12 Memorization Techniques for College Students

Memorization techniques are deep learning practices that improve the formation and retention of memories. When college students employ proven memorization strategies, the techniques deepen the learning process and make stored memories easier to recall.

Students that employ effective memorization strategies in college improve learning, retention and test taking performance. In a study published in the International Journal of Applied Research, Dr. Md. Enamul Hoque states that memorization is a proven method of learning: “Memorization techniques have a double effect on our brain. Firstly, we learn the information at hand, and secondly, we become better at remembering over time”.

The best memorization techniques produce fuller understanding and long-term retention. Proven memorization strategies are:

  • Comprehension
  • Sleep
  • Retrieval practice / Self-testing
  • Distributed practice
  • Copying existing notes by hand
  • Elaborative learning
  • Self-talk
  • Chunking
  • Interleaving
  • Dual encoding
  • Teaching others
  • Active reading
12 Memorization Techniques

Comprehension

Understanding the information you are trying to memorize is the essential first step in learning. The Learning Center at the University of North Carolina tips and tools for enhancing your memory says about memorization strategies, “If you find that you don’t understand the material, spend some time on understanding it before trying to memorize it.”

Comprehension provides understanding of the principles and meaning of the information, allowing you to connect it mentally to related concepts to enhance deeper learning.

Failure to comprehend information before trying to memorize it reduces how long you can retain the information. The information isn’t encoded into long-term memory if it is not first understood.

Comprehension is significant for all other memorization strategies. For example, it is very difficult to retrieve information in self-testing, elaborate on it or teach it to others without first comprehending it yourself.

One of the most important study tips for students is to realize what you do not know and reach out for help. This improves comprehension which in turn boosts memorization.

Sleep

The human brain continues to process and retain information during sleep. These functions are at the heart of memorization, and even a short rest can consolidate memorization. As a result, this strategy for memorization is also called sleep consolidation.

Various academic studies show the connection between sleep and memorization. For example, one study on Sleep Spindle Activity showed that bursts of neural activity during non-REM sleep called spindles have, “been associated with the integration of new memories with existing knowledge,” (Tamminen, Payne, Stickgold, Wamsley, & Gaskell, 2010). The result of integrated memory is both improved comprehension and long-term memory.

Another study on ultra short episodes of sleep suggests that the beginning of sleep starts the process within the brain of consolidation and storage of new information. One of the study’s conclusions is that “even an ultra short period of sleep is sufficient to enhance memory processing. We suggest that the mere onset of sleep may initiate active processes of consolidation which – once triggered – remain effective even if sleep is terminated shortly thereafter.”

Self-testing or Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice is a type of self-testing that involves writing down from memory all that you can about a specific topic or in answer to a study question. In other words, test yourself to see whether you know the answer before looking it up in your notes.

This memorization strategy is also called testing effect and is a proven metacognitive study strategy that has, “powerful effects on learning and long-term retention.”

Self-testing requires active recall rather than simply reading the answer which is a passive form of learning. It is a form of active learning which engages the mind at a deeper level and produces increased retention. This and other active learning techniques are among the best study habits for students to develop.

Other benefits of retrieval practice are improved understanding, uncovering areas where fuller understanding is required, better problem solving skills and higher levels of confidence and less test anxiety.

Distributed Practice

When you memorize something and then periodically review it, the information moves from your temporary working memory to long-term memory. And as you review it, comprehension improves along with discovering what you still don’t understand, so that you can find answers to fill in knowledge gaps.

Distributed practice goes by other names. Distributed review emphasizes reviewing information at intervals of a few days to a week or more. Spaced repetition focuses on repeating and studying the information at intervals, also called spaced learning.

Self-testing, self-talking, writing out a copy of the information, and explaining the information to someone else are among the other memorization strategies that are effectively integrated into distributed review.

A meta-analysis of 317 experiments on distributed practice validated distributed practice as an effective method to increase retention. The analysis suggests that the best long-term retention is achieved by increasing the interval between reviews over time. When the interval is longer, the demand on the brain to retrieve the information – retrieval practice – produces improved understanding and retention.

Hand Copy the Information

Writing out by hand a copy of your lecture notes or other information you’re trying to memorize stimulates the brain at a deeper level than simply reading or retyping information. Apparently, “there is a direct connection between our hand and our brain,” according to the Learning Center at UNC.

Additionally, handwriting limits distractions often posed by digital devices, and there is better focus on the paper when writing by hand, creating a visual memory of the information.

Handwriting a copy of your notes is a proven study habit, one of many active learning strategies with demonstrated positive benefit.

An often-cited study published in Psychological Science concluded that typing notes on a keyboard, such as on a laptop, “results in shallower processing,” than hand-copying notes and can lead to lower performance in test taking.

Elaborative Learning

Elaborative learning is a memorization strategy that involves not simply copying notes but also writing out what the information means and how it is connected to related themes being learned. When the concepts or data are explained in writing, retention is improved because the new information is connected to existing knowledge. This technique for memorization is also called elaborative rehearsal and elaboration.

