18 Master Your Memory

As you identify the content you are working to learn, you will often discover things that you will need to commit to memory. What strategies will help you to remember important information effectively so that you can recall it on tests, apply it to subsequent courses, and use it throughout your life and career?

Mastering Memory: Encode, store, retrieve
Image Credit: Vijaya Jammi

What is memory?  Memory is the ability to remember past experiences and is a record of the learning process. The human brain has the ability, known as neuroplasticity, that allows it to form new neural pathways, alter existing connections, and adapt and react in ever-changing ways as we learn. Information must go into our long term memory and then, to retrieve it from our memory, we must have a way of getting it back.

Long-term memory stores all the significant events that mark our lives; it lets us retain the meanings of words and the physical skills that we have learned. There are three steps involved in establishing a long term memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval.

1) To encode, you assign meaning to the information.

2) To store information, you review it and its meanings (study), as repetition is essential to remembering.

3) To retrieve it, you follow the path you created through encoding. This may include a number of memory triggers that you used when you were encoding.

What strategies help store information in long term memory? Mnemonics (the initial “m” is silent) are strategies to associate the information we want to remember with a physical sense to turn it into something that’s much more likely to stick in your mind and be able to be brought back to your consciousness when you want it. The key idea is that by coding information using vivid mental images, you can reliably code both information and the structure of information. And because the images are vivid, they are easy to recall when you need them.

  • Use positive, pleasant images. Your brain often blocks out unpleasant ones.
  • Use vivid, colorful, sense-laden images – these are easier to remember than drab ones.
  • Use all your senses to code information or dress up an image by using sounds, smells, tastes, touch, movements and feelings as well as pictures.
  • Give your image three dimensions, movement and space to make it more vivid.
  • Exaggerate the size of important parts of the image.
  • Use humour! Funny or peculiar things are easier to remember than normal ones.
  • Similarly, rude rhymes are very difficult to forget!
  • Symbols (red traffic lights, pointing fingers, signs, etc.) can code quite complex messages.
Type Sample Method
Acronyms Every discipline has its own language and acronyms are the abbreviations. Acronyms can be used to remember words in sequence or a group of words representing things or concepts. CAD can mean: Control Alt Delete, Canadian Dollar, Computer Aided Design, Coronary Artery Disease, Canadian Association of the Deaf, Crank Angle Degree, etc.
Acrostics Acrostics are phrases where the first letter of each word represents another word. They are relatively easy to make and can be very useful for remembering groups of words. For example: King Philip Can Only Find His Green Slippers. This is the classification system of: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.
Chunking You can capitalize on your short term memory by “chunking” information. If you need to remember this number: 178206781. The task would exhaust your seven units of storage space unless you “chunk” the digits into groups. In this case, you could divide it into three chunks, like a social insurance number: 178 206 781. By chunking the information and repeating it you can stretch the capacity of your short term memory.
Images This helps us remember by linking words to meanings through associations based on how a word sounds and creating imagery for specific words. This sort of visualization was found to be more effective when one listened to a someone reading a text than when they read the text themselves
Locations and Journeys Traditionally known as the Method of Loci, we associate each word from a list or grouping with a location. Imagine a place with which you are familiar, such as, the rooms in your house. These become the objects of information you need to memorize. Another example is to use the route to your work or school, with landmarks along the way becoming the information you need to memorize. When you do this in order of your journey through the imagined space, it makes it easier to retrieve all of the information in the future.
Maps & Diagrams Graphic organizers help us remember by connecting new information to our existing knowledge and to let us see how concepts relate to each other and fit in to a context. Mind and concept maps, Cause and Effect, Fishbone, Cycle, Flow Chart, Ladders, Story Board, Compare and Contrast, Venn Diagrams, and more.
Reciting Saying something out loud activates more areas of our brain and helps to connect information to other activities.
Rhymes Rhyme, rhythm, repetition, and melody make use of our brain’s ability to encode audio information and use patterns to aid memory. They help recall by limiting the possible options to those items that fit the pattern you have created.
Summarizing This traditional element of note taking is a way to physically encode materials which make it easier for our brain to store and retrieve. I can be said that if we cannot summarize, then we have not learned…yet.

References: [1] [2] [3]

Try It:

Select one course where memorizing key concepts is a part of your exam preparation. Choose at least one new strategy from the chart above this week.  Monitor — is this strategy effective for what you are trying to learn?  A good way to monitor is to see if you can recall the information accurately without looking at a text or notes.

  1. Dubuc, B. (2002). Memory and learning. Retrieved  from http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/a/a_07/a_07_p/a_07_p_tra/a_07_p_tra.html
  2. MindTools Content Team. (n.d.). Introduction to memory techniques. Retrieved from https://www.mindtools.com/memory.html
  3. Whitehead, J., Fraenkel, C., Yu, E., & Van Der Mark, A. (2017, February 1). Memory. Retrieved  from http://etec.ctlt.ubc.ca/510wiki/index.php?title=Memory&oldid=63689


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