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How to study effectively: learning to remember

This is the third part in a series. If you missed part one or two it’s worth reading them in order.

Apart from bribery, which is sadly frowned upon by many exam boards, increasing your recall is one of the easiest ways to improve your exam results. Poor technique can mean repeatedly learning then forgetting material or spending too much time on stuff that you already know.

Good initial recall

Like public transport, reading is both horribly inefficient and unavoidable. Unlike public transport, it can be improved without having to deal with that smell and those people. There’s a temptation to gravitate towards serious and academic looking tomes, but resources that go through the material in a more engaging way and contextualise it have greater impact. Choose your textbook wisely.

The more thoughtfully we interact with a subject, the more we remember.

There are also active reading techniques, such as SQ3R and the Q system, which encourage us to engage more deeply with the material as we read it. Engagement is the key principle here. The more thoughtfully we interact with a subject, the more we remember. So, explaining concepts to others is powerful, as are questions which force us to make comparisons and develop opinions.


Seeing the same information recur over time helps us retain it better than a short burst of exposure. After a good study session, it’s easy to believe that our new memories have become permanent, but we can forget anything given long enough.

Reviewing information one day after learning it, then again after a few days, helps consolidate memories, especially if it’s an active review where we’re engaging with the material. A good approach is to revisit the short and simple scenario based questions which often appear at the end of textbook chapters.

I avoid advanced questions until I am proficient and comfortable with the straight-forward ones. A little challenge is good, pulling out my own hair until it looks like I’m sat on a rug – not so much. Until some consolidation has occurred, attempting complex problems can dent our confidence and be counter-productive.

Maintaining memories and pinpointing problems

We want to be sure to memorise everything required for the exam. This often catches people out as they focus almost exclusively on the hardest material, but simple is not a synonym for memorable. Students also rely on past exam papers to help them flag up weak memory, which is arduously slow and only covers a fraction of the syllabus. If we want to cover everything with enough repetition to retain it all, we need something quicker.

Simple is not a synonym for memorable.

Direct questions are fast because they’re written to test memory rather than problem solving; flashcards are a prime example. They might ask you to apply a process (what is the square root of 81?), but it should be obvious what is being tested and it should take only a moment to answer.

Instead of writing notes by summarising textbook content, which does little to improve recall, we can create a comprehensive set of direct self-testing materials. So, how do we decide which information to memorise? Sometimes the syllabus will give clear guidance on the learning objectives, otherwise we can use past paper questions to gauge what to stuff in our noggins.

There are good options for both physical and digital direct self-testing. The Leitner system and Mark Forster’s experimental learning system are excellent for those who favour pen and paper. Alternatively, there are an abundance of flashcard apps such as Memrise and Anki which use ‘spaced repetition’ to make memorisation more efficient.

With regular use of either recall should quickly improve and problem areas will become clear.

Memorising slippery stuff

Some information is stubbornly resistant to flashcard style memorisation. If flashcards fail and you’ve worked through questions incorporating interaction with the material, there are still options.

Mnemonics are the obvious answer, especially if pre-written ones exist, but you can also try consuming the information from a wider range of resources, including video if possible. A real-world example or direct experience is great for adding context, making information more relevant and memorable.

A final note

Memory work is interwoven throughout our revision. It starts when we first encounter new material and continues when we apply it. I see it as the mid-stage of our learning process because we need a dedicated effort to maintain our understanding, and this effort should start as soon as that understanding happens. We’re going to start using past paper questions in the next section, but as I mentioned before, they suffer from horrible coverage so it’s necessary to persist with direct self-testing right up until the exam.

  • Read with an active technique for high initial retention.
  • Answer questions that encourage you to think more deeply about material.
  • Ensure that you consolidate new material by answering related questions over a period of at least a few days.
  • Use direct self-testing (like flashcards) with an efficient system to simultaneously pinpoint problem material and boost recall.
  • Try consuming stubborn information from a wider range or resources, rather than repeatedly watching/reading the same one.
  • Look for existing mnemonics or write some of your own.

Read part four in this series

My book is now available! You can read about it here.

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