Improving Your Memory

Forgetting is a natural process, with the greatest losses (more than 50%) occurring within the first 24 hours of learning. It is essential to review readings and lecture notes within one or two days of initial exposure, with brief additional reviews interspersed in later weeks.

Believe in Your Memory and Decide to Remember

Memory is a skill , and, as such, it can be acquired, exercised, and improved upon. Those who believe in their memory will work at it and prove themselves right.

  • Think of a reason why you want to remember the material you're studying and you will be more likely to remember it.
  • Eliminate distractions while reading/studying. If you aren't paying full attention as you input the information, you won't be able to recall it later.
  • Don't tell yourself you will “go over” the material now but will focus on remembering it later. Right from the start, begin to think about what you need to retain and how you will recall it.

Analyze How to Remember Each Fact & Concept as You Encounter It

  • For each block of information, decide whether to emphasize concepts, memory devices, visualization, or reciting.
  • Relate new material to facts and concepts you already know.
  • To memorize terms, think about familiar parts of the words or study Greek & Latin roots.

Interpret/Understand the Material

  • To improve your long-term memory and to perform better on complex test questions, focus on understanding the concepts rather than simply memorizing isolated facts.
  • Explain concepts to family members and study partners. This teaching will deepen your own understanding.
  • Understanding concepts at the level of meaning requires more work than creating a rhyme or acronym, but remember: the strategy requiring more work works better.

Organize the Material

The human brain appears to be able to hold only seven chunks of information in immediate memory, so bringing items together into categories will help you remember.

  • As you listen to a lecture or read, use advanced organizers obtained by prior knowledge or scanning to organize the new information. Just as an office worker needs a filing system, you need a mental filing system if you hope to comprehend and retrieve what you have learned.
  • During review, organize your notes by writing questions or headings in the left margin.
  • Create study charts to summarize your notes or text.

Visualize the Material

  • Study pictures, diagrams, and charts in your text.
  • Draw these graphics yourself and/or develop your own.

Recite What You've Learned

Recite , in this case, means to explain the material in your own words. Reciting will increase your level of attention, create a stronger memory, and provide immediate feedback on how well you are learning.

  • Recite as you read, as you review your class notes, and as you study.
  • For material you need to remember in detail, reciting should take up a considerable amount of your study time.
  • If you notice that you frequently have to resort to the instructor/author's words, you do not yet understand the material. If you can easily paraphrase it, you've got it!

Use Memory Devices Such as Associations & Mnemonics for Terminology & Lists of Facts

  • Use word mnemonics -- such as HOMES to remember the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.
  • Use sentence mnemonics -- such as "Kings play cards on fairly good soft velvet" to recall biological classification: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, variety.
  • Use mnemonics for spelling and for keeping terminology straight: A principal is a pal; a principle is a rule. Cyanates, I ate (harmless chemicals); cyanide, I died (poisonous).
  • To improve memory, add humor to your memory device.

Cross Train Your Brain

  • Students who “interleave” their studies (mixing their problem sets, shuffling their art history flashcards) learn better and remember longer than students who study in blocks (working five problems of one type, studying five paintings by Gaughin).
  • Interleaving requires your brain to perform acts of induction as you notice the similarities and differences between examples. This helps you understand important, overarching principles.
  • Interleaving forces your brain to work harder now, but it helps you do well on exams.
  • Vary the kinds of study activities you do during a study session. For example, you might read your textbook for a while, then apply the concepts to a few problems, and finally memorize a set of terms or formulas.

Review Soon and in Small, Frequent Increments

While longer study sessions are effective for writing or for creative projects, most studying is best done in short sessions with breaks (for example, study for 50 minutes and take a break for 10). You will learn more if you study material for one hour on each of 3 days rather than studying 3 hours on a single day.

  • Review your lecture notes immediately (that day or the next).
  • As you walk to your next class, recall the main points of the lecture you just attended.


Craik, Fergus I. M., and Robert S. Lockhart. “Levels of Processing: A Framework for Memory Research.” Journal for Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11 (1972): 671-684.

Ebbinghaus, Hermann. Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology . Trans. Henry A. Ruger and Clara E. Bussenius. New York: Teachers College, 1913.

Pauk, Walter. How to Study in College . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Kornell, Nate, et al. “Spacing as the Friend of Both Memory and Induction in Young and Older Adults.” Psychology and Aging 25 (2010): 498-503.

Taylor, Kelli and Doug Rohrer. “The Effects of Interleaved Practice.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 24 (2010): 837-48.

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