Effective Memorization Techniques That Actually Work

One of the most remarkable things about the human brain is the fact that it does not lose the information that it has stored – once a memory is in place, it remains. That does not, however, mean that it is easily retrieved. When you can’t remember something, it is usually a matter of the information not having been stored in the first place, not using the proper tools to recall the information, or not storing it in a way that it can be found.  Studies have shown that if you want to be able to recall a memory in the future, you need to put a conscious effort into the process of learning. Whether you are studying for a test, memorizing a presentation or the lines of a play, trying to remember your passwords or people’s names, the more intention and interest you put into it and the more motivated you are, the more effective memorization techniques will be. Memorization techniques abound, and all of them rely on making a conscious, focused effort and making logical connections. They may include rhyming, visualization, story telling or other tools. It is also important to make sure that you work to facilitate the process by eliminating distractions and providing yourself with the optimal environment. (Willamette University)

Start with Your Study Conditions

Eliminating distraction is an essential element of memorization. Not only do you need to want to succeed, but you also need to give the task your full concentration and attention That means that you need to minimize distractions and outside noise. A study conducted by Memorial University’s Cognitive, Aging and Memory Lab exposed participants of all ages to instructions that they needed to memorize in both noisy and quiet settings. They found that the noisier the environment, the more difficult it was to make sense of what they wanted to learn, especially when trying to remember what you are listening to. Researcher Roberta DiDonato says, “If we’re having to decode and decipher, with a lot of mental effort, we don’t have the mental energy we need to put it in the memory store.” The key is to be able to dedicate all of your energy into the act of memorizing the information, whether it is something that you are reading, writing or listening to.

Another important aspect of your environment for memorizing material is known as contextual or state-dependent memory. Numerous studies have shown that the more similar your environment while memorizing is to the environment in which you will actually will need to recall the memory, the more successful you will be. In a study on musicians’ ability to successfully memorize music, researchers found that when pianists memorized a piece of music while practicing on an upright piano, and then later tried to recall the piece, they were more successful when playing on another upright then on a grand piano. The same was true for the environment in which they memorized – the more similar the room in which they practiced was to where they tried to recall the music, the more successful they were. This suggests that if at all possible, you should exercise your memorization techniques in a setting that is as similar as possible to where you will be tested. (West Virginia University)

Use as Many Parts of Your Brain as Possible

To understand this theory, you need to understand how long-term memories are formed. Every memory that is created starts as a sensory memory. If you pay attention to this sensory input, it then progresses into your short-term memory, where it will either be lost after a minute or so, or put into long-term memory. Some of these memories are stored in the part of our brain that concentrates on visual images while others rely on episodic (storytelling) or auditory (hearing) memories. The more aspects of our brains are engaged in storing a memory, the more easily they can be retrieved. (ASCD)

The most effective memorization techniques create patterns of activity in our brains that we can later replicate to facilitate remembering.  This is far different from cognitively passive learning which rely on rote memorization, repetition and rehearsal. Though these techniques may work in the very short term, they provide no associations or context, and thus are much more difficult to retrieve. (Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine) The best way to understand this is to think about the steps you take when you’re trying to remember where you last put your glasses, or your keys. This is not a memory that you concentrated on building, but you are able to recall the various places you were and conversations you had leading up to the last time you had them to identify where you left them. The more meaningful the associations that we create as we practice memorization techniques, and the more associations we establish, the more easily the memory will be retrieved. (University of Utah School of Medicine)

The Link, or Story, Memorization Technique

This is a simple and effective method that can be use when you need to remember a list of items, such as capitals, states, or countries, or the presidents, or even recipe ingredients.  Starting with the first item on the list, think of an association between it and the next item. This can be a completely fantastical association – what is most important is that it is something that you can picture in your mind and remember. After you’ve created this association, continue in the same manner down the list of items, building on the previous association’s theme. The more sense your story makes, or the more you can picture it in your mind’s eye, the more effective it will be. The more you then repeat the story to yourself and picture the timeline of the story, the better you will remember the individual list items. So if you want to remember the names of the following streets in order — Queen Anne, Doral, Viking, Gate, Fireside, Barbie — you can tell yourself a story about Queen Anne visiting the Doral Country Club where she meets a Viking who invites him to follow her through a Gate, but she decides not to go because she’d rather sit by the Fireside playing with her Barbie.  Each word creates a strong visual image and the story’s progression makes sense. (Academic Tips)

The Loci Memorization Technique

This method takes something that is already extremely familiar to you and uses it as a foundation for the specifics that you are trying to remember. Most people use their home, although you can choose any place that you can easily picture in your mind. The key is to be able to create a visual image of the item or name that you are trying to remember in a specific spot within the familiar place. It relies on the part of your brain that is responsible for spatial memory. By creating an association between each room, or street (if picturing a familiar neighborhood) with an item that you are trying to remember, you are able to walk through the familiar place and recall the item. So in the example provided above (Queen Anne, Doral, Viking, Gate, Fireside, Barbie) you might imagine walking into your home and seeing Queen Anne sitting on your living room sofa, a towel from the Doral Country Club hanging in the powder room, a Viking doing the laundry in your laundry room, a gate blocking your entry up the stairs, a Barbie doll in your guest room and finally a Fireside in your own bedroom. (New York Times)

The Peg Memorization Technique

The peg method is used for remembering items in a specific order, and begins with first memorizing words that rhyme or are associated with numbers. One of the most popular of these associations is:

  1. One = Sun
  2. Two = Zoo
  3. Three = Tree
  4. Four = Door
  5. Five = Hive
  6. Six = Bricks
  7. Seven = Heaven
  8. Eight = Skate
  9. Nine = Line
  10. Ten = Hen

Once you have memorized this list, you can use it repeatedly in the future. Then, you associate the items that you are trying to memorize with each of the words associated with the numeric order. Again using the list from above (Queen Anne, Doral, Viking, Gate, Fireside, Barbie), in order to remember them in the proper order you might picture Queen Anne SUNning herself, the Doral Country Club opening a ZOO on hole TWO, a Viking sitting under a TREE, a Gate blocking a DOOR, a Fireside with a HIVE of bees in it, and a Barbie sitting on a pile of bricks. (Psychologist World)