DSC_1183-Edit - Improving memory

Student Tip for Improving Memory – Memory is the residue of thought…

How do we improve our memory and how do we do better on tests at school?

DSC_1183-Edit - Improving memory

As students trying to learn new information and as teachers trying to facilitate students in their quest to learn new information, the goal is to place these new pieces of information into memory. The following points investigate this process and are a synopsis of an article entitled What Will Improve a Student’s Memory (along with a few points of my own interjected – Joe Muscolino). This article was written by Daniel T. Willingham and was published in the American Educator, Volume 32, Number 4, Winter 2008-2009 issue. Dr. Willingham is a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia (UVA) and is the author of the book Why Don’t’ Students Like School. His website is www.danielwillingham.com.


Two Main Points for improving memory:

  1. Memory is the residue of thought:

To be able to remember something, you must think about it.

For students, this means that how you study makes a very big difference in remembering the content. Are you simply reading over notes when preparing for an exam, or are you critically thinking about the content?

For teachers, this means that how you present the content makes a very big difference. Are you simply reading through the material or are you presenting the material in a manner that challenges your students to think about what you present?


  1. A cue is needed to recall something that has been successfully committed to memory:

Not being able to recall something is often the fault of a poor or ambiguous cue.

As a student, once you have learned something, what are the cues that will help you recall it, whether it is during an exam or for use in life/work? Creating effective cues is often based upon how you connect this piece of information to other things that you know. The more connections you make, the more directions you have from which you can cue it and recall it.

As an instructor, are you helping the students create these connections and therefore cues?

Note: Looking at the roots of the new term to be learned is often a very effective way to learn the term. For example, the coracoid process of the scapula is named for looking like a bird’s beak (coraco means beak; oid means to resemble). When you look at a scapula’s coracoid process, try to picture a bird’s beak and it will help you remember the term.


Additional Points to consider for improving memory and performing better on tests at school:

  1. To help critically think about your reading content, at the end of every sentence, paragraph, or section of reading, stop and do two things: First, ask yourself why the information makes sense to you. Second, see if you can restate in your own words the big picture of the reading content in as few words as possible.
  2. When studying, repetition is most helpful when meaning is attached. Try to make sense of the content and think about the content instead of simply rereading or highlighting your notes.
  3. It helps to study in more frequent smaller clumps of time than to cram a lot in at once. There are fewer distinct cues for recall when you cram.
  4. An effective study method is to try to explain and teach the content to a fellow student, especially one who will ask sensible follow-up questions.
  5. Most students think that their learning is more complete than it really is: A recent study has shown that students who are about to enter an exam think that they know the content better than they actually do. This means that they did not spend enough time effectively studying. On average, students only study 68% of the amount of time that they should. For this reason, it might be wise to study more than you feel you need to (about 50% more).
  6. It is also important to take into account that we usually forget a certain amount of what has been learned. Dr. Willingham recommends that we over study by approximately 20% to compensate for this. (This is in addition to studying more just because we may have overestimated how well we have learned and absorbed the content, as mentioned above.)
  7. To best gauge how well you know something for an exam, it is best to test yourself in the same format that the exam will. Remember, it is not safe to trust your gut feeling that you know it; most people overestimate what they know walking into an exam. If the exam will be written multiple-choice questions, you are best off creating a study group with each person creating a certain number of multiple-choice questions for the group to take. If the format of the exam is hands-on, then get together with another student or two and simulate a practical hands-on exam. Be sure to not go too easily on each other. Be as thorough and challenging as you expect the instructor to be; if in doubt, be more challenging. Having said this, start with easy questions to build confidence and get the thought processes going.
  8. When you have tried but cannot find meaning in what you study, then using an acronym or mnemonic is helpful to create the needed cues for the content. An example might be: Some Lovers Try Positions That They Can’t Handle. The first letter of each word in this sentence is the first letter in the name of the eight carpal bones (from radial to ulnar, first the proximal row, then the distal row – Scaphoid, Lunate, Triquetrum, Pisiform, Trapezium, Trapezoid, Capitate, Hamate). In addition to acronyms, associating the new piece of information with something a bit bizarre and silly often helps to create a cue that will help you recall it.
  9. There are levels of knowing something. When a student says: “I know it but I cannot explain it.” It usually means that the student knows the content well enough to passively comprehend it when it is stated by someone else, but does not know it well enough to actively reproduce it on her/his own. If the exam asks for the student to be able to actively reproduce the information, which most exams do, then simply being able to passively understand it when heard or read is not sufficient to do well on the exam. Beyond passing an exam, if a person’s profession/work requires more than passive understanding, then it is critically important that the content is learned to a greater degree.


Summary for improving memory:

  1. Memory is the residue of thought. It is important to critically think through the course content!
  2. A cue is needed to effectively recall something that has been successfully committed to memory. Critically thinking through the course content also helps to make the connections between what you are learning and what you already know. This gives you more effective cues to be able to successfully recall the information!
  3. Use acronyms and other associations for cues when you cannot make sense of the content.