Coming up to the end of the year, now is the time to start cramming for those exams right? Wrong. Cramming is one of the worst ways to learn. There are much better, not to mention healthier, ways to retain all the new things you’ve worked so hard to learn this year. In this article we’re going to take a look at the top 10 methods to improve your memory and retain those studied notes.
1. Cramming is Not the Answer
Not only does cramming lead to stress and a lack of sleep, but you are much less likely to remember what you are studying. The trick is you think you are storing the information but this is only because you are reading and re-reading words, diagrams or images and they now look familiar to you. Seeing your notes again and recognising that you’ve read it before does not mean you have that information stored or, the worst part, whether you will even be able to recall that information during the exam.
In an article by the BBC, they state “different parts of the brain support different kinds of memory. Just because your visual cortex is fluently processing your notes after five consecutive hours of you looking at them, doesn’t mean the rest of your brain is going to be able to reconstruct the memory of them when you really need it to.”
The solution? Create short study sessions weeks or months ahead of an exam. Instead of trying to memorise your textbook the night before, space out your workload which will let you better absorb the information. It is so much easier to study in 30 minute blocks than one large 10 hour block. Both your body and brain will thank you for it. Not to mention that sweet A+ you’ll score on the test.
2. Get the Right Amount of Sleep
We all know that having too little sleep makes us a grouch. It’s difficult to concentrate, our reaction speed drops, and retaining new information or accessing old memories is an impossible challenge. Some other effects that aren’t so well known are that your body increases blood pressure and cortisol (the stress hormone). And if you are really cramming for that exam and don’t sleep at all, within a week you will start to hallucinate, experience memory loss and then lose all cognitive function. You can find out more here.
So why is sleep so important? While you sleep your brain creates new connections between your brain cells, storing all the new information you have learnt that day. It’s also the time your brain sweeps out any information it doesn’t need, such as the name of the guy who served you at Subway.
The University of California conducted a test between people who have insomnia and those who don’t, interestingly the results found that “people with insomnia not only have trouble sleeping at night, but their brains are not functioning as efficiently during the day.”
There is a lot of debate over exactly how many hours you should be sleeping each night, but as a guide you should aim for between 7 and 8 hours. For those who struggle just falling asleep, an app called Sleep Genius may be able to help. If it can help astronauts fall asleep, it should be able to help you.
3. Hit the Gym
Physical exercise has been found to be a great way to help improve, not just your memory, but the brain’s health and well-being both in a molecular and behavioural way. When you work up a sweat, the brain receives more oxygen which helps you to avoid memory loss and better retain what you learn.
Exercising in the morning might not sound like much fun, but the benefits are well worth it. You will feel more prepared for the mental stresses of the day, your reaction speed will increase allowing you to solve complex problems easier and you will be able to retain the new information from the day much better than if you had just hit snooze on the alarm.
As a general rule, any cardio exercise will help your brain’s health. Other forms of exercise that are great for your brain are classes or workouts that involve coordination mixed with cardio, or circuit workouts that target different areas of your body at a fast pace.
You can learn more here.
4. Work That Brain
It is just as important to give your brain the chance to stretch as it is to work out your body. Performing simple brain exercises such as crosswords or brushing your teeth with the opposite hand, anything which is both a challenge and a novel experience, will give your brain the chance to sweat.
Currently a popular way to keep your brain in shape is using a brain training game on your phone or tablet. However, it might not be helping us at all. In a group test of people aged from 23 to 75, the popular brain training game Lumosity was put to the test. The results? No major changes when tested over 4 main areas: planning, attention, executive function and reasoning. Those tested were tasked with playing the game 3 times a week for no less than 15 minutes over a 2.5 or 4 week duration.
To see more on how the test was conducted, check out this video.
Some brain exercises you can do that won’t cost anything:
- Ditch the calculator and try to do maths in your head.
- Learn a foreign language.
- Rely on your memory and draw a map.
- Test your athleticism with a new sport.
- Take up a new hobby that requires fine-motor skills such as drawing, knitting or painting.
- Try cooking something new. Cooking requires the use of various parts of the brain and multiple senses.
- Put your taste buds to work and try to taste out the finest herbs and spices while you enjoy your meal.
- Let your inner musician shine and try learning a new instrument.
- Practice your recall. When writing your shopping list, try and memorise everything on it and then try to recall all the items an hour later. Bonus points if you can recall everything in order.
- Visualise a word and then try to think of a word that either starts or ends with the same two letters. For example: Pickle – Pipe – Pride – Pulse
5. What’s on Your Plate Affects What Stays in Your Mind
We’ve all heard this before, a balanced diet is important for a healthy life, and it is. What you may not have known is that eating your veggies, berries, walnuts and even fish can help your memory.
