7 Memorisation Techniques to Guarantee Exam Success

March 1, 2022

There’s nothing worse than opening an exam paper and … shock horror - brain freeze! Realising your memory simply hasn’t stored the information you need to answer a question is up there with the most frustrating experiences you can face during your studies. But the good news is that there are steps you can take to prevent this from happening. It just takes a bit of organisation. 

Our memories are fickle things. Students might think they’ve understood and processed everything they’ve learned in class but if the information is left untouched, research shows they will generally forget about 75% of it after just six days. So, it’s important to keep reinforcing what you’ve learned in order to hold onto it long enough to successfully apply it in exams. 

Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula - if there were, everyone would be getting A’s across the board. All students retain information in different ways (find out what your learning style is here), so the best thing you can do is shop around for memorisation techniques that suit you and your individual needs.

1. Get creative

When it comes to revising for exams, passively staring at a textbook has never been a productive use of time. The brain needs to be active in order to memorise information so try to jazz up the notes on the page as much as possible. Rewrite them, make them your own, introduce colour. This will help the visual learners out there so make sure you’re hauling out those highlighters, drawing mind maps, and even creating illustrations, if that’s your thing.

But more important is what you do to make those notes come off the page. The more actively you engage with the information you’re trying to process, the easier it will be to apply what you know in essays and exams. Experiment with techniques to help you fully immerse yourself what you’re learning. Read on for ideas.

2. Use all five senses

If you’re looking to remember something tricky, it’s a good idea to get as richly immersive as possible. We all know how evocative music, smells and even touch can be in triggering memories, so try and think of ways of using all five of the senses to really grind that knowledge into all four corners of your brain.

Make up songs and rhymes or even use smell association patterns to see what best helps your recall. Mnemonics, for example, will never go out of style; their capacity for lodging themselves in our long term memory is frankly staggering (I think we can all agree that ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’ is well and truly there to stay).

3. Mind/memory palace

Mind palaces use deliberate association and visualisation techniques to help people remember certain pieces of information over longer periods of time. To create a mind palace, you start by visualising a space you know well, such as your home, and then place various facts or ideas in separate parts of said space.

The mind palace technique dates all the way back to Ancient Greece. It all might sound a bit strange and whimsical but it has been shown to be incredibly effective, particularly in helping students revise for exams.

4. Use it!

Implement techniques to actively process what you’ve learnt, using it rather than just absorbing it. A popular method here is teaching what you’ve learned to someone else. This will help you come at the information from different angles so you can learn to handle it in different ways - excellent preparation for applying your understanding in essays and exams. And do as many practice papers as you can get your hands on.

5. Repetition

In this sea of weird and wonderful techniques for committing information to memory, it’s easy to forget the importance of good old fashioned repetition in the learning process. However, be sure to resist the temptation to revert to passively reading over your notes - there are better ways to incorporate repetition into the study process.

For example, rewrite your notes several times, reducing them slightly with each cycle. This is an age-old method to help solidify your subject knowledge as well as actively reducing the amount you have to cram into your brain. You can also try writing your notes out in a different order. Reorganisation has repeatedly been shown to increase long term memory and help students apply what they’ve learned more flexibly.

6. Layering

While reducing notes is an excellent exercise, it’s not the only way to go. Some students find they learn better by reversing this process, using a layering technique.

This method works by learning the most basic facts about a topic first, forming a foundation of easily-memorised knowledge. Then you add more complex information, incorporating detail and potentially more fiddly elements into the memory structure that is forming. When it comes to memorising, there’s no one size fits all. Experiment and see what works best for you.

7. Chunking

Chunking is based on the principle that our brains retain information more effectively when we space out the input we give it. I.e. we’re much more likely to recall what we’ve learned if we’ve consumed it several times over the past weeks than if we’ve crammed it in ten minutes before the exam.

So in a stand-off between the crammers and the chunkers, the last minute-ers and the learn-at-a-steady-pace-ers, the science says the chunkers will win every time. But, then again, does that surprise anyone? Make sure you’re giving your brain the space it needs to repeat the cycle of information processing and reinforcement.

Goodbye, brain freeze!

If you’ve ever been a victim of your mind going blank in an exam, you’ll likely be determined to do everything in your power to prevent it happening again. So, give these memorisation techniques a try and see what works for you. After a few mnemonics, a bit of chunking and some quality time with your mind palace, your memory won’t know what hit it!

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Ella Burgess

Ella is a content writer at Tutor House and explores a range of education centred topics, having previously spent time teaching English while living abroad. A foreign language enthusiast and lover of text art, she is devoted to words in all their forms. She'll happily immerse herself in anything wordy from conceptual art to vintage murder mysteries.

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