15 Study Hacks to Improve Your Memory

Nootropic supplements are increasingly popular, and the number of different supplements and brands available has skyrocketed in the past few years. Many of them claim that they can boost your memory, making them a tempting investment for students, especially in the run-up to exam time.

Ultimately though, they cannot do the work for you, and there are many ways that you can improve your study methods to maximise your time. Below are some study hacks to improve your memory without supplements.

1. Take a learning type test

Everyone is different, so no single hack will work perfectly for everyone. Take a learning style test to find out whether you are primarily a visual, audio or kinetic learner, and tailor how you study from there. There are lots of free tests online, and many offer suggestions for study methods that will suit each learning style at the end of the test.

2. Vary and tailor your learning methods

Ok, so this point on our list is a bit of a cheat – there are loads of study hacks below, but the main point here is to use numerous different methods to learn the same information; reproducing the same information in different ways, numerous times, is the best way to create a “strong” memory that will last for years (through your career), rather than a “weak memory” that might fade before you even reach the exam hall.

Try a selection of techniques from the list below:

  • Flashcards
  • Post-it notes
  • Mind maps
  • Get a study partner and quiz each other
  • Get creative
  • Practice tests
  • Explain the topic to someone else (make sure that they are a willing victim first)
  • Colour code notes by topic
  • Highlight important sections and keywords
  • Key word association
  • Creating a pneumonic
  • Record the lecture and listen to it back
  • Record your own notes (and listen to them at the gym or on a run)

3. Try spaced repetition (instead of cramming)

man confused stressed laptop staring
Repetition is the best way to learn and memorise new information, but repeating the same information over and over within a short time period, like you would if you were cramming the night before a test, is less than ideal. Going through a topic several times on several different days will lead to the knowledge being retained as a stronger memory.

When you can express all of the required information correctly without consulting your notes, go through the topic at least one more time; this is called over-learning, and leads to the best results in memory formation; some people say that you can be over-prepared for a test, but this is not supported by studies at all!

4. Recap or quickly reread through the previous day’s work before starting for the day

You sit down to watch your favourite TV show; each episode starts with a recap sequence, (which often begins with a narrator intoning, “Previously on.”). The recap may last for only a minute, but it helps you settle into the next hour; you might remember everything important that they show you, but the recap could help you remember a small point that could be really important later.

At the start of every study session, you should have your own recap sequence; reread through the notes you made in the last lecture, or from the previous topic. Then put it down, and move on to the next topic.

5. Choose your music wisely

There are many studies looking at the impact of different sounds and music upon learning, productivity and memory. Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus about the perfect music or noise to listen to whilst studying, but there are some clear pointers that can help prevent your music from being a distraction.
Put on an album or a playlist, not individual songs. If you choose each and every song individually, then you are constantly being distracted! However, putting on a longer playlist removes the need to constantly micromanage your music. Avoid music with lyrics as they can be distracting.

woman happy listening to music working

Studies suggest that learning in silence is ultimately best, but obviously it can be difficult to find a completely silent environment to work in. If music isn’t really your thing, and you can’t find a quiet enough workspace, then try using an ambient noise machine or app. A Soft Murmur is one that we have previously used. The website version offers the full choice of ten different sounds to play around with, including crickets, coffee shop sounds, waves, rain and thunder. The app has a slightly more restricted choice, but offers the sounds offline, and is still free.

There are also hundreds of YouTube videos of different ambient noises, with most videos being at least an hour long.

6. Use clear micro-goal setting

Writing a to-do list is hugely helpful when studying, but large, vague goals are demotivating and almost impossible to meet. When goal setting, avoid goals such as “research and write entire essay”, or “revise entire module”, and instead choose smaller, specific tasks. “Rewrite notes from this week’s lecture”, or “make mind map for a single topic” would be better options.

Being able to tick off lots of smaller tasks from a to-do list is much more satisfying, and each tick is a micro-reward, which helps you to stay motivated and keep studying.

