Strategies for Boosting Your Memory and Score
For better or worse, rote memorization may seem largely obsolete in the age of Google, but it remains an essential tool for quickly expanding your knowledge base before your Test Day and reaching a higher score. Unfortunately, trying to take in new content, especially so much of it at once, does not make for very efficient studying—unless you have a systematic learning strategy in place that allows you to prep smarter, not harder. Let’s explore some tried and true ways–and some creative ones–for boosting your memorization.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous of memorization techniques, mnemonic devices are likely already something you’ve encountered. You may know, for instance, that the order of metric conversions (abbreviated as KHDBDCM), can be rendered as any variation of phrases ranging from “King Henry Died By Drinking Chocolate Milk” to “Kittens Hate Dogs But Do Chase Mice.”
This is what’s known as an expression or word mnemonic—weaving together each particular piece of information with a catchy phrase, often in a specific order. There are various mnemonic phrases that can help you in studying. Here are some science example:
Mnemonic words or phrases can be employed in studying almost any rule, sequence, or equation, and often the more outlandish the phrase, the easier it is to memorize.
Using a mnemonic device helps when there’s something relatively finite that you already know you need to memorize, but how do you familiarize yourself with a large pool of information drawing from multiple areas of study? That’s where spaced repetition comes in.
Spaced repetition is a mnemonic technique for assimilating large volumes of information and is often used when learning another language. The basic idea is simple: By increasing the intervals of time between reviewing content as you go, you gradually condition your brain, relaying the knowledge from your short-term to your long-term memory. According to neuroscience research, the reason spaced repetition is so effective is that “repeated stimuli, with precisely timed gaps, are one of the most reliable ways to convince neurons that an event is memory-worthy.”
Difficult content can be learned through repeated and structured exposure. The most common way to incorporate spaced repetition into your study plan is to use flashcards. Outline a schedule for reviewing your flashcards that gradually spaces out sessions as you progress. So, your initial weekly schedule might look like this:
Day 1: Review flashcards
Day 2: Review flashcards
Day 3: Take a break
Day 4: Review flashcards
Day 5: Take a break
Day 6: Take a break
Day 7: Review flashcards
Then, as you advance in subsequent weeks, start spacing review sessions further apart. Eventually, you’ll have committed the information to your long-term memory and will be able to recall it with less need for review.
The Baker/baker Effect
How do you use association to earn a higher test score? One of the most common techniques is to employ visual or spatial cues that help consolidate and engrain specific information in your memory. The idea is simple: Associative learning is more effective than rote memorization simply because it makes a more significant impression.
This should intuitively make sense. We know that many people find it difficult to remember the name of somebody they’ve met only once unless there’s some other association attached to that name. In what researchers call the Baker/baker effect, two groups of people are introduced to a man. One group is told that the man’s name is Baker and the other is told that the man is a baker. It turns out that the latter group is better at recalling the piece of information they’ve been given, since the idea of a baker calls to mind a network of associated sensations: the smell of fresh bread, the taste of pastries, the image of a bakery, etc.—more parts of the brain are engaged by the word “baker” than by the proper name.
Memorization by Association
Knowing that visual cues make a more lasting impression on your brain, you can use the technique of association to master any of the subjects covered. In differentiating mitosis from meiosis, for example, note that the former sounds like “my toes.” Based on that association, you can easily remember that mitosis occurs in the body, in somatic cells (and thus in your toes).
Another approach is to assign definitions of terms to an associative object. It could even be a person. For example, you might think of your friend Cathy—who has a famous propensity for leaving parties early—to remember that a conventional electric current leaves a cathode. Conversely, the current enters an anode, just like your friend Andy who often shows up to parties uninvited. Use whatever feels most natural for drawing associations that might clue you in on the meaning.
The Loci Method
Associative learning can also help with short-term recollection, such as when you’re answering questions in a passage based section. As you take notes and identify the important information in a passage—key arguments or positions articulated by the author—you can plot reference points in your memory that make it easier to go back and recall details.
One approach, known as the method of loci, is to imagine the passage as a house, with each room in the house representing different parts of the text and specific objects in each room assigned to more granular details. Then, when it comes time to answer the questions, you can simply “walk through” the passage and you’ll have a clear map of where key points are located in relation to one another.
Name that Tune
Visual and spatial associations aren’t the only effective way to supplement your memory. Music can be equally compelling, and you likely already have strong memory associations with your favorite songs. There’s something about music that hooks us—sometimes a bit too effectively, such as when you get a song stuck in your head.
That catchy aspect of music is precisely what you want to seize on when studying. You probably remember the ABC song from childhood. You may even still compulsively hum the melody when reciting the alphabet. Just as that song helped you learn your ABCs, memorizing content is easier when you set it to a simple, catchy tune.
Let’s say you’re trying to learn a common physics formula D = rt. Since familiar children’s songs have the simplest melodies and are easiest to remember, we’ll use ”Mary Had a Little Lamb.” To commit the formula to memory, all you have to do is sing it as a musical phrase: “Distance equals rate times time… rate times time… rate times time.”
The best way to enhance your study strategy and improve your test score is to use a combination of mnemonic devices, spaced repetition, associations, and musical memorization. Apply the different techniques where they make most sense to you, and get creative with inventing your own methods.