Although schools and colleges have moved away from the imbalanced emphasis on memorizing and regurgitating huge chunks of information, with a much greater focus on demonstrating understanding, many subjects still require an ability to memorize, especially for tests and exams.

Unfortunately, few students are taught how to memorize, usually resulting in lots of inefficient and ineffective trial-and-error methods. Some of the following tips are based on research and some on my own experience of learning and teaching.

1. Go to lectures

One of the benefits of being present at lectures is that the material not only goes in the eye-gate but also in the ear-gate. Reading the material is good, but hearing the material is even better. It would be really easy for many teachers just to pass out their notes and say “Go read!” But educators have found that most students understand and retain knowledge better when it is heard as well as read. There’s something about the physical presence and audible voice of a teacher that make the information stick better than just reading.

2. Take notes

Sharing notes seems to be a highly efficient method of study. However, taking your own notes has been demonstrated to lay the information down better in the brain. In fact, writing them by hand rather than typing them on a laptop activates even more regions of the brain and fosters better recall.

3. Single-task

Yes, believe it or not, you will learn more and better by focusing on the lecture alone. This study examined the impact of multi-tasking with digital technologies while attempting to learn from real-time classroom lectures in a university setting.

Participants who did not use any technologies in the lectures outperformed students who used some form of technology. Consistent with the cognitive bottleneck theory of attention (Welford, 1967) and contrary to popular beliefs, attempting to attend to lectures and engage digital technologies for off-task activities can have a detrimental impact on learning.”

4. Outline

You cannot memorize globs of undifferentiated data. Your brain will rebel or explode. If you want to love your brain and your brain to love you, you need to organize and outline your lecture notes and any notes on assigned reading. I’ve written more about the how of note-taking here. When outlining, make a huge effort to make your structure and content as logical as possible. Your brain finds it far easier to remember the logical than the illogical!

5. Summarize and simplify

You will remember more if you write it in your own words, if you reduce the number of words, and if you use simple words. That’s why, when you are putting your notes in outline form, you should do the intense mental labor of summarizing as much as possible and simplifying as much as possible. You can’t remember everything, and you’ll forget everything if you try. Better to memorize less but memorize it well. You’ll be amazed at how much a well-memorized summary outline will trigger memory of the material not in your summary.

6. Color your notes

Given a choice between memorizing simply black text on white paper compared to color-highlighted text, the brain will choose the latter any day. A well-highlighted page looks more like a picture to the brain, something like a map, which leaves a deeper and longer impression on the mind.

7. Use mnemonics

A mnemonic is a strategy or technique to improve memory. It translates information into a form that the brain finds easier to remember. If that’s still double dutch to you, here are a few samples to get you started. Using mnemonics  can be tough work at first, but the brain is like a muscle in some ways, the more you push it, the stronger it gets. The mental “lifting” that you used to find impossible gradually gets easier with practice and of course the ability transfers to other subjects too.

8. Little and often

Short and frequent is better than long and rare. It is better to study your four or five subjects every day for shorter times than to study one subject each day for the full day. By the time you go back to what you studied four or five days previously, most of what you learned will have gone.

When I ask struggling Hebrew students about their study habits, they will usually say, “Well, I study 2-3 hours every day. The first thing I tell them to do is to shorten their study time. Once they’ve started breathing again, I explain the strategy using the following diagram:

Study-habits 1

7-8am: Study the subject first thing in the morning for 45-60 minutes maximum. As soon as you end that period, your mind immediately starts losing data at a frighteningly rapid rate. Imagine where this graph ends up by the end of the day (feel familiar?)

11am: Re-study the same material again, although this time it should only take you 20-30 minutes. Notice that the knowledge level is higher than the the first period (and reached faster), and that the data loss rate has a shallower gradient (it takes longer to forget what you’ve learned).

4pm: Re-study same material again, this time for 10-15 minutes. Knowledge peak is even higher and gradient of loss even shallower. (In between these study times, you can be studying other subjects using the same method.)

9pm: Just before bed, review the material one more time for about 5-10 mins. Note peak and gradient (appealing, isn’t it!).  Compare where you are now with where you would be if you only studied the subject for one long period. Where would that red line be?

And if you want to seal it for good, do a quick 5-minute review first thing the next morning before studying new material. That will really set the mental concrete.

9. Test yourself

It’s easy to think we’ve memorized something…until we get into the exam room and it’s gone. That’s why you should test your recall beforehand, perhaps using flashcards or getting someone to test you. Forcing yourself to recall something itself improves your memory of it. Speaking answers out loud also secures the data better in your mind.

10. Feed and rest your brain

This Wall Street Journal article cited evidence showing that students who ate a regular balanced diet that included fruit and veg did better than those who ate a high-fat, low-carb diet that was heavy on meat, eggs, cheese, and cream. The brain requires a constant supply of energy and “has only a limited backup battery.”

The same piece also recommended that students don’t wake up earlier than usual to study as this could interfere with the rapid-eye-movement sleep that aids memory. All-nighters impair memory and reasoning for up to 4 days.

Previous Tips

New Student Tip #1: Dropbox
New Student Tip #2: Wunderlist
New Student Tip #3: Evernote
New Student Tip #4: Diigo
New Student Tip #5: Lastpass
New Student Tip #6: Calendar
New Student Tip #7: Feedly
New Student Tip #8: Covenant Eyes
New Student Tip #9: The Why of Note-taking
New Student Tip #10: The How Of Note-taking
New Student Tip #11: Time Management


Thriving at College by Alex Chediak (for students)
Preparing Your Teens For College by Alex Chediak (for parents of students)
Top 10 Books for Students

  • Joe Bailey

    Hi David,

    Some really great suggestions here, loving your New Student tips even though I graduated last year. Wish I had read them all at the start of my course. One thing I think you have missed off this list, possibly worth a separate post is a program called Anki. It is a free flashcard program based on the memory science of spaced repetition. I only discovered it in my last year at Uni but it has been one of the best learning discoveries I have ever made, I use it for my job regularly to memorize large amounts of information quickly and keep it in my LTM. It’s good for remembering dates in Church history too! It is a great tool for language learning especially.

    Greetings from the UK (hopefully the same UK as will be on Friday)!



  • tony tomy

    Thanks for SHARING.Students may think they understand the lessons and concepts being taught, but later struggle putting it all into practice. Writing the data takes a lot of time and effort, so the best way to retain the information is through practice and repetition.


  • Jake

    One good tool for memorization is called the Loci method, where you choose a familiar location and you mentally stick reminders around that area which represent items you want to remember. For example, suppose you wanted to remember a grocery list and wanted to use your living room to help you remember the list, you might mentally stick a cabbage by the front door, a carton of eggs on the couch (perhaps one cracked and smelly to make it memorable), tomatoes on the piano (Bob?), carrots along the window sill, and marshmallows on the table (perhaps holding a book?). You mentally walk yourself through the room and you remember the objects you mentally placed there, and you can remember your grocery list.

    There’s a variation called the Journey Method, where you do the same thing except you visualize all the reminders along a familiar pathway or other journey (eg. walk through the park, route to work, walk around the apartment complex). The techniques work because we remember locations well even after being there just once. Like other mnemonics it takes work to put into practice, but it’s useful.

    For myself memorization is a way of getting all the supplies together needed to understand a subject. You won’t understand only because you have memorized, but memorization puts the materials necessary for comprehension within your immediate access.

  • Jake

    And before I forget…

    Mnemonics are highly useful in prayer meetings. If used well, the mental labor you spend on trying to remember the requests while you are praying can be diverted to actually praying. The result is that when you do publicly pray it’s a more free, heart-felt and edifying.

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