Thanks for the memories – principles of memory

What do you think this is?

This evening I will once again be delivering a live webinar on exam techniques and how to learn more effectively by using exam questions as a guide, Exam focused learning. The event ends with the suggestion that having produced a set of notes from which you can then begin to revise, you should commit this material to memory.

So I thought I would devote this blog to looking at what I call the principles of memory. These aren’t memory techniques in themselves but overriding principles that form the basis of most if not all memory techniques.

Principle one – It’s all about input
The first principle of memory is how you record (input) the information in the first place. Put the information in, in the right way and you will remember it, the wrong way and you won’t.

Firstly, get into the right mood
The way you feel, your emotional state, the mood you are in all create powerful ways of encoding information. Take for example the classic memory question: can you remember where you were when Kennedy was shot? Or more recent events: when the Twin Towers collapsed or when Princess Diana or Michal Jackson died? The reason you tend to remember these events is partly because it was unexpected, something you never imagined possible, it probably changed your mood to one of shock or surprise.

From a practical exam point of view, the best mood to be in when studying is curiosity. The more curious you are about something the more likely you are to remember it afterwards.

Secondly, use your imagination – exaggerate
Something that is imagined is, by definition, not real: it is made up, created by you and can be an image, a sound, a smell a taste or a feeling. For most people, an imagined event will probably be visual, you will see it or auditory you will hear it. We have a much greater ability to recall events if we play a part in their original construction. The event should be large, loud and unusual, do not go for something that is ordinary, ordinary is never easy to remember.

Lastly, use your senses
As all information is fed into the brain through the senses, as a result it should come as no surprise that they play an important part in what we can remember. They are effectively the input system. The combination and use of as many of your senses as possible will help create a unique event and the more unique the event, the easier it will be to remember. Although you have many senses the most powerful forms of input are your ability to visualise and to hear.

Principle two – Association and organisation

The second principle, the information you want to remember needs to be organised and associated. Although you may remember something in the form of a visual image or sound, it will become increasingly difficult to retrieve that image unless it is stored in your memory in an organised and structured way. One of the best ways of storing images is to associate them with something that you already remember. For example, it is far easier to remember the name of certain trees if you imagine a tree with branches and on each of the branches you hang the name of the different types of trees.

Almost all of the memory techniques use some form of association in order to create the memory.

Principle three – Repetition

And lastly we are back to repetition. Unfortunately there is no substitute for going over something again and again and again. All methods of input will benefit from some form of reinforcement by repeating the process.

In Summary

In order to create a memory, you need a sequence of events. Firstly, you need to input the information in the most suitable way. This might be by using images or sounds. Make sure you are in the right mood or state when you do this, and the more you exaggerate the event the more likely you will be to remember it later. But creating a powerful memory using images or sounds is only part of the process. Think of the memory as a piece of paper. Yes, you have recorded the information, but you now need to make sure it is filed away so that you will be able to find it. This is why you need to organize the memory: it needs to be labelled and, where possible, associated with some existing information. And, finally, go over the process several times just to reinforce it.

Oh and just in case you were curious, the picture above is of a neuron and it is when one neuron connects with another that a memory is created. The more you repeat something the more powerful the connection and so is the memory.

This is an extract from my book the E word (E for exam) that should be on the book shelves in the next few months.

4 thoughts on “Thanks for the memories – principles of memory

  1. Pingback: Pedleysmiths's Blog

  2. Hi Stuart,

    I watched yesterdays broadcast and I found it very helpful.
    I am studying for my CIMA managerial level exams in May. As the syllabus has changed I was wondering if I still should look at pass papers from the old syllabus to work out which areas I need to concentrate on.



    • Andrea, thanks for your question. When you have a change of syllabus it does mean that you need to be more careful when analysing past questions. Clearly a topic that is no longer examinable should be excluded and any new ones added to the list. However, very few syllabuses change that radically and so any new areas are never that big. If there is a radical change you will often find that the examiner will provide some guidance, so it might be worth checking out any recent articles.
      What can be more of a problem is when the examiner changes. Although the topic may be the same the new examiner could have a very different take on how it should be examined. So analysing these past questions might give you a reasonable idea as to the areas to be examined, the style of question might however be very different.

      In summary, I think the process still works, but you just have to be a little more thoughtful and if the examiner and the syllabus has changed, check out any articles or guidance from CIMA, if there is nothing, assume that everything will be as before. And if you think of it pragmatically, everybody else is in exactly the same boat and in my view there is still nothing better you can do.

      Hope that has answered your question.


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