|Study Skills & Memory Techniques For Students
A large part of being a successful student is developing the ability to remember loads of information.
Here Graeme presents some useful study skills and memory techniques that both he and thousands of others have
used to do just that.
Get Ready To Study
It is essential to get organised before 'studying'. Here are some basic tips.
- Set aside a study timetable for your subject/course, and adhere to this come what may!
- As a general rule you should allocate 3 hours a week to each subject that you do. This should
be over and above any homework that's needing done. If you have a busy social life, family
commitments, or work, finding regular blocks of time is challenging, but ESSENTIAL.
- If you miss a 'shift' try to make this up ASAP. The less you do the less chance you have
of passing whatever it is you are (not!) studying.
- Find a suitable working environment. If home is too distracting use the College / University / Local library.
What Does Studying Entail?
Studying involves a number of activities. The first is getting your notes organized that you
have taken down in the classroom. You should write/type these out in full, making them as coherent
as possible. Look things up that you don't quite understand. Elaborate on your notes where appropriate.
Keep notes etc. for each subject in separate folders.
Use boxes, headings, underlining, and bullets, highlight important points using capitals, colour etc.
Remember you will have to use these later to study for assessments and exams. The more you put into them
earlier, the more useful they will become later on.
When this is finished, you then should use this time to research/write up assignments and projects.
Assignments and projects should fall away as the assessments/exams approach. It is then you should
use study periods to swot up for said assessments/exams.
If you are the kind of person who wants to be as organized as possible, it is a good idea to make
up summaries of lectures and classes as you go along. They could be done in Mind Map form, or in
shorthand text. Whatever, these should reflect the important points you have written about/expanded
upon in your notes.
Again use boxes, headings, underlining, and bullets, highlight important points using capitals,
Do this on a regular basis and when the assessments/exams come around you have your 'crib'
notes/cards already made up. You then exclusively study these time and time again getting the
essential information into your head! Anything you don't understand in your crib notes, look
it up in your hopefully excellent notes, read up on it, or consult your teacher.
Getting information into memory is a fundamental part of studying. When we have to this activity
in particular its important to remember the cognitive effect of taking regular breaks.
As a rough rule of thumb, when in study mode take a 5 minute break every 20-25 minutes or so.
The break allows our brain time to absorb and process what we have just been trying to put into it. A
break also clears the way for further efficient study. If you don't take regular breaks when studying
after a while you are on a bit of a 'loss leader' in the memory game. You just can't take it in. Sit
down to do this its important to remember that.
A good example of the effectiveness of regular breaks is the Explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton,
who would learn new languages by carrying a list of the words he wanted to learn in his pocket.
He swore never to "look at it for any longer than fifteen minutes at a time because after this
the mind loses its freshness." He mastered 29 Languages and 12 additional dialects on this basis.
Mnemonics have been used to aid memory since the time of the ancient Greeks.
Using mnemonics Themistocles could remember the names of all 20,000 people in Athens, while
Xerxes is said to have been able to recall the names of all the men in his army of 100,000.
While many are familiar with the use of simple mnemonics such as "Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain"
to help remember the colours of the rainbow, I prefer to use a purer version, which involves imagery
Imagery is memory of a 'thing' in picture form. Imagery is important as an aid to remembering
things because the brain has unlimited potential for remembering images. Encouraging his participants
to use imagery the psychologist Nickerson found they could later remember 9,996 pictures out of the
10 000 shown to them.
Association is also important as an aid to memory. This is where we remember something by associating
it with something already in our mind.
Association and imagery can both be used to enhance later memory recall, as is discussed later.
The Memory Palace
Mnemonics began rather tragically in ancient Greece with an evening dinner.
One of the diners stepped out to get a breath of fresh air, which was a lucky escape as the building
collapsed moments later. The locals all banded together and searched the rubble for survivors but
sadly only found the bodies. This was another problem as no one was able to identify who was who.
A dispute arose amongst the townspeople who wanted proper arrangements made for their kin. They
did not want to be making arrangements for someone else.
In order to help the survivor agreed to try and remember who was sitting where, and discovered
that by taking a mental walk around the table, he was able to picture in his head exactly where
everyone was sitting.
After this, the man wondered if there was something in this, and began practising with mental
walks around his own home. He would imagine a journey through the various rooms in his house and
designate certain items of furniture as 'hooks'. These designated hooks were permanent and could be used
to associate with something that he wanted to remember. If he wanted to remember to get his sword
sharpened for example, he would imagine it hanging on one of the pillars (which he had earlier
designated as a hook).
