Learn by heart

Effective Memorisation 

Obviously a key part of the exam preparation/ revision cycle is memorisation – committing material to memory, it is not the ONLY part of effective revision as we’ve laid out above – but it is extremely important.

The revision activities that students tend to adopt if theft to their own devices ( E.g. re-reading /highlighting/ copying out material, making mind maps from material that is in front of them) are all very ineffective. By this we mean that they would have to be done for a very long time for the material to be properly learnt.

There are other revision activities that would lead to the material being learned securely in a far shorter space of time, however students naturally tend to adopt the above methods because they are ‘easy’ – they are comfortable to do and do not require very much mental effort.

Unfortunately that is exactly why they are ineffective. When our brains have to make an effort to process material, they retain far more of it. Far better for overall well-being to spend a shorter amount of time doing activities that require effort – but are more effective, and then and go and actively relax and switch off.

Key points of Effective Memorisation – all research based

  • Make sure you understand the material before you try to memorise it. Your brain finds it hard to remember material that doesn’t make sense to it
  • To commit material to memory the single most effective technique is Retrieval Practice – this simply means testing yourself – in ANY form.
  • This is effective in part because it requires effort – and any activity that requires effort will be more effective than one that doesn’t.  So making cue cards from memory – then checking and adding in missing facts, will result in your learning far more just by creating revision resources than just copying out your notes onto cue cards, which is pretty much dead time.
  • The first time you learn any material by heart takes intense retrieval practice – you may have to test and retest yourselves may times over the space of your session, until you are confident you know it all by heart. Unfortunately all this effort hasn’t yet put the material into your LONG TERM memory.
  • In order to place material securely in your long term memory you need to re-visit it, on multiple occasions, (with longer and longer gaps between each visit) over a period of time, each time repeating the retrieval practice activity until you are back to 100% recall. This is called Spaced Learning

Other helpful revision techniques

Dual coding
This means using diagrams/pictures as well as words. E.g. Make a mindmap or time-line from memory (Retrieval Practice) Compare it to the text.  Note anything you missed. Repeat.

Concrete Examples
Look in your notes for example your teacher has given – or ones you can find in the revision guide. Use them to explain to yourself the process or concept they exemplify. Concrete examples are often used in exam questions which makes them doubly useful of course! 

Interleaving
This is the opposite of revising your material in blocks – e.g. this week maths, next week science. IT means splitting your material into smaller chunks and varying what you revise each evening – e.g a session of maths followed by a session of science. This is harder for your brain, which gets ‘comfortable’ after a long period on one subject. More effort = more effective.

Elaboration
This means asking yourself how and why questions about the material you are learning. Again it is effective as it is high effort – and it also often used by exam questions.
 

Mnemonics
A mnemonic is any device/technique used as a memory aid, such as using the first letters of a word or phrase as a prompt to remember other information. There are plenty of well known ones – such as Richard oYork gave battle ivain to remember the order of the colours of the spectrum (red orange yellow green blue indigo violet), but you can make up plenty of your own to help you recall lists of facts – even very silly sentences can stick in your brain and be very effective to jog your memory and ensure you don’t miss out a key component. 


Visualisation
This is a technique used by ‘memory champions’, people who win prizes by memorising the order of a deck of cards or such like in a short space of time. They use mental images to fix material in their brain – the more striking the better. Again – it is effort, you really have to work your imagination, and of course high effort = high impact in memory terms. The website Memrise.com which has millions of users worldwide uses this concept to aid learning. 


The ideal combination of these techniques varies subject by subject, according to the nature of the material to be learned. Each subject area has given their own guidance on effective revision in the Subject Information part of this guide.

X