Alex Trachsell, Staff Writer
Midterm season is on its way out and now the fall exam period looms above us all. Some of us might have begun creating mnemonics to study from, while others might have prepared a small lesson for a sibling on what we’ve been studying, and even fewer might have started reviewing notes from the beginning of the semester. Of course, most of us haven’t used any of these techniques yet. Instead, we’ll probably wait until the last minute to start studying, at which point we’ll read the textbook over and over again. All the while, we’ll be telling ourselves that we’ll start studying earlier for the next test and that we’ll use all the effective studying tricks.
Even if this isn’t the case for everyone, I think it’s safe to say that many of us want to improve our study habits and ability to memorize, many think that it can often be hard work to change more than one habit at a time (“Mistakes That Cause Habits to Fail”). For example, if I tell myself that I’ll get into the habit of exercising, making meals from scratch, and even flossing every day, I’ll probably end up using my inability to make all of these changes as an excuse to not change at all.
“So,” I hear you ask, “I should pick one or two habits and begin adding them to my study routine, but what options do I have and which should I pick?” To this, I say that you are in luck. You see, the labour has been divided here at the Trinity Times, and I’ve become quite the pithy list specialist. This month I’ve compiled a list that highlights some strategies you can use to help you commit your theories, arguments, laws, dates, and formulas to memory. Which strategies are most effective will be unique for every individual, but I’m also aware that the best type of list is a ranked list. As such, I’ve given my opinion and ranked the effectiveness of each strategy.
1. Spacing – 10/10
Spacing is the opposite of cramming. Recommended by UTSC’s Academic Advising and Career Centre (AACC), spacing means studying two hours per day for four days before a test, rather than studying for eight hours the day (or night) before.
Spacing receives a 10/10 because it requires no additional effort beyond reallocating over multiple days the effort you would already spend cramming the day before. I’m no logistician, economist, accountant, or mathematician, but increasing your work by zero to receive a non-zero increase in the productivity of your studying seems like an infinite (or at least a decent) return on your investment.
2. Matching environment – 10/10
The AACC also notes that we remember information better if the environment in which we are trying to retrieve information is similar to the environment in which we originally stored that information. Thanks to quarantine measures, we have all pretty much been forced to learn, memorize, and test in the same environment. If you haven’t been using this strategy (intentionally or not), you will find adopting it to be sickeningly easy. Thus, environment matching gets a reluctant 10/10.
3. Meditation and general mindfulness – 9/10
As the university-wide initiative would have you believe, mindfulness is highly relevant to student life and memorization is no exception. For example, meditation helps us store information by focusing the mind on the topic at hand (Cooper). In this meditating state, your brain will commit the study material to memory rather than compete with your thoughts on the conversation you had with your friend or what you plan to spend your free time on when you finish studying.
Mindfulness techniques can also help students retrieve information during tests. In a resource published by UofT, psychology professor Zindel Segal suggested that students use mindfulness techniques, such as focusing on one’s breathing or the feeling of one’s feet on the ground, to control anxiety during tests (Battler). These techniques become more effective with practice, so there’s no reason not to use them from when you begin memorizing to when you finish the test.
Overall, mindfulness is not easy, but it increases your ability to memorize material and then recall it during a test, as studies have confirmed. Clearly, mindfulness is highly effective, but the fact that it requires some amount of effort makes it a slightly worse deal than spacing or environment matching. As such, mindfulness receives a 9/10 as a tool for memorizing.
4. Learning by teaching – 9/10
It may seem contradictory, but when we teach, we learn, revise our understanding, and remember. When we explain information to an attentive listener, we’re opening ourselves up to a critic—someone who can ask questions about gaps in our knowledge. Furthermore, explaining a concept to someone requires that we carefully lay out the rationale behind it, which will help us create a longer-lasting, deeper understanding of the material.
In my experience, this strategy has been extremely effective. At first, I used my parents as “students,” but this quickly became impractical. Explaining Descartes’s Meditations went well, but having to re-explain it a month later in order to provide the context needed to understand Spinoza’s Ethics and then having to re-explain Ethics to explain Leibniz’s response to it… This was all received with less enthusiasm. In short, my parents did not study the same material as myself, and they’re less interested in it. Luckily recognized study groups provide a solution. This service from the Sidney Smith Commons connects students in the same class so that they can review material and teach each other. SSC staff, my parents are thankful, as am I.
