Chapter 7. Memory

7.4. Ways to Enhance Memory

Most of us suffer from memory failures of one kind or another on a daily basis, and would like to improve our memories so that we don’t forget where we put our keys, wallet, or other important items in our daily lives. For college students, knowing how to effectively retain information can improve test performance and can facilitate the transfer of knowledge between settings, such as from one course to another or from school to the workplace. In this next section, we’ll look at some ways to help you improve your memory, including strategies for effective studying. It might be helpful to know that psychologists have debunked the popular and persistent myth that different people have different learning styles (visual or auditory learners, etc.). In reality, we all benefit from encoding information in a variety of ways.

Link to learning

Watch this video to find out more about why the myth about learning styles has been so pervasive in education

Memory-Enhancing Strategies

Practice strengthens the connections between neurons, and so is essential for effective remembering. Moreover, elaborative rehearsal, where we process information at a deep level, is much more effective for remembering, than simple rote repetition. In a nutshell, we have to pay careful attention to whatever it is we are trying to learn and make connections between new information and what we already know. Then we need to practice remembering this information regularly. This tells our brains that what we are trying to learn is important and needs to be consolidated. These are the techniques that memory champions use to improve their memory, which allows them to learn extensive lists of information. Importantly, these are skills that can be learned and improved with practice.

Make a semantic connection

Whenever you need to learn something new it is very helpful to associate it with another concept you already know. For example, you might remember the difference between positive and negative reinforcement by thinking about positive (+) and negative (-) math signs and concepts. The plus sign (+) is connected with adding and the minus sign (–) with subtracting. So, it can help us to remember that a positive (+) reinforcer is something we add and a negative (-) one is something we take away. Alternatively, you might connect a new vocabulary word (reprehensible) by thinking about how it sounds and connecting it to other words you know, e.g., reprimand and incomprehensible. This might help you remember that reprehensible describes a behavior that people would find bad and unacceptable. Creating a sentence using the word also helps to remember, e.g., Donald stole from the charity he was working for and was sacked for his reprehensible behavior. Or, you might create a mental image in your mind of some reptiles (snakes and lizards) robbing a bank—possibly with one lizard swinging through the window on a prehensile tail. Often the sillier the connection, the more memorable it is. For example, think of an enormous hippopotamus sitting on the top of your college campus – when trying to remember the name of the hippocampus—a structure that is important for memory consolidation. These strategies work for just about any information, including people’s names, e.g., when introduced to Lily imagine her holding a large bouquet of lilies. We call strategies like this that make information more memorable, mnemonic devices. Let us take a look at some popular mnemonic devices that people find effective.


We often need to remember steps, stages, phases, and parts of a system in a particular order, like the names of the 12 different cranial nerves in biological psychology or the order of the planets in the solar system in earth sciences (Bellezza, 1981). You can create a silly phrase (often referred to as a mnemonic) using the first letter of each of the words in the correct order. For example to remember the planets in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune), you could use the phrase: my very educated mother just served us noodles. This method is also helpful if you have to memorize a string of random letters and numbers for a password.


Many people use rhymes to help them remember information (like the alphabet song). These might include rhymes for general spelling rules (I before E except after C), or for remembering the number of days in each month of the year (30 days have September, April, June, and November, all the rest have 31, except for February alone, which has 28 days clear, and 29 in each leap year). These are very old rhymes, but, maybe you know or can create other ones that are even more personally memorable to you. The key to success is finding connections that work for you.

Method of Loci or a Memory Palace

A lot of memory champions use a “memory palace” to learn incredibly long lists of words or other kinds of information. This might be helpful to you for remembering lists of information—including your shopping lists. For most people, our “palace” is simply a place that we know really well, like the place where we live. The idea is that you make mental pictures of things you need to remember and then you mentally place them in different locations in your home. This is the encoding part of the device (you might imagine eggs in your bed, your kitchen sink being full of milk, lettuce on the toilet, etc.). Then when you go to the store, you mentally walk through your “palace” and think about the different things you have stashed there in your mind. This method is also known as the method of loci.

Link to Learning

Watch this interview of memory champion, Dominic O’Brien. O’Brien struggled at school as a child, but he won the World Memory Championships eight times. He explains how at the age of 30, he learned how to dramatically improve his memory.

