Savvy Student's Study Skills: Memory

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The Savvy Student's Guide to Study Skills—Chapter Seven

What Should We Memorize?

One of the best parts of the Harry Potter stories was the pensieve, the dish that looks like a large, flat birdbath where the user could store and later view memories. The pensieve plays a pivotal role in tying up many of the subplots in the seven volume series, and more than one Harry Potter fan has talked about how cool it would be to own one, if only they existed.

It's easy to understand how people feel that way, but it's also important to know that I was able to retrieve the video clip of the pensieve by using a device that's very much like a pensieve—a computer. Able to make astronomical calculations (literally) and to show us live events from throughout the globe, as well as memories from days gone by, computers can be far superior to the pensieve. Sure, we have to type or download our memories into the computer, rather than extract them directly from our brains or our tears, but the speed, content, and accessibility of computers has so changed our society, it's fair to ask the question, just what do we need to commit to memory, now that computers can remember everything for us, and bring it up on the screen in a matter of seconds?

This is a question that had predated computers. The great automotive pioneer Henry Ford is known to have said that if something is in a book, there is no need for it to be in his head. This same outlook has been leading to changes in the US educational system, including modifications of Advance Placement exams. The updated AP tests are placing a greater emphasis on the application of knowledge, and not the memorization of facts. It is one thing to know the process of mitosis, but knowing its limits and uses is something very different. That requires more than memory; that requires understanding.

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Bloom's Taxonomy Revisited

A quick example of the difference between the two might help here. Once you're ready, take a look at this set of numbers. Study them closely, and when you're ready to take on the question below, go ahead.


Name any four numbers you saw.

There's an excellent chance you were able to answer this question with no problem (and yes, you can now go back to the picture and check your answer if you'd like).

But now, let's ask another question.

What do you think those numbers were used for?

At this very moment, there's an excellent chance you did one of two things. Either you tried to remember what the numbers looked like from memory, or you went back to the picture another time to take a closer look. Either way, what also occurred to you is that you don't need to memorize the numbers to be able to answer this question. Sure, the answer might have something to do with the value of the numbers, but you're probably focusing more on the design of the wood blocks, and thinking about places you've been or games that you've played where you've seen numbers like this before. (And if you have used these before, your parents must be huge fans of the game Bingo, since these are antique Bingo markers, which have were replaced a long time ago by large marking pens.)

The first question asked you to answer a question from memory, while the second question asked you to analyze the markers and create an answer based on your life experiences. These three skills—memorize, analyze, and create—are part of Bloom's Taxonomy, a topic we've previously discussed. Bloom's is designed to label and explain different levels of thinking, with the high end of the pyramid representing more complicated thoughts that require combining many of the lower levels of thinking to develop something new.

When it comes to memory, then, the message from Bloom's is clear: you can't really create something new until you know a great deal about how something already works—and that requires some level of memorization. As someone once said about Henry Ford's quote, you might not have to remember something that's in a book, but you do have to remember what book it's in. So let's talk about memorization.

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Kinds of Memory

Neuroscience is the study of how the brain works, and it gives us some clues on how to make the most of memory. Like all sciences, neuroscience is always growing, but right now, it offers these insights in to how memory works.

An idea starts in short-term memory, a place in our brain where we can keep a few ideas for a little while. The real goal of short-term memory is to keep a piece of information long enough for us to use it, and then get rid of it, or store it, so we can hold on to it for a longer period of time and do more things with it. As an example, if you want to call to place a pizza order, you look up the phone number, remember it long enough to make the call, and then forget it. Twenty minutes later, you're savoring the glories of pepperoni and cheese, all thanks to short-term memory. (Want to take your short-term memory for a spin? Take this simple quiz for fun.)

Not surprisingly, long-term memory is the place memories go when we're able to hold on to them for a while. This doesn't mean they all stay there forever; some long-term memories will hang around for days or months, while others will be there for most of our lives. As the link points out, the duration and clarity of a long-term memory depends in part on how strong the initial impression was when it became a memory. Twenty years from now, you probably can't remember much about your tenth grade English teacher, but you'll never forget the face of the student in tenth grade English who asked you to homecoming. You first saw both faces at around the same time, but one meant more to you, so you remember it more clearly.

A relatively new idea in neuroscience is working memory, or the place where you take an idea, either from short- or long-term memory, and do something with it. A great example can be found in this article, where two bloggers talk about walking into a building for the first time. Finding the office you're looking for requires short-term memory to learn where it is; getting back out of the building requires working memory to reverse those directions.

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The Benefits of Long-Term Memory

Long-term makes life a lot easier, since it keeps ideas on-hand for us to use in working memory. Remember your first day of school in a new building? It took you forever to find your classes—and it would take that long every day, if it weren't for long-term memory.