Tips for elaborative learning include writing summaries of key concepts, composing potential test questions and answers, formulating examples of how the information might be employed in actual practice

Formulating questions based on the information is known as elaborative interrogation. This memorization strategy, elaborative interrogation, “has been found to enhance the memorization and understanding of isolated facts more effectively than simple reading or underlining. This strategy involves generating explanations for why stated facts are true, promoting deeper engagement with the material” (Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(4), 642–651)

Self-talking

Talking to yourself involves mentally or verbally reviewing information that you are trying to learn. Self-talking improves attention, which leads to deeper processing and understanding. The result is better retention when the information has to be shared in answers on a test.

This technique can begin with reviewing notes or information in a book. The benefits of self-talking will be maximized if you move on to reviewing the information from memory.

This memorization strategy is most effective with these tips. First, talk out loud, so that you both speak and hear the information. However, if you find this to be distracting, then do your self-talking in your head. Over time, you will understand which technique – out loud or in your head – is a better memory tool for you.

Secondly, employ elaborative learning as part of talking to yourself – explain key concepts, especially difficult ones, rather than just reciting them or stating facts about them.

Chunking

Chunking as a memorization tool involves breaking down large and/or complex concepts or lists into smaller chunks that are more manageable and easier to learn.

Each smaller chunk is then learned independently before connections or associations between them are studied and learned. The result is to reconstruct the whole with a far better understanding of each of its component parts. As a result of this mental process, this memorization strategy is also known as chunking and association.

A synopsis of the data on chunking determined that it “might be important in many processes of perception, learning and cognition in humans…” This is because chunking reduces the amount of material the mind has to assimilate in a short period of time. Reducing cognitive load in this way allows for deeper learning of the chunks of information, which can then be more easily integrated into a whole and with information previously learned and retained.

Interleaving

Interleaving or interleave learning is the practice of alternating or rotating concepts or chunks of information you are trying to memorize.

An example of interleaving would be to do several calculus problems, then work through a list of business terms you want to memorize, and then review a series of paintings and the artists who created them. After a short break, you could then repeat the process, changing the order if desired. The benefit of this process is called the interleaving effect.

A meta-analysis of interleaved learning examined 59 studies and showed that interleaving is most effective when studying two types of material – information that falls into similar categories, and information that is complex. The analysis showed that interleaving as a memorization strategy is most effective with visual subjects such as artwork and moderately effective with mathematical tasks.

Dual Encoding

Dual encoding theory suggests that students employ both visual and verbal information to promote memorization. Additionally, writing the information by hand while reading it back to yourself, known as self-talk, will also produce dual encoding.

The 2020 study Neuroanatomical Approaches to Improving Student Learning in Science Education concluded that dual encoding is one of “several teaching and learning paradigms which, if employed in the classroom, can improve student learning in science education.” Other paradigms that improve student learning along with dual encoding are listed as chunking, sleep consolidation and retrieval practice, also known as self-testing.

Teaching Others

Explaining concepts and information to others causes deep mental processing and reinforcement that enhances comprehension, memorization and retention. The memorization strategy also gives students practice and improves their ability to clearly explain information in a way they will have to on an exam.

Known as peer instruction, teaching others can employ retrieval practice and elaborative learning. It causes the teaching student to select and organize the most important information, explain it and integrate it with related concepts taught in the course and necessary to know in order to do well when test taking. When it isn’t possible to teach another student, role playing with a fictitious person can have the same benefits.

An adage in academics is that teaching is a powerful way to learn. A significant body of research reveals the benefits of learning by teaching.

A key study on learning-by-teaching as a pedagogical mechanism indicates that as subjects become more complex, this memory tool yields even greater results (David Duran, 2017).

Active Reading

Reading actively means thinking about the content on a level deeper than simply reading it. An adage attributed to Confucius is that “learning [reading] without thought is labor lost.”

Active reading takes many forms including taking notes on key concepts, highlighting information you want to remember and making a brief outline of what you are reading. It is similar to elaborative learning in which new concepts are explained and integrated with your existing knowledge.

Tips for active versus passive reading include:

  • Reading with questions in mind or listing questions as they arise based on the information you are consuming.
  • Being slightly skeptical about the author’s information, so that you are motivated to verify it through additional study.
  • Critically evaluating the information by comparing it to what you already know.

How Memory is Affected by Stress

Acute, short-term stress can focus attention and enhance retention, such as when a traumatic incident occurs. However, for learning, chronic stress reduces memory in three ways.

First, it negatively affects your ability to form memories, which means that you will not have good retention of information you just read or heard in lecture. Secondly, stress makes it more difficult to retrieve information previously stored in the memory. This means that you might not be able to remember information under stress that you would when relaxed.

Finally, stress can create memory distortions that include false memories or the inability to distinguish between similar concepts or facts. All of these negative consequences of stress impact memorization and the ability to retrieve information when in a test taking situation.

A study on the stress effects on memory concludes that stress harms memory because it impairs the functioning of the hippocampus and other systems of the brain related to memory.

What Are Common Strategies to Manage Stress in College?

There are healthy and unhealthy strategies for stress management in college.

Healthy stress management strategies for college students include improving time management skills to make the best use of your time, setting realistic goals, incorporating proven study techniques, and maintaining a healthy diet and exercise habits.

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