Vegetables – The best veggies for your mind are specifically from the cruciferous family. This means you want to see these mostly on your plate:
- Bok Choy
- Brussel Sprouts
- Collard Greens
- Mustard greens
Berries – These are great to have as a side to your breakfast, as a quick snack, or even with dessert. The berries most beneficial for helping improve your memory are dark berries such as blackberries and blueberries.
Walnuts – Aside from helping prevent neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia), walnuts can help lower your cholesterol, lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and even ease PMS symptoms. Find out more about the benefits of walnuts.
Fish – Get your seafood bibs out, most seafood and algae contain Omega-3, the main ingredient for helping your memory. For the highest amount of Omega-3, look no further than bluefin tuna, salmon, herring and sardines. Omega-3 is an acid called docosahexaenoic. In an article by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, they state that “DHA is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain. It makes sense that if you have higher levels of DHA in the blood, then the brain will operate more efficiently.”
6. Multitasking is More Harmful Than you Know
Aside from the exceptional 2.5% of the population, known as Supertaskers, the rest of us need on average 1 to 2 seconds before changing between tasks to properly absorb the information. Doing multiple tasks, such as watching Netflix, studying maths and science is not an effective way to absorb the information. You can lose as much as 40% of your productivity which is entirely counterproductive to the purpose of multitasking. And it can take you as long as 5 minutes before you are able to pick up where you left off if you are distracted by a phone call or the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
It gets worse. If you are guilty of multitasking regularly, you are more likely to damage your brain and use it less effectively than someone who focuses on a single task at a time. Find out more information on how multitasking can harm your creativity, health, IQ and productivity here.
7. Use a Mnemonic Device
“What’s a mnemonic device? And how do I even say that crazy word?” I hear you ask. Pronounced as (Nem-on-ik), you are more familiar with them than you might realise. Mnemonic devices are simple tools you can use to help train your brain to associate images with information, remember simple rhymes, lump data into easy to manage chunks or whatever best works for you, so that you recall that information easier.
Here are a couple examples that you might be familiar with:
- Visualise – Think of an image and associate it with what you are trying to remember. An example is to visualise a tooth and associate that with a dental appointment.
- Acronyms – One you might be familiar with is ROY G BIV. Which is an easy way to remember the colours of the rainbow and what order they are in (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet).
- Rhyming – Creating short poems are a great way to remember things. An example you are likely to be familiar with is “‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’.”
- Chunking – This is a common method people use to remember phone numbers or other large pieces of information. For example instead of trying to commit to memory 0412345678, you would remember the smaller “chunks” as 0412 345 678.
Our minds are not cookie cut from a template, some Mnemonic devices will work better for different people. There are many more types of Mnemonic Devices, find what best works best for you.
8. Become the Teacher
There is no better way to understand what you are learning than to be able to comfortably teach it to someone else. You’ll realise quite quickly where the gaps are in your knowledge when you try to explain it, from there you can easily reread some notes or increase your knowledge on the subject so that next time when you try and explain it, it will flow easier and you will remember it better. In an article by Business Insider, it was stated that “students enlisted to tutor others work harder to understand the material, recall it more accurately and apply it more effectively.”
This doesn’t mean you need to become a full-time teacher, but enlisting the help of friends, family or other students can help you better remember the information.
9. Practice Makes Perfect
You might be surprised by how much you’ve forgotten when you reread those notes you jotted down at the beginning of the semester. This is because the brain is similar to a muscle, to maintain that strength and flexibility you need to work it. In an article by Leiden University, a test explored the potential benefits of practicing a task where information was stored, accessed and then regularly updated over a 6 week period. A different group of people were given the same task but did not practice. Those people who practiced were able to better retain the information and could recall the changes made to the information easier than those who didn’t practice. “These findings illustrate the importance of controlling for test–retest effects in training or intervention studies.”
For some quick motivation on why you should practice, have a look at this video.
10. Socialise and Have a Laugh
Aside from short-term improvements for your memory, to keep your brain healthy and maintain an active memory over the years, one way to achieve this is to simply hang out with your friends. In a journal article by the American Public Health Association a test was conducted on elderly women with different sized social circles. At the end of the test, it was found that a larger social circle would decrease the risk of dementia by up to 26%. Within this test, women who visited friends daily further decreased their risk by as much as 50%.
What’s more, is that by having a good laugh with friends and family lets your body release endorphins and dopamine, in doing so we feel happier and our stress levels drop. This improves your memory by increasing your gamma wave band frequency, the brain waves which affect cognition, information processing, and learning perception. You can find out more about why laughter is the best medicine here.
So to help your mental health and keep your memory healthy, catching up with friends is part of the prescription.
Hopefully this list will help you improve your memory and ace those tests! Let us know what tip helps you the most.
Central College Online is a part of the Group Colleges of Australia organisation which has been established for over thirty years and offers online courses in more than forty subjects to thousands of students.