7. Pomodoro Method

The Pomodoro Method is a pattern of 25 minutes of concentrated, timed work, followed by a short break of a few minutes. Rinse and repeat, with a longer break after four Pomodoro cycles. There are numerous free apps that can track this for you, but a timer on your phone or a kitchen timer are also more than adequate! Don’t just go on Facebook during your break though; use the opportunity to get up and stretch, get a cup of tea, or go to the bathroom. Eat lunch during a longer break. The Pomodoro Method can even be applied to housework!

Life Hacker provide a good guide to the Pomodoro Technique here:

8. Block Distracting Websites

Facebook, Imgur, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, Buzzfeed… on and on the list goes; the internet features a wealth of information and useful tools, but it also features a million distractions that can hinder even the most determined student’s revision attempts.

We recommend trying Strict Workflow, a free web browser plugin that temporarily blocks distracting websites. The list of websites is completely editable, but comes with a short list to start you off, and the times of both the block and the break period are customisable; the default set-up utilises the Pomodoro Method. There are numerous other plug-ins that also serve the same purpose, so there will be one available to suit you.

9. Handwrite and rewrite your notes

pink woman concentrating working

Rewrite notes immediately after a lecture – in the next day or so – to help cement the information, to clarify and expand upon hastily taken notes, and to make sure it is readable. Four months later you will not remember what that squiggle actually says!

If you want to type up your notes, then remember that Times New Roman is the easiest and fastest font to read, whilst Comic Sans is the best font for anyone with dyslexia. However, rewriting your notes by hand is a memory exercise in itself, and studies show that students’ recall is better after taking notes by hand than by laptop.

10. Self-Testing

Learning is not just about storing information in your head; it is also about the ability to retrieve it on command. Have you ever been asked a question, and whilst you know that you know the answer, you can’t quite think of it? Putting away your existing notes and testing yourself is the best way to discover what you really remember; by retrieving the information, and forming new connections between the different snippets that you know, you make the information easier to recall.

Get a list of sample questions, or test papers from previous years, and put yourself in a test scenario. Answer the question without notes, and then compare it to your existing notes afterwards, to see what you got wrong, and what you forgot, to identify your weaknesses. Or, set a timer and just write down everything you know about a specific topic as fast as you can.

11. Avoid multi-tasking!

“I’m good at multi-tasking” is one of the biggest lies that we tell ourselves as humans. Studies have repeatedly showed that no one is really good at multitasking; and embarrassingly enough, the people who claim that they are good at multitasking perform the worst in studies measuring that capability.

When you are regularly switching focus between two activities, it takes longer overall to complete both tasks than doing one after the other; this is lost time and productivity that simply can’t be reclaimed. Studies also suggest that work done whilst multi-tasking is generally to a lower standard, or is more likely contain errors.

12. Sleep

man asleep reading sleeping

It might be tempting to pull an all-nighter to get as much information memorised as possible, but this simply does not work. Your body and brain need sleep to function at full capacity. Sleep deprivation makes it much harder to focus your attention on the topic at hand, making effective learning or revision near impossible.

New memories are also cemented into long-term memory whilst we sleep in a process called consolidation; no matter how hard you work, your brain does a lot more work whilst you sleep!

13. Don’t neglect your diet

When you feel pushed for time, or want to get as much studying done as possible, a pack of oreos and a can of monster energy drink may seem like a great idea for an emergency meal. But, poor food choices, especially junk food high in simple sugars, will lead to sugar highs and crashes, neither of which are good for studying effectively.

14. And don’t forget to hydrate!

Looking at the symptoms of dehydration, it is clear to see that the brain needs water to function well! Dehydration can cause brain fog, focus problems, fatigue, and headaches! Studies have shown that if you are only 1 percent dehydrated, you will likely have a 5 percent decrease in cognitive function.

So, bring a bottle of water to the library with you!

15. Finally, just do it!

Sometimes, it is best to stop preparing and just start studying. There are so many different ways to ‘optimise’, ‘perfect’ and ‘hack’ different brain processes, including learning and memory, that it is very easy to spend several hours trying to create the perfect study environment. These hours can probably be better spent actually opening a book, taking some notes, practicing an essay, or creating a mind map!

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