How to Study Effectively

Decades of research show that there are several strategies that you can use to “study smarter” (Dunlosky, 2013; Friedman, 2014). It would be awesome if we could just listen to someone talk, or read a book and then remember everything – but as you know, memory takes effort. Here are some of the things that you can do to help:

Before class

Read (or at least skim) the assigned material and do any pre-class assignments before coming to class. This will help to familiarize you with the materials—which will start to activate the semantic networks in your brain that you will need to reactivate to remember the information. It also will help you to identify any areas that you do not understand. Make note of any questions to ask in class.

During class

Mind-wandering is very common in our lives, especially in lecture-based classes. To help you stay focused, unless you are having a situation that requires you to monitor your phone, switch it to “do not disturb” and put it away. Taking notes will help you to stay engaged and will encourage the process of elaborate encoding. Take notes even if your instructor provides handouts or access to slides, and even when you think everything feels easy to understand and remember. It won’t take long for information to disappear from your memory. However, don’t try to write down everything you hear and see, instead, focus on understanding and writing down the most important pieces of information. Write short bullet points in your own words, and use abbreviations, diagrams, and symbols. Underlining headings will help keep you organized. Ask questions to help clarify concepts and deepen your understanding. Consider using the Cornell system for taking notes, where you draw a line down your notebook and only write in the right-hand column in class. This then allows you to go back and use the left-hand column to add questions, headings, and summaries when you review your notes. Note taking is a skill that relies on working memory and can take practice. If you are struggling to take notes in class, ask your professor for help.

After class

Review your notes as soon after class as possible (preferably the same day), this helps to strengthen the information in memory, but it also gives you an opportunity to make sure that you understand what you have written and to add missing information or make other edits as needed. Use other resources to help clarify any muddy points (such as instructor-provided materials, textbooks, friends, and of course, your instructor). If time allows, test yourself on the main points. Ask a question and then answer it out loud, or write down your answer. This helps you to organize your thoughts and further strengthens the neural pathways. It also helps you to know what you do not know (meta-cognition) and where to focus your efforts.

Before a test

John Dunlosky and colleagues have conducted many studies on how students study and which methods are most effective. The most common study techniques (re-reading notes and highlighting) are largely ineffective for most students because they rely on shallow processing. These techniques can also fool students into thinking that they have put a lot of effort into studying.

1. The number one best method for studying is to test yourself on the information that you are trying to learn over several spaced out study sessions.

2. Use elaborative rehearsal: Link new information with other memorable concepts (as discussed above). Make sure the information is personally meaningful to you and that you understand it. Write definitions in your own words that make sense to you. When you do this, you are building a semantic network of retrieval cues that will help you access the material when you want to remember it.

3. Use distributed practice: Study for short durations across several sessions rather than trying to cram it all in at once. Memory consolidation takes time. Spreading out your studying signals to your brain that this information is important. After you have organized your notes and read them to ensure you understand them, test yourself as much as possible, across multiple study periods. You can test yourself with practice quizzes, sample tests, flash cards or just make up questions to ask yourself. Some students like using Quizlet for this.

4. Study efficiently: Learning is effortful. When quizzing ourselves, it is tempting to read a question and then quickly look at the answer and think that we know it. The reason that we think we know it, is because it is familiar – but we are not really encoding it deeply (just like the nickel demonstration you tried out earlier in this chapter). However, if we make the effort to search for the answer in our memory by saying the answer out loud or writing it down, it increases the likelihood we will remember it in future. It also helps us meta-cognitively, by showing us how well we know the material. If you use flash cards—put a question on one side and an elaborative answer on the other. This might include a definition in your own words and a real-life example. When testing yourself, separate your cards into those you got right and those you got wrong. Go over the ones you got wrong first (maybe think of a more memorable association to help you remember) and keep sorting. Eventually, all your cards will be in the pile you answered correctly. But, don’t stop, reviewing the cards again will encourage consolidation.

5. Be aware of interference: To reduce the likelihood of interference, study during a quiet time without interruptions or distractions (like television or music) – or use headphones playing white noise.

6. Get enough sleep: While you are sleeping, your brain is still at work. During sleep the brain organizes and consolidates information to be stored in long-term memory (Abel & Bäuml, 2013).

7. Keep moving: Regular aerobic exercise (anything that gets your heart rate elevated) is beneficial for memory (van Praag, 2008). Aerobic exercise promotes neurogenesis: the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain known to play a role in memory and learning.

Link to learning

Read this article to see what psychology research can tell you about the efficacy of your current study habits.


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Introduction to Psychology (A critical approach) Copyright © 2021 by Jill Grose-Fifer; Rose M. Spielman; Kathryn Dumper; William Jenkins; Arlene Lacombe; Marilyn Lovett; and Marion Perlmutter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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