On the whole, this strategy is helpful, although sometimes hard to employ. Therefore, it receives a 9/10.
5. Elaborative rehearsal – 9/10
The AACC notes that “we are more likely to remember things when we consider the meaning of something as opposed to its structural components.” When we understand this, we can begin to look for examples of these concepts in the real world (“Concentration and Memory”).
I remember using this strategy (certainly more than a mere coincidence) when I was studying physics in high school and it worked extremely well, although this may have been due to the nature of what I was studying.
Before you adopt this strategy though, you need to ask yourself, “Do I really want to see the world as a pile of laws of physics or sociological theories? Do I want to be the nerdy university equivalent of Dino Dan?” In all honesty, if you’re interested in what you’re studying, your answer is probably “yes,” so this is a great strategy for memorizing – 9/10.
6. Mnemonics – 8/10
A mnemonic is a memorable group of ideas which can be memorized to help retrieve less memorable ideas. For example, remembering “Kids Prefer Cheese Over Fried Green Spinach” can help one remember the less catchy order of taxonomy: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Other variants use places, rather than sentences, to evoke other ideas. For example the incredible memory palace involves exploring a memorable place (such as your home) and placing less memorable ideas in it. Then, when you explore your home in your imagination, you’ll be able to see the less memorable ideas within it.
A third type of mnemonic is chunking, which is done by remembering a larger idea in chunks. Although it should clearly earn points for its name, the most common example of chunking I’ve found is when one learns a phone number in three chunks (Cherry). This reflects my main criticism of mnemonics: their superficiality.
Unlike elaborative rehearsal or learning by teaching which enhance memory by understanding, mnemonics does so with trivial associations. Furthermore, the most heavily weighted test questions often require that students take the big picture into account. Elaborative rehearsal is conducive to this, as it helps one remember by understanding the goal of the concepts, whereas mnemonics only offer slightly amusing sentences as a byproduct of their use (a generator I used created the mnemonic “Salty Morticians Exfoliated Mockingly Likewise Thick Eagles Retreated Meaningfully Likewise Crisp Deadpool Crouched” for this list of memorization strategies).
On a less serious note, there comes a point where the things I’m putting in my palace are just too abstract. I don’t know how effective it will be to imagine my home with the decreasing function theorem on the couch, dependency theory in my fridge, or overlapping editing on the front porch. That said, mnemonics are still superb at helping us memorize lists, so I’ll grant it an 8/10.
7. Lifestyle changes – 8/10
These changes are not easy, but their benefits will stretch beyond academia. The first change you can make is to get more sleep. I haven’t found anything more confusing than sleep: I’m so reluctant to do it, but when the morning comes, I don’t want to stop. However, according to sclhealth.org, the sentiment I should stick with is the latter: sleep = good. While sleep boosts mental and physical health, it is also when we consolidate memories (Carey). Thus, sleep is crucial to improving your memory. That said, getting more sleep is harder than it sounds, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re struggling to adopt this habit. Making more time for sleep while maintaining a reasonable amount of free time will probably mean that other habits need to change first. The same goes for getting more exercise, which helps your memory by increasing the flow of blood (i.e. oxygen) to the brain; gum chewing might also have this effect if you’re only interested in exercising your jaw or if you can’t make it to the gym under current circumstances (Kraft).
Overall, the expansive reward from this implementing these difficult strategies earns them an 8/10.
8. Dual coding – 7/10
Dual coding is when we use multiple sensory representations of an idea to remember it. The AACC provides the example of reading someone’s name aloud while visualizing their face.
I’ve found this strategy to be highly effective, although it can be difficult to visualize more abstract concepts. As such, dual coding receives 7/10.
Overall, the effectiveness of these strategies will vary depending on the person using them and what kind of information they’re being used to remember. All of this is to say that if you’re struggling to use these strategies on your own and you would prefer more personalized advice, I strongly recommend taking advantage of Academic Advisors (especially considering that my list has essentially been a summary of their advice). And remember that by the end of the year, you might still be cramming, you might still be avoiding the gym, or you might still be staying up late and bitterly forcing yourself out of bed in the morning. The point is to work on habitualizing one or two strategies at a time until you’re where you want to be.