School revisions: how to boost your memory before exams


Have you ever wondered what’s going on in your brain when you review your classes? Being aware of how it works, you will improve your ability to record and mobilize information.

The three main components of memory are sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory. Here are some tips to activate all three and optimize your work methods.

Multiply the angles of approach

The first step is to activate your sensory memory. It rests, as you know, on sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. The challenge is to solicit as much meaning as possible. When we study, we usually rely on visual aids and sound, but many areas use other meanings. The visual arts, among others, involve touch.

Rather than just reading your textbook, try listening to podcasts, or using visual diagrams with posters, presentations, or blogs.

When we activate our sensory memory , we engage our attention and our perception of the world. We must be attentive to learn and the more we allocate cognitive resources to a task in a given time, the sooner we assimilate the novelties. This is why it is important to study in an environment conducive to learning, such as a room away from noise or a library.

Sensory memory and working memory are so limited that learners need to focus as much as possible on the most important information, avoiding distractions.

The way we interpret information depends on our knowledge and past experiences. To take advantage of this mode of operation, one can share with someone what one already knows before embarking on a new or unfamiliar task. Before starting a new class, try to redo what you learned with a friend or one of your parents.

If there is something you do not understand right away, maybe it’s because you have not paid enough attention to it or you have not done the right thing. Try to ventilate your mind, take a break, and ask yourself what your level of concentration really is.

If that still does not work, ask for advice or help to make sure you are on the right track.

Start with the easiest

Once the learner perceives the content to be assimilated and is interested in it, the information is transferred to his working memory. This is where his conscious treatment begins . When you take an exam, it’s your working memory that decides what your answer will be and helps you structure it.

Many learners do not realize this, but after a long period of study, you may feel that you are not learning as much as you did in the beginning. This is due to what is called cognitive overload .

Your working memory can only contain a limited amount of information in a given period. This exact amount depends on your level of prior knowledge. Take the example of a child who learns his alphabet: at the beginning, he has little knowledge to rely on, so that the letters will be stored one by one in his memory; say it will take 26 bits for each. Then, as this universe gains in familiarity, the letters taken will mobilize all together a bit in the memory of the child.

To make your working memory more efficient, evaluate the type of information you are learning. Will it require a lot of “storage space”, or very little? Is what you are learning something you need to master in order to move to more demanding stages? If the answer is yes, then the memory effort will be greater.

Try to master the simplest information as a matter of priority so that you can call them back faster without spending more cognitive resources than necessary. Then you will be able to move to more complex and therefore energy consuming information. This procedure is known as automation.

To assimilate a knowledge to the point of making it an automatism, that makes it possible then to allocate more energy to tasks which require more effort. It is for this reason that we are encouraged to memorize the multiplication tables so that we can release cognitive resources to solve more difficult math problems.

The working memory is limited, it is a question of transferring the information in your long-term memory, which, it, has an unlimited capacity . In order for the information to be stored permanently, you need to engage in an encoding process. Many tasks recommended by teachers, from homework to preparing writing plans, are actually encoding strategies.

The Pomodoro technique is another encoding strategy to use. Here, it is a question of using a timer to decompose the time of revisions in intervals of 25 minutes, usually separated by short breaks. Implemented effectively, Pomodoro can reduce anxiety, improve concentration and increase motivation.

What you do when encoding affects the transfer of information from long-term memory to working memory that delivers the answers you seek. It is easier to remember something when the recovery conditions match the encoding conditions.

Therefore, when we study, we often like to do it in a quiet environment, which is similar to the conditions in which we will take the exams.

Create bridges between notions

Rather than reviewing your course sheets, try to explain what you have learned to someone who knows nothing about this field. If your teaching is effective, it means that you have a good understanding of the subject.

Long-term memory may have unlimited capacity, but it’s just a storage structure. It is not because something is stored there that you can recover it quickly, efficiently.

It has already happened to most of us that we can not find information yet learned. Or not to properly recover them, which results in wrong answers.

This may come from a superficial study of the subject, as opposed to a more thorough level of revisions. By learning something by heart the day before an exam, we do not have the time to link the information to the already established knowledge. You can make it easier by drawing analogies between what you are learning and what you already know.

Being aware of all these issues helps us understand why some methods are more or less effective than others. Whether it’s revising for exams or other settings, it’s important that we think about how our brains work and how we, as individuals, learn.

Author Bio: Amina Youssef-Shalala is a Lecturer at the Australian Catholic University