A majority of students struggle to remember vast quantities of information for their exams. Here are some effective strategies which can help you retain what you read.
As we traverse the scholastic ladder from Kindergarten to college, we tax our memories with an ever-increasing deluge of information. How we perform during the exam depends largely on our ability to remember facts, figures, definitions and diagrams. While rote learning involves a mechanical regurgitation of facts; answering analytical questions, solving problems or presenting a cogent argument also depends on our ability to recall specific information. How can students hone their memories so that they perform optimally in exams? Psychologists have long-studied this human faculty and, students can mine their mental libraries more effectively by following certain principles.
Foremost, memorising should never be a substitute for understanding. In fact, the more deeply you understand content, the more likely you are to remember it. When we read material in a shallow fashion — merely saying the words aloud without really processing the meaning behind them — our memory of that content is likely to fade away rather quickly. However, if we engage with the material more actively, then the imprint it leaves on our minds will be stronger. For example, in an experiment, subjects were asked to read a set of words on the screen. Half the subjects were told to check if the words contained either an A or Q, while the other half were asked to judge whether a word triggered pleasant or unpleasant thoughts. The subjects in the latter group remembered twice as many words as those in the former.
Thus, asking questions as we read, making connections with what we have learned earlier, organising information meaningfully by making tables, rephrasing content in our own words and drawing diagrams when appropriate are some of the ways by which we can interact with content more deeply, thereby increasing our chances of recalling the information. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham argues that the human mind is receptive to understanding and remembering stories; hence, we may take advantage of this proclivity to aid our memories. For content that lends itself to a story format, like a history lesson, reorganise the information using a story structure. Even science lessons, reframed as stories, are better recalled.
While delving into meaning is integral to learning, we have to sometimes memorise information by rote. For example, even after understanding the logic behind formulae, it is most efficient for us to memorise them to solve problems. Likewise, we may have to remember a list of facts like the causes leading up to a battle. Here, we can use mnemonics or memory strategies like creating anagrams, where every letter of the word stands for one fact that we have to remember. You may be creative in devising acronyms, even coining your own words. Another ancient yet popular technique used by professional mnemonists is called “Method of Loci.” Suppose, you have to remember the names of the Presidents of India in order. Imagine walking through a very familiar place like your own house. Start at the entrance and imagine placing a picture of Dr. Rajendra Prasad there. If you don’t know what he looked like, create a visual mnemonic for his name. So you can imagine placing ‘prasad’ from a temple at the entrance of your house to help trigger the name. Next, you can imagine the mythic Radha and Lord Krishna sitting in the hallway to trigger the name of Dr. Radhakrishnan. As you mentally move through the house, continue placing presidents in different locations in your mind’s eye. Then, when you have to recall the list, all you have to do is walk through your house!
How often and far apart should you review information? While individuals differ in the number of revisions they need, spaced repetition is a technique advocated by cognitive psychologists where you gradually increase the interval before reviewing information. Thus, after committing a set of formulae to memory, you may review them the next day, then after two days and then after a week. You can pace and space your studying by alternating between subjects instead of studying and reviewing the same subject at one go.
As students, we try to remember academic information so that we can do well in tests. However, research indicates that testing itself promotes recall. When students take a test, they remember the content better at a later point as opposed to those who simply restudy the material. Psychologist, Henry Roediger and colleagues, who have researched the “testing effect”, write that “Testing is a powerful means of improving learning, not just assessing it.” Thus, if you periodically test yourself while studying, you are more likely to recall information on the actual test. Adequate sleep is also essential as sleep actually helps us consolidate information in memory.
(The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)