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Learning and memory techniques

Understanding how your memory works will help you condition it to improve your ability to recall information you need in the examination room

Memory is like any other discipline, if you don’t consistently use it, it can under-perform and let you down when you need it most. Not only this but we were probably never taught how to properly use it. Like any other worthwhile skill, improving memory and recall will take a little bit of effort at first, but will soon become second nature to you. It will soon be easy to increase your focus, avoid cramming, and structure your study time well. Apart from these basics, there are many more useful tips for memorising your way to success.

Your memory works in three very simple steps:

  • Information in
  • Information storage
  • Information recall

All of these aspects are important for success in your exams. So how do we improve our ability to store and recall information? There are many different techniques and I can guarantee you that there are always some to help every student.

What type of learner are you?

Let’s discuss some of the best methods for gathering and storing information in the first place. A small amount of time spent now on figuring out what works for you will reward you later as you approach exams.


Are you a visual or verbal learner? Think about the things in life that you remember vividly and in full detail. Is it information in the form of pictures and text? Or is it a speech from the radio or news read on the TV? Visual learners learn best from what they see and write down. Verbal learners learn best from asking questions and hearing answers.

  • If you are a visual learner then you will learn most effectively through the use of diagrams, clearly laid out notes, visual organisers, colour-coded bullet points and study techniques such as idea-mapping and flashcards.
  • If you are a verbal learner then you can improve study performance by reading texts and key points aloud, talking to others about what you have learned, recording your notes and playing them back on your mp3 player, and through memory techniques such as mnemonics.

Information and storage:

  • No matter how you learn best, it's a great idea to focus on learning in more ways than one, eg find ways to take in information visually and verbally.
  • Read aloud to yourself as you take notes and learn the same information in the form of idea maps and flashcards.
  • The more connections you create and storage areas you use, the easier it is for you to recall the information on cue in the exam.
  • Approach new material with strong interest and a high level of focus. This will help you to remember more details.
  • The opening and closing paragraphs will usually contain good summaries of the material covered.
  • End of chapter questions highlight the most important things that you need to know.
  • nTeach what you have learned to another person. This can be another student or even a family member, it's not important who.
  • In teaching somebody else, you have to approach the material in a different way and this helps create new links to the material in your brain. Not only that, but teaching others can help reveal gaps in your own knowledge that you were unaware of.
  • Teaching somebody else is very similar to writing in an exam, when you have to explain things to the examiner.
  • Try to connect new information to things that you already know. This could be in understanding the relationship between two geographic features or why certain Spanish verbs have similar changes in the past tense.
  • By establishing a relationship between a new idea and existing thoughts, you can strengthen your understanding and more easily recall this in the future.

Information recall:

Once you’ve started learning all of this information, it’s time to begin working on your information recall. Having good memory recall means that you will be able to quickly and efficiently remember facts during the exam and present them to the examiner in the best way possible.

Keep learning and practising. It’s important to keep using the material that you have learnt. The website examinations.ie is a great resource for past papers, marking schemes and practising under exam conditions. This is why it’s important to have a regular revision schedule.

There are a number of methods to test your recall. Using an idea map or brainstorm, write down everything you can remember without consulting your book or notes.

Check what you left out. Repeat these two steps, focusing more on missing details each time. When you can recall all of the essential points, you have learnt it well.

Eat healthily. A healthy diet contributes to a healthy brain, and thus improves your memory recall noticeably. Foods that are high in antioxidants – broccoli, spinach and berries, for example – and omega-3 fatty acids (which can be taken in capsule form) aid healthy brain functioning.

Tips for good memory techniques:

  • Have good note taking techniques. Your presentation is very important. Keep them clear, neat and use colour. You should be able to revise the information at a quick glance later on.
  • Number your points in lists – they are easier to learn than those not numbered.
  • Leave a wide margin at the side of your notes to add extra details if necessary.
  • Don't copy diagrams from books. It's a waste of time. Study the drawing and then draw it from memory.
  • Leave lots of white spaces in your notes. Space your points out. This makes it easier to learn.
  • Constant self-testing and regular revision of topics helps you to remember information.


