Tips on how to make your memory work during exams

You are sitting in front of your examination question paper and all you can hear around you is the frantic scribbling of pens and the ticking of the clock. You worked very hard for the test, you even ‘put a night out' for it. And yet you cannot recall the correct formula to solve the problem. You remember studying it and making efforts to remember it but your mind just seems to go blank every time you try to recall it. This is a scenario almost all of us have been through. Why does our memory fail us sometimes and, more importantly, how can we ensure that our memory is trustworthy for that important test? While the first question goes to the realms of scientific research, a few simple techniques can ensure that your memory works extra hard in making you look great.

Tests and feedback

The first step in ensuring that your memory works is to check if it is really working. There is no better way of doing this than constant checks, tests and feedback. With the help of the feedback, you can identify problem areas and gain confidence from areas of strength. Recitation, quick tests, quizzes are great ways of getting feedback about your learning progress.

Recitation

There is a reason why all of us still remember the nursery rhymes we learnt years ago. Recitation is an excellent way of ensuring that you remember what you learnt for a long time. It consists of summarising aloud whatever you learnt. Since the purpose of learning something is to retrieve the information later, recitation helps you practice this. So, while reading anything new, you should ideally stop periodically to summarise aloud what you have learnt so far. This is the principle behind learning by rote or ‘learning by heart' where constantly repeating aloud your learning material will ensure that you remember it.

Building a structure

You should ideally think of remembering any information as a form of building a structure. The structure is only going to stand when everything is properly connected. When you are learning, you should ideally try to connect the new material to facts and information you already know. Thinking about connections to existing knowledge will ensure that you process the information at a deep level while connecting it to the existing database will solidify the new facts in your memory.

Selection

When most of us are enthusiastically studying new chapters, we tend to underline important sections. More often than not, you will find that about 80 per cent of the lines on the page are underlined. If you are underlining too much, you are not being selective. And if you are not being selective, you are probably not going to remember the important parts. While reading new material, you should look for one or two key ideas per paragraph. You could underline these aspects or make notes on the margin to highlight them. This will ensure that your recall of the material is better.

Organisation

Try memorising this random list of letters: F,S,B,U,E,B,S,A,I,I. Now consider the same list of letters: F,B,I; S,E,B,I;U,S,A. Is the second list easier to remember? Organising information helps in improving memory and recall significantly. You should summarise your class chapters and make a note of the key ideas of the chapter and how they are interconnected. Drawing diagrams, flowcharts and graphs are excellent instances of organising information.

Break it down

When you are confronted by a large section of information (like, say, a new chapter) you should ideally break it into small parts and study each individually. You should aim at studying the largest meaningful chunk of information you can at a time. As you read new material you should connect it to the older material you just learnt.

If you have information you have broken down into sections A, B, C, you should ideally study section A first. After you have mastered it, study section A and B; once that is mastered move on to studying sections A, B and C. This way you are learning new material while connecting it to information you already know.

Over-learning and revision

After school, very few of us have stuck to the concept of revision. Most of us are usually learning new material on the day of the exam, at least in the case of class tests. However, revision plays an important role in making sure that the information you learnt is indelibly etched in your memory. When you revise, you over-learn, thus guaranteeing that the facts are easily available for recall. Ideally you should revise daily whatever you learnt the previous day and revise weekly what you learnt the previous week and so on.

Taking breaks

One of the most common assumptions about learning is that the time you spend studying quantifies the amount you learnt and retained. The actual truth is the number of breaks you take while studying decides how much information you retain. It is better to split a one-hour study session into three sessions of 20 minutes each than to study continuously for an hour.

You could take a five-minute break between each session where you do not indulge in distracting activities like watching TV, talking on the phone or checking your e-mail. Ideally you should stretch your legs while you think about the information you just learnt in order to ensure that it is encoded in your memory better.

Eating and sleeping

Although we have been told that we need to eat and sleep properly for a test since the time we first started taking tests in first standard, we tend to forget this simple truth. People who are hungry or poorly rested tend to have relatively poorer recollection, so it is important to eat and sleep well before your exam.

During your preparation, it is important to sleep at least seven hours a day in order to ensure that you are retaining all that you study properly.