Imagining it swinging and making grinding noises on the pillar would make it even more memorable.
When he imagined walking through his home, he would subsequently remember the objects he had placed there,
and why. He would see the sword swinging on the pillar and remember to take it to get sharpened. He also
found that he could use this method to remember any amount of information. All he had to do was make
more hooks (the designated items of furniture). Hence the famous Roman Room technique (also known as
a Memory Palace) was born.
The most famous example of someone using a Memory Palace was the Jesuit Missionary called Matteo Ricci
(see book - The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci) who not only learned Chinese using this method but also
was able to memorise entire Chinese books word for word. By teaching the local Confucian scholars
these methods he became well respected for his wisdom and converted more of the locals to Christianity
than any other Jesuit Missionary.
How do you create an image to remember something? There are many ways of doing this. They all
require your use of imagination. Think in terms of
- Adding Movement
- Pleasant Imagery
- Order and Sequence
- Combining objects
You must also try to keep the images as clear as possible so that they cannot be confused for anything
else. To illustrate what I mean here is an example for how I remember Stroop, of Stroop Effect fame.
I simply combined S and Troop to get an S-troop… This is how I visualise Stroop
The Link System
With this in mind, here is a basic memory technique called the link system.
Say for example that you want to remember your shopping list:
Washing Up Liquid
Bottle of wine
It seems a lot to remember though there is no need to reach for a bit of paper.
Use Imagery (images that are vivid and meaningful to you) and association (associate each image with
the next in some way) instead:
In your mind imagine that you leave the house ready for your shopping trip. You step onto the path
and hear the crunch of eggs breaking under your feet. You look down and you see the eggs, then you
slip forwards and fall! But by a stroke of luck there just happens to be a large, soft loaf of bread
on the ground where you land that cushions your fall. You land on it, and can even smell how freshly
baked it is. You get up and are a little shaken by these strange events and so decide that you need
a cup of tea to steady your nerves. You go inside and make yourself a cup of tea and notice to your
great annoyance that you are using the last tea bag, which also appears rather larger than usual.
You then notice that there is barely enough sugar to get one cup and out of frustration crumple up
the now empty bag and throw it away. You even hear the crumpling as you do it! Now on top of that
there is no milk, so you go out into the back yard and get your own milk directly from the cow into
the cup. This done, you return inside and drink your tea. Feeling better you step inside and see the
most amazing thing in the sky. A giant hot air balloon, in the style of a Tomato Sauce bottle is
hovering near to your house. Seeing this puts you right in the notion for some chips. You walk to the
chip shop, and as you near it you smell the wonderful aroma that you only get near chip shops. This
makes you feel hungry but unfortunately the doorway to the chip shop has been blocked by a large block
of ice (frozen chips). You are forced to go into the shop next door to await the thawing of the ice
block. Here you find that the owner has messed up his order and only has washing up liquid in stock,
indeed all the shelves are crammed full of it! You buy a bottle, then proceed outside and are confronted
by a Punch and Judy show in the street. You watch long enough to see that the crocodile has stolen the
sausages, and has them in his mouth. The sausages are very long and you can see them snaking away from
the show, so you decide to follow them! They lead right to the Butchers, where a man outside hands you a
large packet of Bacon as a free sample! How lucky. Deciding that your day cant get any better you begin
to go back home, only to be stopped by the most gorgeous (man or woman) you have ever seen who invites
you to dinner. You accept and rush into the off-licence to buy a nice bottle of wine for the occasion!
Run through this a couple of times in your head to strengthen the associations and that will ensure you
remember it. I assure you, when you imagine once again the first link in the chain (leaving your house
to go to the shops), the rest will follow. Try it!
Remembering The Abstract
The reason I used a shopping list, is because these objects are fairly simple. To Memorize abstract
items is more a personal thing. For instance the image that someone creates for Freud's Id, Ego,
and Super Ego will vary from person to person. One person may choose to represent them the
following way -
Another may represent them entirely differently. Because of this I gave you the simple shopping list
example to start you off, but there is no reason why you cannot apply the same technique to memorising
what home work you have to do this week, or something else useful to your studies. The more you practise
using such methods the better you will get at memorising things.
Once these items are memorised using the above technique, they will fade within 24 - 48 hours. If you
only need them for this length of time that's fine. But if you want them for longer, it's only the
simple matter of reviewing the to-be-remembered material at key times!
