The effort required to form strong memory is often intense for students. Students often spend hours trying to master new information. Of course, methods to enhance memory are important for everyone, not just students. For example, when a friend recommends a new shoe store we want to remember the name of of it, or when going to the grocery it is important to remember the items we need to pick up. What are some strategies that can be used to strengthen memory?
For a start, don't spend excessive time worrying about whether or not you will remember the information. Evidence suggests that intention to remember often does not have a direct effect on memory (Reisberg, 2013; Varakin & Hale, 2014). What matters most is the approach taken when trying to learn the material. Reading material over and over and telling yourself you are going to remember it is not necessarily the optimal strategy for enhancing memory. A better strategy is to try to understand the material deeply. Try to think about the meaning of the information and how it is related to other information you already have stored memory. This approach often leads to strong memory.
Experiments are often conducted that compare incidental learning conditions with intentional learning conditions. Incidental learning conditions consist of participants that are not aware that they will be exposed to a memory test at some point during the experiment. The participants in the intentional learning conditions know they will take a memory test at some point during the experiment. Before the memory test participants from both conditions perform the same cognitive task. Often, participants in the incidental group perform as well as those in the intentional group. This suggests that intent to remember doesn't directly enhance memory. This finding has been replicated in a broad range of studies.
However, the intent to remember may have an indirect positive effect on memory. If it leads to thinking about the meaning of the material and how it is related to other information already stored in memory. It is the mental approach regarding the materials to be learned that matters most, not the intent to remember.
In an effort to increase understanding asking yourself questions while studying is important. This allows you to consider various perspectives and often leads to the formation of numerous memory connections. Paraphrasing can also be useful. Stating the information in different ways forces you to think about meaning and how it is connected to other information. I suggest paraphrasing in as many ways as you can think of.
Test yourself on the information you are trying to remember. Do not have the answers in plain view while testing. If the answers are in view while testing you aren't really testing yourself, and this often leads to thinking you know more than you really do. You need easy access to the answers, so you can check to see if you are correct, but if they are in plain view it is hard to resist looking , even if just catching a glance. This brief glance may provide a retrieval cue that leads to the correct answer, and leads to overconfidence in your knowledge (read more).
Memory is best when you spread your studying across multiple sessions (spaced learning). For over a century, it has been known that learning and/ or memory is strengthened when information is studied over time when compared with the same amount of information studied in one or fewer sessions-cramming sessions (Sisti, Glass, & Shors, 2007). One of the key reasons that spaced learning increases memory is that each time you study you may perceive the material from a different perspective. Seeing the material from different perspectives allows the creation of different connections; connections that you didn't see before.
Cramming should be avoided. This type of study does not lend itself to the formation of strong memories. Often, students are confused and fail to distinguish between high test scores and high levels of memory. Doing well on a test is not necessarily indicative of strong memory. Strong memory reflects an understanding and is often demonstrated weeks after the test. I have seen many students (graduate and undergraduate) do well on a test, but lack any type of memory whatsoever for the material a few days after the test. They never understood the material; they crammed and they done well on the test.
What about mnemonics? Mnemonics, as they are generally referred to, are efficient shortcuts used to enhance memory. They work because they impose some sort of organization on the materials to be remembered. Mnemonics are helpful in some circumstances, but at other times not recommended. They may divert attention away from understanding the material. This often leads to fewer memory connections. Avoid these type of shortcuts when he goal is to form strong memory connections. Using cognitive shortcuts is fine to use for some information, but in situations when trying to remember information it is important avoid shortcuts.
Our modern era, often referred to as the information age is rarely (if ever) referred to as the knowledge age. Information availability doesn't necessarily translate to knowledge. Translation of information to knowledge requires learning / memory.
- Don't spend excessive time worrying about whether or not you will remember the information.
- Try to think about the meaning of the information and how it is related to other information you already have stored memory.
- Paraphrase the information you are trying to remember.
- Test yourself on the information you are trying to remember.
- Memory is best when you spread your studying across multiple sessions (spaced learning).
- Cramming should be avoided.
- Strong memory reflects a strong understanding (meaning and connections of various memories)
- Mnemonics are helpful in some circumstances, but at other times not recommended.
- The key foundation of strong memory is UNDERSTANDING!
- Studying should be structured and involve immediate goals that can be attained with each session.
There are other issues that should be considered in regards to a comprehensive study of memory, but those issues are beyond the scope of this article. Effective use of the information provided here may assist readers in learning / memory efforts.
- Reisberg, D. (2013). Cognition: Exploring the Science of the Mind 5th Edition. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
- Sisti., H.M., Glass, A.L., & Shors, T.J. (2007). Neurogenesis and the spacing effect: Learning over time enhances memory and the survival of new neurons. Learning & Memory, 14, 368-375.
- Varakin, D.A., & Hale, J. (2014). Intentional memory instructions direct attention, but do not enhance visual memory. Sage Open, 1-8. doi: 10.1177/2158244014553588