And that is exactly why people study—so they can bring up ideas from long-term memory to working memory with little or no problem, and do something with those ideas. Sometimes you just write them down (“What's 5 times 8?”, a question from the Remember section of Bloom's), sometimes you compare more than one idea (“Who used symbolism better, Hemingway or Fitzgerald?”, a question from the Analyze level), and sometimes you put them together in new ways (“Use the qualities from any three US presidents to make the perfect leader of a country”, which comes from the Create level.)

If you're thinking, “But if you can put ideas into working memory from short-term memory, why do you have to study so hard to put things in long-term memory—especially if you aren't going to need those ideas ever again?” That's a fair question— why study? Well:

Studying makes your life easier, allows you to do more in less time, and helps you become more creative. Remember the first time you heard that amazing new song, and wanted to learn everything about it? Now you know the words by heart, you can probably even see part of the video in your head, and at least one of your friends thinks it's pretty cool you know all that-- all thanks to long-term memory, and studying.

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How to Memorize

First and foremost, this is going to require some time. You don't think twice about how to get to your classes now, because you had to think about it a lot for a long time, and practice it for more than a couple of days.

This means you'll have to build time in to your schedule to study. For high school students, that will likely be 2.5 hours per day; for college students, the rule has long been 2-3 hours of studying for every hour spent in class, but that may be a little too much. Keep in mind that this time includes time for homework assignments, too. Homework requires you to use the ideas you're studying, but it isn't quite the same as studying, so make sure you give yourself enough time for both.

Next, you want to figure out the best way you memorize for each subject. This video gives you a quick look at the difference between verbal memory and visual memory. Many people are surprised to see that visual memory generally works better for the task of memorization than verbal memory, but that goes back to the idea of relating an idea to something you already know—so if you make up a story about a new idea, you're blending both old and new ideas.

Visual memory might help you with the task of memorizing lists, but you may need a different approach if you have to memorize something more complicated. Memorizing state capitols is one thing; explaining where they're located within each state, or how they became the state capitol, is something else. When we talked about writing, we said it was important to keep in mind what the teacher was looking for in the assignment. The same is true for memorizing. If the assignment asks for a recall of facts, verbal or visual memory might do the trick—but what if you need to understand the ideas, and not simply know them?

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Approaches to Learning

To figure out how to make the most of our study time, we have to consider the best way to make sure the ideas we are working with have meaning. This is pretty important, and it explains the difference between students who know the material, and students who understand it—or, students who can answer the question “What year did the War of 1812 end?” and the student who can answer the question “What effect does the War of 1812 have on US foreign policy today?” One question asks you to understand a year; the other asks you to understand a number of reasons. There's a big difference, but most students don't understand that.

Since there's usually more involved to understanding the “Why” questions (or the higher end of Bloom's Taxonomy) than the “What” questions (on the bottom of the triangle), it's important to consider how you're going to keep the ideas fresh and interesting as you study. For most students, that means they have to mix up their study approaches, using a variety of activities. This quick summary on memorizing offers some great tips on how to keep study time new and interesting, with approaches based on:


Most classes are still based on the idea of talking about ideas, whether that's through lecture or discussion. It's also the basis for most of your class notes. Listening to a lecture a second time can put you right back in the middle of the classroom when the ideas were brand new, and that can help students learn—so ask you're teacher if recording the lecture or discussion portion of the class is OK.

You can also engage your ears by recording your notes and listening to them while you're working out, doing chores, or eating lunch. Other students will use study time to read their notes out loud while walking around their study area. That works, too—especially if you ask yourself a question out loud that you think might be on the test, then answer that question out loud. (Yes, this means it's really OK to talk to yourself. Young kids do it naturally; we only stop doing it because we think we look uncool.)


A good part of many classes also includes reading books, handouts, or websites, so it's important to keep reading as a vital study skill. We've already talked about the power of rewriting your notes; this allows you to fill in the blanks of the phrases you wrote down in class, which means your second set of notes can actually convey a story that connects the ideas. This is a huge step towards getting meaning out of something.

A second set of notes also allows you to highlight your notes, using different colors to combine different sets of facts. This makes it easy to study when you have a five minute break at work, or at lunch, or if you're waiting for your parents to get ready to go out. This is even easier if you put the important ideas together on note cards you can stick in your backpack or back pocket. A travelling set of note means you'll think about the connections of the big ideas more times during the day, and that can be a huge help. (And remember—you can also use note cards to study for “Why” questions—the answer will just take up way more space.)

A less popular method to study is to “read” a video that has the key facts and ideas you're working with. Videos related to your subject can easily be found online, but you could also record your class lectures (make sure you move the camera around, since 40 minutes of the front of the room can get a little boring), or record yourself summarizing the main ideas, and play it back to yourself. Better yet, think about posting that recording to social media—nothing like a little peer pressure to make sure you know what you're talking about.

Touching and Moving

One way to change things up in your study routine is to use the power of touch to think about the ideas in a different way. Having trouble memorizing a set of words? Write each one on a note card, then cut the word out of the note card, using the shape of the word as your guide. If you run your finger around the edge of the word as you say it, the shape of the word can leave an impression—really.

