Memory tips and tricks: 5 ways to enhance your learning experience

9 March 2021

In need of some tips when it comes to enhancing your ability to learn and commit things to memory? Here are 5 ways which can help you to enhance your learning.

enhancing your learning

A lot of exams and assignments rely on your ability to retrieve information from memory. You may already use plenty of techniques to memorise things or you may still be working out the technique that works for you. Either way, here are 5 ways to enhance your memory by taking advantage of the psychology behind how it works.

1. Test yourself

If you take on just one tip from this list, this is the key one, as it's one of the most effective ways to ensure you really learn something. Simply put, it is believed that when you learn something, you create a new connection in your neural network. To make that connection stronger, you should test yourself several times to reinforce it. Even if you get the answer wrong, testing yourself helps more than if you just read the answer.

This is called the 'testing effect' and it is an incredibly robust phenomenon in psychology. Not only that, by testing yourself you are actively engaging with the material and can see where some of your confusions or misunderstandings are coming from. Lastly, although it helps to test yourself in the format of your exam or assignment, you can test your knowledge by simply teaching it to someone or talking about it.

2. Avoid the illusion of learning

However, when you are testing yourself, don't fall into the illusion of learning. It is incredibly easy to confuse recalling information with familiarity/recognition. You want recall. The key difference is that recall is remembering the information on your own, whereas recognition is where you can't think of it on your own, but if you see it, you suddenly remember it. This type of prompt will rarely be in your exam and this is the reason why study methods involving re-reading and re-writing material fail. You are simply becoming more skilled at reading the material, not more skilled in knowing or understanding it.

3. Take breaks

Your memory works best if you study in frequent, short sessions rather than one long cramming session, so don't forget to take breaks. Your brain needs time to store (consolidate) the earlier material you studied. Otherwise consolidation, a very important process, does not take place and the material will 'slip' out of your mind.

Another way to consolidate your knowledge is to sleep. The purpose of sleep is still an elusive topic for psychologists, but it is clear that memories need sleep to consolidate. Therefore, all-nighters can often cause more harm than good when it comes to your learning. For the added bonus, try incorporating naps into your study sessions to act as breaks. This may not work for everyone, but it will certainly help your memory.

4. Match your learning and testing conditions

The conditions in which you learn should match your testing conditions. There is a concept called the principle of 'encoding specificity' and it states that if you want to optimise memory, then the conditions surrounding learning (encoding) should be the same as those surrounding testing (retrieval).

Have you ever walked into the kitchen for something, forgotten why you were there, and as soon as you return to the other room you suddenly remember why you went to the kitchen? This is encoding specificity in action. Of course, for various reasons you might struggle to match your learning and testing conditions, and so you should study under many different conditions - noisy, quiet, with coffee, without coffee, and so on. This way, the material will come easily to you regardless of your surroundings!

5. Elaborate

Elaborating means thinking deeply and critically about the material and making other associations with it. Memory works by having a network of associations, so when you connect your learning with other topics you are familiar with, you are making associations. These associations can serve as reminders and will help you to remember the next time you come across them. Moreover, you will rarely have to repeat what you've been taught in lectures or what you've read, and this simple exercise will also help you with your critical thinking. Lastly, you can get very creative coming up with associations. For example, you can make up songs, draw doodles, create stories, visually imagine things, relate it to yourself, or just ponder about it. 

By Natalia Mladentseva, UCL alumna