5 ways to improve your memory

If you're the forgetful type, take a few memorisation tips, backed by university research. Let's get those neurons firing!

male on laptop with hand in hair

Even when we’re not studying, we’re constantly exposed to new information, whether it be important, or purely for enjoyment. There’s a lot of unfounded advice floating around about how to better retain information, but what really works, and who can you trust? The good news is, only a few years ago a team of psychologists from leading universities in the United States did a comprehensive study into the effectiveness of learning techniques. Their findings were backed by a rigorous scientific methodology and published in a well-regarded journal.

Their discoveries may surprise you:

Cramming be damned

The researchers found that cramming was better than doing no study at all, but overall not a great way to learn or memorise information. Spacing study out – what the paper called “distributed practice” – was by far the better option and, in fact, one of only two methods rated by the authors of the report as having “high utility”.

The report essentially says “the longer the better” but acknowledges that for most students, studying over an extended period of time with a looming exam is impossible. It summarises in this way: “To remember something for 1 week, learning episodes should be spaced 12 to 24 hours apart; to remember something for 5 years, the learning episodes should be spaced 6 to 12 months apart.”

Use your discretion and your time wisely.

Practice does make perfect

The other learning method to receive a “high” rating from the authors was practice testing, which they defined as “practicing recall of target information via the use of actual or virtual flashcards, completing practice problems or questions included at the end of textbook chapters, or completing practice tests included in the electronic supplemental materials that increasingly accompany textbooks.”

You might be thinking, “That all sounds a bit 2005” but as a Time article on the study mentioned, regularly updated apps like Quizlet, StudyBlue and FlashCardMachine bring this approach to your phone tablet or laptop. Cram, another app not mentioned in the article, is also worth a look.

Throw away your highlighter

The science says highlighting (or underlining) notes is not a good use of your time if you’re trying to commit information to memory. The psychologists gave it a “low” rating and said that “with most participants, [it] does little to boost performance”.

Although there was some evidence to suggest the technique might work if the student in question was a skilled highlighter (we didn’t realise there was such a thing), there was also evidence to say that “it may actually hurt performance on higher-level tasks that require inference making”. In other words, it’s distracting.

It might be time to throw your magic fluoro wand in the bin.

Summarising? In a word: maybe

Writing a brief summary of the main points from a long article, piece of research or other work is a tried and tested method for learning. But is it effective? The researchers say “Hmm” on this one.

They give it a “low” rating, which might make you think it’s a complete waste of time, however it comes with a couple of buts. As with “highlighting” it may be a useful technique if you’re an accomplished summariser. Also, there were, in some cases, holes in the research they were able to draw from. The problem is, that patchiness doesn’t really build the case for summarising – it just adds more questions marks.

Self-explanation (it’s not really self-explanatory)

One of the techniques that got a “moderate utility” rating, but which seems close to a “high” was what the researchers called “self-explanation”.

It’s a process by which you clarify the meaning of something you’re reading (or a problem you’re solving) as you go, either in words or in writing. You make a conscious effort not to pass over a challenging concept or to ignore how you answered a problem or equation.

The major problem the authors had with this method was that it was potentially time-consuming. They also once again brought up the problem of the learner needing to be adept at the skill of self-explanation for it to be a truly useful practice.

Of course, as with most pieces of thorough research, there were caveats and qualifications. The researchers looked at 10 methods for learning; we’ve only mentioned five in this post. You can read the full paper here.

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