BEST Memorisation Techniques For Exams: The Secret Science Of How To Remember What You Study
The Cambridge-educated memory psychologist & study coach on a mission to help YOU ace your exams. Helping half a million students in 175+ countries every year to study smarter, not harder. Supercharge your studies today with our time-saving, grade-boosting “genius” study tips sheet.
Pretty recently – the last decade or so – scientists have reached broad agreement that there is one memorisation technique for exams and tests that, above all others, will solve the age-old question of how to remember what you study.
Before I tell you what the technique is, I was shocked to learn that as few as 7% of college-level students (and possibly even fewer students at high school) say they are using this technique as their main revision strategy.
It seems counter-intuitive at first that trying to remember something helps you to learn it, but you’ll be astonished at how powerful this strategy can be for getting information locked away in memory, ready for when you need it.
What is “retrieval practice” and how can it help you to remember what you study?
When psychologists talk about “retrieving” something from memory, they mean recalling it, or remembering it. So “retrieval practice” just means practising remembering a piece of information you previously read, heard or saw.
A common misunderstanding – one I held myself for many years when studying for exams in high school – is that testing yourself on what you know only serves to “check” how much you know at that point, i.e. it won’t help you actually learn information.
A gigantic review of hundreds of studies testing how well various memorisation techniques prepared students for exams or tests concluded that, above all other techniques, retrieval practice (or “practice testing” as the review called it) was the most powerful.
I highly recommend you take a look at a guest post I’ve written for my friends at Titanium Tutors, where I explain a fascinating experiment that beautifully demonstrates how our intuitions often lead to us making bad decisions about how to revise – and what we can do about it.
Preparing For Success: Plan & Prioritise
1. How To Plan Your Studying: Have A Map
Once you’ve made your “map”, do a quick time budget for it. E.g. if there are 11 chapters to study, and you’ve got 25 days before the test, that’s 1 chapter every 2 days, with a couple of days in hand.
2. Look Ahead: Prepare For Success
Then when you go back and revise the topic, you’ll have a much deeper sense of what you need to know and why, and how you’ll end up applying it in the exam. That will help the topic “go in” much better – a bit like a farmer ploughing his field before sowing crops.
Perhaps some past student projects are available in the library, or your tutors have made some model essays available. The more you understand about what the assessors want to see, the easier it will be for you to deliver.
3. The Power Of No
(Though see also #37 about “having fun”. I’m a huge believer in scheduling some much-needed down-time each week, even if you’re working really hard – perhaps especially if you’re working really hard!)
4. Study Effectively With The Perfect Study Routine
Your study routine is quite a personal thing, so I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all template timetable that works for everyone. But if you don’t have a regular routine, take some time now to sketch out what an ideal study day might look like.
- When are your energy levels naturally highest? Do you do your best work in the first half of the morning? Just before lunch? Late afternoon? Schedule study blocks to take advantage of this “biological prime time” (as NY Times bestselling author and past Exam Study Expert guest Chris Bailey calls it)
- Can you add in some regular spaced retrieval practice (see #12 / #13) – e.g. testing yourself on new material from the day first thing in the morning and last thing at night?
- Leave time for YOU: if you’re ambitious, it’s tempting to cram as much work into each day as possible.
- Start sure: if you’re new to your study routine, don’t aim for gold on Day 1. Set your sights conservatively, with a routine you know you can absolutely stick to even on low energy / low motivation days. If you feel you can do more, do more. But better to exceed your expectations than set yourself up for failure and discouragement.
5. Stay Consistent
Two students want to get into Cambridge. One spends a quarter of an hour a night reading around her subject, the other doesn’t. Six months later, one has lots of interesting things to say in her interview, the other doesn’t.
You’re probably getting my point by now, but one final example: two students are ambitious for exam success. One spends ten minutes a night memory journaling, the other doesn’t. Come the end of the year, one has a decent memory for lots of the course, and goes on to do really well in the exams.
Getting Productive: Building Superhuman Focus
6. One Thing At A Time: “Monotasking”
Even if you’re making an effort to ignore the ting or buzz every time someone messages you on Snapchat, WhatsApp or whatever, you’ll need an iron will to stop your mind wandering off to wonder what’s going on social media today.
7. Managing Internal Distractions
It’s normal for other thoughts to drift into your head when you sit down to work: worrying about other subjects, ideas or plans, things you need to do. But you aren’t in the right mindset to study effectively.
Keep a notepad to hand so you can write thoughts down and get them out of your head as soon as they occur. You can then come back to them later when you have time to give them the attention they need.
8. Take Quality Study Breaks
Pausing between study sessions is one of the best ways to keep your energy and focus up over the long haul so that you can remain effective. Studying is a marathon, not a sprint!
Best practice is to avoid turning on the TV, opening a phone game, checking messages / emails or doing anything else that will break your focus. Save these activities for a longer break.
9. The Pomodoro Technique
Creator of the technique Francesco Cirillo is incredibly specific about the specifics for using this technique in practice: for the full guide to the Pomodoro technique, see here. This includes my take on which bits of Francesco’s advice you should follow, and which you can be a bit more flexible on!
10. Study Effectively With The Perfect Study Environment
- What resources do you need? This includes resources for your studies, like access to books, or somewhere comfortable to type.
- What kind of vibe? Do you want library-reading-room silence or coffee-shop buzz? The solitude of your room or the camaraderie of a study room?
- A space that improves your focus:
- A space that helps your memory: “context-dependent recall” is a very well-studied psychological effect that offers a secret study advantage to students in the know. It basically says that if you do your learning in Environment A and later have to recall in Environment B, the more similar the two environments are, the easier it will be to recall! If you’re sitting your tests in a big exam hall, can you do at least some of your studying in a space that feels a bit like an exam hall – like a big, silent, intimidating university library reading room?
- How can you make you personalise your space? Your space can give you motivation, offer you calm, and lift your spirits. See below for a few ideas!
11. Can I Listen To Music While Studying?
That partly depends on the choice of music. It’s a personal thing, but you’re more likely to be distracted by music that has lyrics, and / or is unfamiliar to you. You definitely won’t be studying effectively if you’re singing along!
The more cognitively demanding the task, the lower your threshold for being distracted by music. Music will rarely put you off your stride when folding laundry or filing. However, it might when you’re straining to get your head around a complex new calculus technique or marshal your research into an elegant multi-layered essay argument.