Flashcards are one of the best ways to learn and study. They are quick to use, portable, and can help you learn difficult facts very easily. If made properly, they will greatly increase the speed of your learning. They can be used when traveling or in any other spare time when you might normally get nothing done. In fact, flashcards are most effective when used in short intervals, ie 10 minutes here and there.

Using flashcards to learn items of information and then testing yourself on these facts has several advantages over simply reading the information from the book or notes.

  • The method of testing is reversible, ie instead of English to French, you can try French to English translations.
  • The answer is hidden on the other side of the card so you can easily tell if you know it or not.
  • Flashcards turn simple facts into interesting questions, so you have to think as you answer.

Sometimes students approach flashcards in the wrong way. For example, they often put too much information on each side. Follow these simple tips to studying with flashcards and soon you’ll be taking in huge amounts of information almost without even trying.

  • Each card should only have one question and one main answer – try to avoid large blocks of text. It's a good idea to put some relevant information on the answer side. This can be seen in the picture above which has "verbs that decline like courir" as well.
  • Keep a pile of blank cards on your desk when studying. When you come across something that you don't know, take a minute to make a flashcard for this fact. If you do it straight away then you don't have to worry about it later.
  • Make sure to keep your flashcards in your bag at all times. Since flashcards are portable and easy to use, you can study at any time, ie while waiting for class to begin, for the bus home, or watching some TV at the end of the day.
  • Create two different piles as you study your cards. Place all of the cards you know into one pile and all of the cards you got incorrect into the other.
  • You should now go through the incorrect pile in more detail and try again to commit these facts to your memory.
  • Once you've revised the incorrect pile, take both piles and shuffle them together. The next time you study these cards, repeat the same steps with correct and incorrect cards.
  • Eventually, you will make very few mistakes while revising your cards. A good strategy then is to take all of your incorrect cards from every subject, and place them in one pile. You now have all of your potential mistakes in one place, and it's even easier to eliminate them than before.
  • A good sample review schedule is to review the cards again after one day, then three days, then one week, then three weeks, then one month, then three months, and then six months. Come exam preparation time, you can revise the cards more frequently.

So remember:

  • Choose the important facts from the chapters you read.
  • Use your own words to summarise the key points.
  • Label the cards with the subject heading and date, and also make a note of when you last revised them.
  • Use different colours and diagrams where possible.
  • Above all, don't put too much information on the cards.


Acronyms are words formed from the first letter of the first word of each point/fact you want to remember. It can be a made-up or real word, as long as it is memorable to you. 

How to form an acronym

1. Write out the facts/details you need to remember.

2. Underline the first letter of the first word of each fact.

3. Arrange the underlined letters to form a real word or a word that makes sense to you.

For example, MRSVANDERTRAMP is an acronym which helps us to remember the verbs that take Être in French: monter, rester, sortir, venir, aller, naitre, descendre, entrer, rentrer, tomber, retourner, arriver, mourir, partir.

You can also form an acronymic sentence to remember information in a certain order.

HOMES is an acronym that helps us remember the five great lakes of America, for example, and the sentence "Hungry Old Man Eats Steak" also helps to remember the five lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.

Remembering numbers:
Some students have problems remembering numbers. If you do too, just make up a sentence in which the number of letters in each word represents each digit of the number to be remembered.

For example:
Value of pie is 3.1415926.

This can be remembered using the mnemonic:

May(3) I(1) have(4) a(1) large(5) container(8) of(2) coffee(6)

Visual organisers:
Visual organisers are simple drawings or formats used to represent information and they help to show connections between ideas. 

These include:

  • Tables
  • Charts
  • Graphs
  • Timelines
  • Idea Maps
  • Pie Charts
  • Sketches

Visual organisers are not suitable for constant use in every subject and topic area, but are a great tool to use in areas you find difficult to understand using plain notes.