Below is the key time for reviewing material after memorisation, which is important to keep information
|To keep it for a further
By the review in the second year, whatever it is you have memorised will be pretty much embedded in long
term memory. I can still remember the link system example, which was also a shopping list, in the first
ever memory book I read. This was because I just happened to practice rehearsal with it at intervals
similar to the above. Thus the inevitable happened and it became part of my long-term memory without me
There is one problem with the basic link system in that each item links to the next. Should you forget
one, those following may be lost!
Another drawback is that to access a particular bit of information you have to go through the whole list
The next two memory systems address this by adding permanent links, which will always remain the same.
These are numbers. Each number acts as a hook on which you will hang things (by associating the hook
with the item to be remembered).
This also allows you to access items non-sequentially! If you memorise 10 items like you did with the
last list, this time you will be able to recall each individually. If someone were to ask you what the
fifth item was, you can tell him or her straight away.
The Number Rhyme System
The first of these systems is known as the Number Rhyme System. This is very simple, easy to learn, and
acts as a foundation for more advanced techniques. You represent each of the numbers from one to ten with
a rhyming word, and use an image of the rhyming word as your hook. Here are some possibilities:
To create these hooks, you imagine them in your head and go over them several times. One-bun, two-shoe,
These will be the things that you always remember, with which you then associate new things.
By recalling one-bun, two-shoe, three-tree etc, you will also recall whatever you associated with
them at the time!
Go over the above a few times, imagining them as vividly as possible until you are sure you have
them clear in your head. Drawing them may even help.
Once you feel you are ready, try the following exercise.
Here is a numbered list of random objects for you to practice with.
To remember these use the following associations and picture them in your mind as vividly as possible.
Having imagined all these, and gone over them a couple of times, give it ten minutes and see if you can remember them again.
- A Huge bun has a windmill built on top! This is a silly place for a windmill; its sinking into the
soft bun and slowly capsizing.
- A large shoe, with which the drummer from your favourite band, is beating upon his drums.
- A tree that is growing inside a great big massive Jar, and barely emerging out the top of this jar.
- A door, a very fancy door, which has a camera attached to it to take your picture before you go through.
- A hive is nearby and the bees annoying you. You roll up The Star newspaper and begin to swat them!
- Sticks all sticking vertically out of the ground, encircling and containing a poodle, which is jumping up and down and not happy about his incarceration.
- Heaven… up in the clouds, but very windy that day. One of the Angels has found an old windshield, which he has enlarged and propped at the side of his cloud.
- Imagine your gate, with the bad Terminator out of Terminator 2 pouring through it! Or if you haven't seen that film, just imagine old Arnie!
- Vine, deep in the jungle you cut your way through lots of these, and eventually come across a bus, trapped among them, suspended in mid air.
- Hen, pecking at the ground (like they do) but is accidentally trod on by a Yeti, and goes daft!
Once you have used the hooks once, what you are remembering on them will fade after about 24 hours (unless you do a review). Use the
fact that they fade to wipe them 'tabula rasa' in preparation for use again. If you keep using the hooks without letting the images
fade, you may find some confusion between the items your currently memorising, and previous items. I generally use
these systems for temporary information. For things that you want to store longer term, the Roman Room system is
Before we leave the Number Rhyme system however, you may notice that you do not have to recall the numbers in
sequence. If you want number 5… merely remember Hive, the associated information comes back! This also means
you can recall the list backwards if you like, just as easily as you did forwards. Try it.
Lastly there is another number system, almost exactly the same as the one I have just illustrated, except that
it uses the shape of the number to form the image.
With the previous technique eight was gate because it rhymes, whereas with this new memory system the number eight
is visualised as a snowman, because it looks like the shape of the number!
On this basis here are some suggestions for your second set of permanent hooks.
6. Elephants Trunk
10. Bat and Ball
I am sure you now know what to do with these hooks? Get them embedded in your head, and then practice with them.
This now gives you 2 sets of 10 hooks. You could assign (by simply using the same convention every time) one set for
numbers 1 - 10 and the other for numbers 11 - 20, thus allowing you to tackle a 20-item list.
Assuming the site readership is mainly Psychology students, you are now armed with the ability to confound any, and every
memory experiment you take part in (see STM). Have Fun!
We are now about to make a massive leap. So far you have 3 systems. One for linking things together and 2 with 10
predefined hooks each. This gives you 20 hooks in total. I am now going to teach you the Memory Palace, or Roman
Room, that was mentioned earlier. It works as follows -
The Memory Palace
In your head picture a room. It can be any room from anywhere. It could also be entirely imagined if you care to
invent one from scratch (which to me is most fun). It could even be a combination of real and imagined.
Get a bit of paper and sketch the room. A top down plan works well, but you may also want to draw it from
Next select various items of furniture, as hooks. The more unique they are the better.
