Memory techniques and exam success

I am able to commit a huge amount of information to memory in a very short space of time.  I can memorise the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in less than 2 minutes, a list of 240 random words within a 15-minute time limit and, given an hour, I can memorise the precise sequence of well over 1000 randomly generated digits.  I can recall all of this perfectly, no delay, no errors.

Many people dismiss this as being largely inaccessible for all but the most dedicated of competitive memorisers but the reality is quite different.  The ability to perform these feats is based on the application of simple techniques that have been in use for millennia. Whilst I have practised them to an extreme level, the principles that they are based on can be learned and applied by anyone in a single afternoon and as a Psychology teacher I spend a lot of my time showing students how these techniques can be wisely applied to their studies in a balanced manner.

All that you need to do is use a little imagination to turn information that you want to remember into a series of images that can be organised in a memorable way.

Cast your mind back to your primary school days where you may well have been taught one of the simplest memory techniques – the ‘story method’.  This works by turning a list of unrelated words into a memorable, often bizarre, story.  Consider the following list of ten words:

  1. elephant
  2. water
  3. tree
  4. nest
  5. car
  6. cousin
  7. hill
  8. rainbow
  9. cow
  10. siren

Creating a strange story that you can visualise makes it so much easier for the memory.  For example, imagine that the elephant squirts water at the tree, knocking out a nest that falls onto the top of a car driven by your cousin. Your cousin hits the accelerator and drives over the hill leaving a trail of rainbow coloured fumes. A cow, wearing a blue flashing siren hat, sees these strange fumes and gives chase.

Remembering the story is so much easier that remembering the words individually because it is tapping in to the way the brain naturally operates i.e. visual information that we have evolved to remember well, rather than written text which has only been around for about 5000 years or so.  For most students, this is where memory training ends and they are left believing that memory techniques are a nice little trick for the primary school classroom but not a tool for serious study.  This could not be further from the truth and if you choose to dig a little deeper you will discover a whole array of memorisation techniques that build on the simplistic principles of the story method and can exponentially increase what you are capable of naturally remembering. The implications for revision are huge.

When I talk to groups of students, staff or parents about using memory techniques as part of a wider study strategy there is one comment that comes up more than any other and it always goes something like this:

Success in examinations is about a great deal more than simply memorising facts and figures so why do you think we should invest any time in artificial memory systems which do not aid students in their understanding of what they are trying to remember?

It is very true that memory techniques alone are nowhere near enough for exam success.  If you memorise every fact and figure within a topic but have no idea how these facts fit together and how to analyse them on deeper level, then I’m afraid you’re not going to perform well on any serious test of the material.  But consider the reverse for a moment. Imagine that you have an excellent understanding of how everything fits together, how to evaluate and discuss the facts at a higher level.  This is all very well, but what if you sit in the exam and you cannot remember the facts and details in the first place?  This is a common experience and I see it every single year. Students open the exam paper and against the ever-ticking clock and other pressures, even the most well-drilled student can experience his or her mind going blank, only to have everything flooding back when the pressure is off as they leave the exam hall.  Memorisation techniques alone cannot make you run a perfect race, but they will help you to clear that first hurdle with ease.  Serious students then find that the rest of the race takes care of itself.

In teaching memorisation techniques, I always find that the biggest impact is the reduction of the levels of stress that are typically associated with examinations.  Whilst others are running around like headless chickens on the morning of the exam, those well-trained in memory techniques are calm, knowing that the facts are readily accessible and can be recalled perfectly, no delay, no errors.

Look out for future posts from James Paterson on memorisation techniques and how they can become part of a well-balanced study strategy.


James Paterson is the current British Memory Champion and Head of Psychology at a leading all-ability independent school in Berkshire.

As an expert memoriser, he has visited over 100 schools and universities in the UK to teach students how to make studying more effective by using memorisation techniques as part of a well-balanced set of study habits. Last year he also appeared on BBC2 quiz show Eggheads, captaining a team of fellow teachers who came within one question of beating the best quiz team in Britain.


4 thoughts on “Memory techniques and exam success

  1. Adam Noall says:

    James, thanks for your article. Your point to counter the argument that we shouldn’t be teaching memory techniques is a good one. It’s not about memorising facts, per se. It’s about giving people an aid; a tool to help them during the pressure of an exam. In my experience, this allows the mind to add greater depth to answers, as the recalled memory triggers off the many associated memories learnt during lessons and study. Thanks again.

    • James Paterson says:

      I agree with your point about these techniques enabling students to be able to add greater depth to answers. As well as for the reasons that you have suggested, it also comes from having the time to study the given material in greater depth during class time and in private study due to having the facts and figures at their fingertips.

      Rather than having to spend any time re-learning facts/names/details/dates that they thought they had already remembered, these students can concentrate on the higher order skills of in-depth analysis and evaluation, knowing that the basic facts and figures are ‘locked in’.

  2. Kes says:

    I read the book “Moonwalking with Einstein” so the above was already known to me. I’d be curious to see some examples of how you can actually use these techniques to learn school material. The problem I see is that students are hardly ever required to memorise an order of known words, like the list starting with “elephant” above. When asked to memorise something they usually need to memorise new words, like “mitosis” (Biology), or “mesozoic era” (Geography) or “pregunta” (Spanish) – they need to commit the word to memory, its meaning, and its correlation with other terms from the field. How can the techniques help for this kind of material?

    • James Paterson says:

      I will address the second part of your question in a moment but first I feel it is important to make it clear that my view with memory techniques in the classroom is that they only truly come into their own when students use them to memorise things that they have already learned and have understood. This sounds strange, but when you consider that Psychology students have to be able to write several 16-mark essays from a bank of over 90 possible questions, you can begin to see how useful they can be i.e. they help them to memorise essay plans in an organised and relatively stress-free way which enables them to reproduce their plans at the drop of a hat and under pressure. As you have read “Moonwalking with Einstein” you will be familiar with the location method which is what I use to achieve this and it will be discussed in detail in a future blog post.

      The second point on new terminology is something that can be approached with a technique that has become known as the link-word method. This was popularised by Dr Michael Gruneberg in his language learning courses. This method works by thinking of something that the foreign word sounds like in English and creating a visual association between this image and the translation. For a clear-cut example consider the French word for horse – cheval. In English this sounds like shovel. So, you would create a visual link between shovel and horse. You may imagine a horse digging with a shovel, or perhaps a horse buying a new shovel. As long as you ‘see’ this in your mind’s eye it will make recall easier because whenever you think of horse you will remember this bizarre image involving a horse and a shovel which will lead you back to the translation – cheval!

      I spent months in university studying the use of memory techniques and their application to foreign languages (and new terminology) as part of my dissertation. At first my participants complained that creating all of these images was extra effort but they soon found that spending time creating visual associations sped up their memory rather than overloading it. The more bizarre the imagery, the more memorable it was. The real key to success with this simplistic technique is to make sure that you use your own imagination to create your own links.
      The link-word method and the powerful location method will both be discussed in detail in future blog posts.

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