for Exams
Studying is the single most control we have over our exam results.
But what happens when we put in the blood, sweat and tears for hours on end – only to forget vital information in the exam?
This problem is as frustrating as it is common.
If you find yourself putting in the work for hours on end only to forget what you’ve learned as soon as you close the book – you’re probably using shallow learning techniques – which explains why the information leaves your head so quickly.
So, the problem isn’t the difficulty of the information. It’s the way you’re studying it.
Luckily for you, we’ve compiled our educational wisdom to give you 6 memory hacks to ensure you remember everything you’ve learned this study leave.
By employing these strategies, and understanding the fundamentals of recall, you’ll never have to experience the panic of forgetting that crucial Great Gatsby quote ever again.
#1. Chunk your concepts.
The biggest mistake students make when studying is trying to learn too much content in one session.
Your working memory can only register so much information before overloading – there is simply not enough “cognitive room” for you to learn an entire concept in a short amount of time.
Think of your brain like a computer. When you open too many tabs and applications, the hard drive starts to overwork itself, and makes the computer functioning painfully slow.
One way to avoid cognitive overload – and thus memory loss during the exam – is to break down a complex concept into smaller, bite-sized “chunks”.
- Use distributed practice – instead of studying in massive ten-hour hauls, do lots of little, separate study sessions.
- Dedicate isolated time to spend learning each chunk before moving on to the next one, until you have a good grasp of each “chunk” that makes up the overall concept.
- Mix up the concepts you study across the sessions. Giving your brain a break from information lets you practice in a “rehearsal style” rather than having to consolidate an ongoing flow of information.
- This will not only improve your memory when it comes to exams, but also your ability to wrap your head around the more difficult Merit and Excellence components of a questions, because you’re allowing your cognitive room to grow organically!
#2. Study in Different Locations.
How many times have you listened to an old song or smelled a specific scent, and were immediately transported back to a completely different time and space in your life?
This is an example of context-dependent memory, or the encoding specificity principle. The general idea is that retrieving a memory is much easier to do when done in the context you produced that memory in.
So, fabricating or reproducing a part of the context (like a song or a smell) can help you retrieve that memory faster.
One way to counter this is to study in as many different contexts as possible, negating the effects of context-dependent memory.
- Not only will you register things more powerfully in a new location, but studying in new contexts often rejuvenates the mind, and makes you feel more productive.
- Study wherever possible – on the bus; at a cafe; at the library; at your girlfriend’s netball match; anywhere! Give yourself a quick five-minute test in random situations.
- Your brain is far more likely to remember a concept if you’re engaging with it in memorable settings – you might even find yourself inspired to study by seeking out cool little study spots day-to-day.
#3. Test yourself.
The difference between recall and recognition is that the first requires a deep understanding of the concept, whereas the latter is simply being able to identify something.
Recognition is usually dependent on stimuli – and this is pretty useless come exam day, when your only stimuli is a ticking clock on the classroom wall.
For example, I’m sure most of you would be able to identify what a 50c coin was if I gave you one – even without the number. But if I asked you to draw a 50c coin right now, both sides, from memory alone, I bet you’d have a much harder time.
The best way to ensure recall over recognition is to test yourself! Testing yourself not only gives you a better objective idea of what you know and what you don’t, but also helps you to register information more powerfully.
- For your external standard, download one of the past exams from StudyTime or the NZQA website.
- Complete the exam under exam conditions, mark yourself, and then study the parts that you got wrong until you’re confident enough to try again. Repeat.
- To learn a concept, make a list of questions about the concept, that an examiner or a teacher might ask you to demonstrate your knowledge. Try to answer them without looking at your notes.
- Quiz yourself on Quizlet.
- Make Flashcards.
#4. Use Mnemonics.
Mnemonics is just a fancy way of saying be creative and silly with your learning. There’s a common myth with studying that if it doesn’t feel boring, it’s not real study. The opposite is true. In fact, the sillier the better.
A mnemonic device is just translating information into an alternative form that’s easier to remember. How you do that? It’s pretty much up to you.
A start would be to write out your notes in your own words, or try to explain the concept to yourself in the easiest, most understandable way possible. Don’t worry about sounding dumb or rambling on for too long – the only person they need to make sense to is you.
- Make up a story that incorporates your material into the narrative in innovative ways.
- Take the first letters of a string of information you want to remember, and then use that to create a more memorable phrase. E.g: how North, South, East, West is remembered as Never Eat Soggy Weetbix.
- Make up a rhyme or song about your concept and memorise it. Use the tune of a song you already know.
- Chunk information into Acronyms.
#5. Talk out loud.
This is one of the best recall hacks ever. Talking aloud to yourself might require a bit of privacy (or not, you do you), but it’s worth the effort.
Talking aloud forces your brain to engage with the information it’s translating. You have to consolidate it into something that makes sense, and even hearing your own voice talking about something can serve as a form of rehearsal.
Actors don’t memorise their lines by simply reading and highlighting them. They talk aloud with other actors, and eventually, their lines become second nature.
- Make up a speech about your concept that summarises all of the key concepts you need to know. Recite the speech until you’ve memorised it.
- Write a list of questions about your material, and try to answer them in full aloud. Be conversational, act as though you’re teaching the concept to someone who has never encountered it before.
- Ask a friend or family member to help test you. Have a back and forth conversation about the concept, and ask them to prompt you with questions. Where you can’t answer, study and repeat.
#6. Mind Maps, Mind Maps, Mind Maps.
Contrary to popular belief, mind-maps aren’t entirely useless. Even though they sometimes seem like elaborate ways for students to show off their expensive array of glittery stationery and immaculate calligraphy – they’re actually awesome for your memory when used correctly.
This is because mind-maps create connections between your material, allowing your brain to use preexisting thought pathways to retrieve information, instead of having to develop new ones. It’s pretty much a shortcut for your mind.
- First, create a summary sheet of all your information (just a standard document containing all your notes). Then get a big piece of blank paper, some coloured pens, and get started.
- Put your main concept or idea at the center of the page.
- Create branches off this main point, and write key-words along the branches that connect to your main idea. Try to stick to one key-word per branch.
- Colour code your branches by category or theme. Colour coding helps to join the visual and the logical, creating more mental shortcuts for your brain.
- Draw little doodles, illustrations or diagrams where the information is particularly boring or tricky to remember.
For more mind mapping inspiration, click here.