For Freshmen. By Freshmen.
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Dec 27 2017
by Rina Lee

6 Tips to Master Memorization

By Rina Lee - Dec 27 2017

I know what you’re thinking. Finals just ended, all your papers have been submitted and now all you want to do is hibernate with a box of Godiva chocolates under a teddy bear fort – preferably until the end of next semester.

Oh, if only. Here’s a (rather unfortunate) reality check: In just under two months, you’ll be faced with yet another barrage of papers and exams, and if you’re anything like me, chances are astronomically high that you’ll be staying up until four every night, tearing out your hair and madly flipping through pages and pages of notes, surrounded by an army of half-drunk Styrofoam coffee cups and an unhealthy number of empty Twizzler bags.

But here’s the good news: Here are some tactics to achieve that unheard-of, stress-free exam period. Sounds a little ridiculous, doesn’t it? Don’t worry – with these proven memory-retaining tactics, you'll never have to pull another all-nighter for an exam ever again!

1. Engage as many of your five senses as possible.

Did you know that the more senses that you use when learning something, the more of your brain will be involved in retaining that memory? For example, in one study, participants were shown a series of “emotionally neutral images,” each with an accompanying odor. Later on, the participants were given a new series of images, but without any odors this time, and were asked to pick out the images that they had already seen before in the first set. Needless to say, the participants demonstrated “excellent recall” for all odor-paired pictures, especially those which had been associated with pleasant aromas.

So the next time you’re trying to memorize something, engage as many of your five senses as possible. Move your hands, walk around, use scented pens and highlighters, say things out loud, sing, get a bag of jellybeans and assign each flavor to a reaction mechanism – anything goes!

2. Teach the concepts to someone else.

You know how our professors are constantly badgering us to join a peer study group so that we can spend two to three hours of our precious lives every week asking questions and explaining concepts to each other? And you know how everyone just kind of nods along but never really ends up going to any of them? Well, you might want to consider changing your mind for the new year, because it turns out that our professors were being so persistent for a very, very good reason.

According to a model called the Learning Pyramid, which was developed in the 1960’s by the National Training Laboratories Institute, our brains are able to retain an astounding 90% of the information that we learn when we teach it to others. On the other hand, we’re only able to retain about 5% of what we learn from a lecture, and only 10% of what we learn from reading.

This is because as soon as we start trying to teach or explain a concept, we almost immediately end up making a mistake (Try it – it’s true). But wait, this is by no means a bad thing! By running into difficulties and making little mistakes, we are given an opportunity to learn how to correct ourselves and to improve. Furthermore, when explaining something to another person, we’re forced to put it into our own words and develop our own interpretations of that topic, helping us to gain a full and complete understanding.

On the other hand, when we passively listen to a lecture or read a textbook, we often discover that we’ve missed out on so many concepts, even just within the first couple of minutes. This is due to the fact that our brain stalls at the first new concept it encounters, trying to comprehend what it just encountered. Unfortunately, however, during this period of time, more information from our book or lecture continues to flow in, leading to the all-too-familiar feeling of, “Oh, I’m so overwhelmed. What. Did. I. Just. Learn.”

This is huge. For as long as I can remember, I have done the vast majority of my studying through listening to lectures and reading over my notes. This means that if I had spent 100 hours attempting to learn, my poor brain would have managed to retain only about 10-15 hours of it all. Whereas had I joined a study group and spent my time actively teaching and explaining, I would have been able to retain around 90 of the 100 hours!

Wow. New year’s resolution, anybody?

3. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

It's no secret that long-term memory is all about consistent repetition and reinforcement. This was how we learned to read, write and talk as a child, and this is how we will recall pages and pages of notes that we made in September for our finals in December.

The more you reread a section in your textbook or repeat a particularly difficult problem set, the more you will be able to reinforce it in your brain and the better you will be able to remember it, even after a significant period of time. This is because repetition results in the reinforcement of neuronal connections along the lengths of our axons and dendrites, as well as across the synapses. Consistent repetition further stimulates and activates these neural connections, resulting in stronger, deeper memories.

Thus, once you’re able to remember something correctly, don’t file away your notebook and assume you’re all set for the time being, but instead make sure to constantly go back and review it on a regular basis, at gradually lengthening intervals. This way, when finals season rolls around again, you will find that only minimal stressing will be required – everything you need to know will be fresh in your memory.

4. Space it out.

According to an article published in Harvard Health, repetition as a learning tool is at its most effective only when properly spaced out. This means that instead of trying to repeat something over and over again in a short period of time (sound familiar, fellow exam crammers?), try giving yourself a reasonable amount of time, such as a couple of weeks, and go over the essentials at gradually lengthening time periods – first once an hour, then every few hours, then every day, for example.

In short, study smarter, not harder, by learning to manage your time and scheduling your study periods wisely. It’ll take a little bit of time and practice to see what works best for you, but in the end, you’ll be saving yourself from a massive headache and that all-too-familiar feeling of overwhelming stress and panic.

Cramming for exams? What’s that again?

5. Chew gum.

Excuse me? Chew gum while you learn? That’s right. According to New Scientist, UK psychologists discovered that participants who chewed gum throughout the tests of both long-term and short-term memory produced significantly better scores than people who did not (24% and 36% higher, respectively). Those who chewed gum also proved to be more accurate on the tests of spatial working memory.

“The findings are intriguing, although it is clear that questions remain to be addressed,” responded Kim Graham of the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK in an interview with New Scientist. “In particular: what is the mechanism by which chewing improves memory?”

One possibility is that chewing gum increases brain activity in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that is crucial for memory recall. The reason for this is unclear, although Andrew Scholey of the University of Northumbria hypothesized, “Chewing causes the release of insulin because the body is expecting food. If insulin receptors in the brain are involved in memory [as recent research suggests], we may have an insulin-mediated mechanism explaining our findings – but that is very, very speculative.”

Another possible explanation may be that constant chewing increases heart rate to a certain extent, leading to an increase in the number of nutrients and oxygen delivered to the hippocampus, thereby enhancing our cognitive functions.

Whatever the reason may be, one thing is for sure – chewing gum while learning may help us remember that one nasty alkene synthesis mechanism or the significance of the line breaks in the Hollow Men on our next exam, which may boost us up from a boring B to that coveted A. So take out your pack of Big Red or Double Mint or whichever flavor strikes the mood, and get chewing! (Just don’t chew too loudly, my friends.)

6. Drink coffee.

A 2013 study published in Nature Neuroscience concluded that caffeine enhanced the consolidation of long-term memories in humans. Participants who took a caffeine pill after a learning task demonstrated improved memory recall up to 24 hours later.

However, note that the key here for a deeper level of memory retention is consuming caffeine after learning a concept, rather than before. So, for all the Starbucks addicts out there, this means that we now have a valid reason for being seen with a gigantic cup of coffee in our hands all the time.

Even with these six memory-retaining strategies, the most important factors for a stress-free exam period are, as always, focus and dedication. You need to be willing to work hard and put in time and effort into learning and developing your skills. Sitting back and leisurely skimming through your notes while chewing gum – although it does sound highly appealing – isn’t really going to help you all that much on its own, but in conjunction with other strategies such as active teaching and properly spaced-out study periods, you’ll soon find that your hard work will have its rewards.

Good luck, everyone!

Lead Image Credit: Unsplash

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Rina Lee - University of Toronto

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