Other ways to use touch include using note cards for one set of facts (like memorizing basic words) while using sticky notes for a different set of facts (notes you'll use to answer the “Why” questions). And if you're trying to memorize countries, print out some pictures of the countries and cut them out—and leave plenty of time for cutting out Russia.

A closely related strategy is to act out the ideas you're discussing. By pretending you're someone else, you have to think about the ideas in a different way, because you have to see the ideas from their point of view. What Robert E. Lee knew about the Civil War was very different from what Abraham Lincoln knew, so pull out your best southern drawl and give it a shot.


Your teacher has to spend a long time understanding a subject before they can teach it to you, so it makes sense that one way to really know an idea is to teach it to someone else. This is one reason why study groups can—that's can—be a real help as part of your study pattern, if you use them the right way. We'll talk more about this in a chapter on group work.

Over time, you'll develop some “go to” strategies for different kinds of assignments, different kinds of subjects, and different kinds of teachers. Note cards may be your sweet spot when it comes to memorizing terms, but talking out loud may be the best way to shape your analysis answers. Give yourself plenty of time to try a wide variety of approaches, stay with it…

And be sure to remember that each teacher has their own way of teaching and grading. This is especially important to remember, if you're taking a subject where you see yourself as “good at” it. Mrs. Jones may be looking for a completely different level of knowledge in AP Biology than what Mr. Smith wanted in Bio I, so pay close attention in the first few weeks of class, and ask for advice from students who took her class last year who did well in it.

You also want to be careful to avoid the trap of seeing yourself as “only a visual learner”, or “only an auditory learner.” There's ample evidence to suggest that everyone's brain learns in all kinds of ways, and the learning “style” you think best works for you is more about what you're used to doing, what the subject is, or what the teacher expects. As the video points out, the best way to understand the shape and location of a country is to look at a map, not to read about it—but you might not think to try that if you see yourself as not a visual learner. The goal is to do what needs to be done to make sure the ideas have meaning, and that includes a mix of study approaches, and applying them every time you can in the real world.

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Critical Thinking

Another skill that's a must in terms of memory is the ability to think critically. This classic cartoon expresses the concern shared by many teachers and leaders: schools are putting so much emphasis on grades, they aren't showing students how to think, judge, or evaluate—and if it isn't on the test, they just aren't going to do it.

I've seen this in my work as a math teacher, when students are engaged in the story problems they love to hate. “Suzie is seventeen years older than her brother William. Combined, their ages total 13. How old are Suzie and William?”

They set up a nice equation, solve it beautifully, and energetically shout out the answer: “Suzie is 15 years old, and her brother William is negative 2 years old!”

And the thing is, most students don't see a single thing wrong with than answer—which is why I included at least one of them when I taught math.

It's certainly true there are some things you don't have to think about, and probably don't get an opinion on (the atomic mass of Chlorine is a little under 35.5, no matter how you might feel about it), and there are some classes where breaking the rules of what's known is pretty important (particle physics comes to mind). But if you're writing up a lab report involving Sodium Chloride and it acts more like Calcium Chloride, that might be a problem—or it might not. Since we're talking chemicals here, it's best not to guess, and that requires you to use critical thinking.

Applying key critical thinking skills as you study is important at every step:

Key Elements of Critical Thinking

There are many ways to apply critical thinking to school work and real life situations, and many of them are summarized here. They include:

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Memory and Social Situations

Students who are making the most of learning know how to apply their skills both in the classroom and out. When it comes to memory, that skill is best applied in a social situation where you're meeting someone for the first time, where you have to handle the basics—like remembering their name, what they do, and anything they tell you that they think is special. (You don't have to remember what you think is special about them—somehow, that just kind of magically shows up.)

Remembering someone's name boils down to a few easy steps, all applications of what we've talked about earlier:

Focus on that person, and that person only.

Not easy to do at a party or other social situation, but treat it like a study situation, and you'll be amazed what you can block out.

Say their name twice.

This is especially important if the name is one you haven't heard before, so you can show interest in knowing how to say it properly. “Hi Kevin, it's nice to meet you” is a good first use. About three or four minutes later, use their name again when asking a question. “Kevin, I'm getting a soda. Is there something I can get you?”

Link their name to a positive idea you already know.

If there's a Kevin in your life you already like, find a way to link the two Kevins together. If the new Kevin likes Beyonce, picture the two of them standing together. If there's a Kevin in your life you'd rather forget, connect the new Kevin to a different idea.

Use their name when saying goodbye.

This shows them (and you) you've remembered so far, and that's a good thing.

Like all skills, this one takes some practice, and you might think Kevin won't be all that impressed if he can see you're struggling to remember his name. Actually, if Kevin is really worth getting to know, he'll be very impressed, and honored—so if they give you any grief, it's probably pretty OK to forget their name, and them.

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