Once you are sure of the hooks you will be using, also select a set course through the room that takes
you past the hooks, which you will follow every time you conjure up your room.
Grabbing individual bits of information may not require this set course, but it's good to have this set
journey in case you need to memorise items in order.
All you do now is spend some time going round your Roman Room / Memory Palace, and embedding the hooks
into your long-term memory. Once done, you can then practise memorising items in it.
For example, you might have a picture of the Mona Lisa hanging on one of your walls. Should you suddenly be
asked by one of your friends to remember to buy her a pen when you're next shopping - you simply imagine
an oversized pen scribbling of it's own accord on the Mona Lisa. And you can tell by her look, she's not
happy about it!
The next time you take an imaginary walk through your Roman Room, that pen will still be scribbling away.
This technique helps you remember with little effort the pen you have to buy.
The beauty of the Roman Room is that once you've done your first room, it's just as easy to make another
one. In fact, make another ten, twenty, thirty… rooms; there is no limit! Do not be intimidated no
matter how large a number of items you find yourself storing in your Roman Room. Thirty is just as
easy as Twenty, Ninety as easy as Eighty, Five Hundred as easy as Four Hundred and Ninety. It's simply
a matter of practice! Remember the key ingredients -
- Pleasant Imagery
- Order and Sequence
- Combining objects
If you do forget something that you have tried to remember using any of the above systems - look closely at the
imagery you used. Was the imagery dubious? Did I use another meaning for that image than the one I had originally
intended? Was there another reason I didn't recall it? Did I use all my senses? Try to feel, smell and hear
them as well. Using all your senses makes the imagined items more memorable, and 'solid'.
When you work out where you went wrong in each case, be sure to later avoid that mistake. By doing this, you will
eventually become adept at coming up with great images. The more you practice the better and faster you will
become, and the more natural this memory technique will come to you!
It is hoped this has been useful? Some fail to see the point of Mnemonics, such as Alexander Craig Aitken
who apparently distrusted all mnemonic tricks and is quoted as saying "They merely perturb with alien and
irrelevant association a faculty that should be pure and limpid." Of course it's all right for him, he had a
natural ability to memorise (and once memorised 1000 digits of pi for a lark) and therefor did not require
For the rest of us however mnemonics is a god send! Rather than being stuck with poor memories, it provides a sure
method of enhancing memory ability and recall of material by actively encoding it rather than passively going over it.
For those of you who see the potential, read on for more information. It's your call! Or recall when I come to think about it!
If you have any questions email me at email@example.com and I will be more
than happy to answer any questions you have about the above.
For More info about memory
The above is only the tip of the iceberg, enough I hope to be usefull to you in your studies. To learn more
I recomend you read some of Tony Buzan's works. He has written the most comprehensive range of books on
memory and learning. These books generally cost a mere 7.99 each (for paperback), and all are a bargain.
(I have seen people packagining these ideas in course format and selling them for hundreds of pounds.)
Use Your Memory, by Tony Buzan. - This book goes into great depth about Mnemonics and also covers mind mapping briefly.
Use Your Head, by Tony Buzan. - This book deals with memory, reading, studying, mindmapping and is especially suited to students.
Note this books doesn't cover mnemonics. It is nethertheless an essential for honing your study techniques.
If you can afford both, get both.
If your a student, then get 'Use your Head' first. You can always buy 'Use Your Memory' another time.
If you are specifically interested in Mnemonics, then 'Use Your Memory' is the way to go.
If you are skint, annoy the libary untill they get them in for you!
The Dick Institute has a copy of 'Use Your Memory' (which I will return asap in case any of you go looking for it!).
'Use Your Head' by Tony Buzan.
'Use Your Memory' by Tony Buzan.
'The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci' by Jonathan D. Spence. (A biography of Matteo's life, and how he used Mnemonics.
Does not tell you directly anything about Mnemonics.)
'Hannibal' by Richard Harris. (Yep, even Hannibal Lecter uses Mnemonics!)
'The Joy of Pi' by David Blatner. (Mentions Mnemonics breifly regards memorising Pi.)
'Mega Memory' by Kevin Trudeau. (Not a book, more an extortionate (£60ish as I recall)
American course with tapes you listen to. Not bad, but poor value for money since it's not even half as good as Buzan's books and almost 8 x the price!)
'Dune' by Frank Herbert. (A classic Sci Fi adventure, of relevance merely from the point of view of the Mentat's who are trained to exceed human mental capabilites (because computers are banned after a war with A.I.).)