Techniques to Improve Memory

To remember more means being more knowledgeable and spending less time re-learning things. The goal is to learn for good. It’s certainly a worthy goal, but how can we even start to accomplish it?

To “remember more” is a vague goal because remembering can only happen in context. Each situation is different. When you try to remember more, there are a number of different such situations that you might be interested in. In this post, I’m focusing on improving the amount of information retained during studying. This can help to improve the effectiveness of the initial task, but you’ll still want to develop a perfect practice schedule in order to truly master your subject.

Memorization is different than studying, learning, or practice. Unlike with these other subjects, memorization does not concern itself so much with “understanding.” The definition of memorization is simply to “commit to heart.”

This means that memorization is just being able to call up a specific fact in a specific situation. The biggest problem is that it’s hard to transfer this knowledge. In other words, just because you’ve memorized something in flashcards does not mean that you can use it in the “real world.” You’re conditioned to simply respond to a specific stimulus (like a flashcard) with a response, but that conditioning might not apply when you need to use the information. Foreign language students, for example, frequently find that they know all their flashcards but cannot use the words in conversation. So the biggest mistake most students make is to not use the material in other contexts. This is why using variation is so important!

Let’s start by taking a look at one of the most common concerns for students: failing tests.

Why We Fail Tests

Many of us have had the terrible experience of failing a test even when we thought we were prepared. It might feels like our brains betrayed us, or that the test was rigged in some way. Unfortunately, today’s educational culture sets up an adversarial relationship between student and teacher/test.

The main reason we fail tests is that comfortable studying leads to a false sense of mastery. When you do not vary your practice and rely too much on re-reading the same material is presented in the same way. It feels familiar, and that familiarity tricks you into thinking that you understand something. This is why discomfort is a hallmark of deliberate practice and the frustrating act of pretesting has proven to be so effective in improving learning. Each time you test yourself, you force yourself to recall the information.

In fact, testing yourself is not just a good idea, but essential to learning…

How Forgetting Works

One of the first things educational researchers were interested in understanding is the process of forgetting. The idea of a “forgetting curve” is one of the oldest and most well-established topics in the field.

Perhaps the most significant finding of this research is that forgetting is halted by well-timed attempts to remember something. If you try to remember something too late, you’ve already forgotten it… but if you try to remember it too soon, it’s still easily available and you’re not actively reconstructing it. When a memory is just old enough, trying to recall it actually requires an act of reconstruction. It is this act which strengthens memory the most.

This is why a good practice schedule can actually be more effective while taking less time than practicing all-day, every-day. Improving recall is more about using the information than it is about repeating it. Which is precisely why so many people do not remember much when they read books…

Remember More When Reading Books

Reading books is one common case where you might want to remember more. It’s frustrating to know that you read something somewhere, but have no idea what or where. The problem with remembering more when reading books is the fact that reading is generally such a passive activity. It’s possible to read entire pages and suddenly realize that you haven’t actually even processed a single bit of information.

Not all reading is made equal. If you want to remember more when reading books, you’ll need to engage in some form of active reading. Instead of being a passive consumer of information you must become a participant in the information. That’s why I put together these three simple tricks to become an active reader and remember more from books.

Rest and Recovery

Frequently, when I’m assisting students to improve their study techniques, they tell me about how long and how hard they are studying. Aside from the fact that long study sessions are ineffective, I soon discover that they’ve sacrificed sleep and sanity to try to improve. Not only is this harmful to the body, but more often than not it’s actually hurting their ability to learn.

Rest and recovery play a vital role in remembering more information. It is during sleep that our brains actually consolidate knowledge for long-term retrieval. There’s been plenty of research done, and the results are conclusive: if you’re skipping rest, your brain isn’t able to “save” the memories. Using rest and recovery correctly will drastically improve the amount you remember, yet reduce the time you spend practicing. Read on to learn more…

Memorization Techniques

  • A Memory Palace is an ancient learning technique still used by the best memorizers today in professional “memory competitions” around the world.
  • Flashcards can work, but only if you avoid the 3 common mistakes of most students.
  • Taking Notes can actually be used for memorization; learn how.
  • Deliberate practice can be used, even with memorization.
  • Spaced Repetition is a key concept in memorization; read about it!
  • Educational Games can frequently help memorization. Check out my review of Memrise or all educational games.
  • A free video course on memorization was created by friend of the site Kyle, whose memorization videos are currently the top resources on YouTube. Check it out! Here’s the first video in the series:

Most importantly, all of these techniques only work if you also adhere to a good practice schedule.

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