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Great ideas to help you study for exams more efficiently

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xams, it is generally agreed, are not necessarily the best way of testing skills, but they do test memory. Most of us at some stage, even as adults will have to assimilate and remember information. Here are some techniques you can try to help you improve your retention of information. These techniques can be useful when, for example, trying to improve performance in giving a talk or a presentation. The first technique relates to committing general information to memory, the other techniques relate more to the learning of lists and facts.

1. Spaced Revision Technique.

Use this when trying to learn for a test or for a presentation. The first principle of this technique is that active rather than passive revision works better. So highlighting masses of text is a no-no. Take your textbook or notes and read a defined section. Turn over your notes or textbook so that they can’t be seen and take a revision card or a sheet of paper and write down what you remember in a format you can use to revise from tomorrow. At the end of each writing down, correct inaccuracies and move on. After 40 minutes leave it and take a 10-minute break. Read through your revision cards and put them to one side. You can then move to another topic.

The next day, look at your revision cards for 10 minutes only and put them away. Set yourself a test. Either to recall the information as fully and clearly as possible by turning it into say a power point presentation, or if you are revising for an exam, do an exam question and get one of your peers to check it over. You then move on to a new topic and repeat the process.
Remember: Don’t copy material out, transforming it into your own words engages your brain and thinking and enhances memory. It is best if you use the time to create a resource which will help you remember – flash cards, mind maps, etc. – and which you can use again.

The following techniques are all for remembering chunks of information, such as lists:

2. The peg-word system.

This is a simple technique and great for lists. It is based upon associating the items you want to remember with the visualised picture ‘pegs’ you create for the numbers on the list. Imagine you want to remember a shopping list, e.g. One is peas, two is bread, three is eggs, four sausages, etc. There are two main ways for creating the ‘pegs’ for the numbers, the first is to use rhymes for the numbers which are also easy things to visualise like so:

  • One= bun
  • Two = shoe
  • Three = tree
  • Four = door
  • Five = hive
  • Six = sticks
  • Seven = heaven
  • Eight = gate
  • Nine = line
  • Ten = hen

Once you have visualised each of those rhymes against the number, i.e. created your peg, you can associate items in your list. So returning to our shopping list; for one you would visualise a bun decorated with peas. For two, the shoe could be made out of bread, for three, the tree could have eggs hanging from it, and four, the door has a sausage for a handle, etc.

The images need to be strong and the more outlandish the better. You can even add in more imagined detail such as the smell of cooking sausages. The important point is once you have your pegs, you can use them for lists of names, faces, dates or even the sections of a speech over and over again. But because it is the pegs that are the constant, it will only be the most recent list that will be easy to remember. Previous lists will be harder, and it does require practice to learn the pegs off by heart.

3. The loci, place or journey method.

This is again a visualisation tool and is great for lists and remembering the order of a speech or presentation. It requires you to visually link items you wish to remember to locations you know very well, and again there are two approaches. It could either be associating items with objects in the various rooms of your house, or to the familiar landmarks on your regular walking route to the park, etc. In both approaches the important thing is always to visualise the same route, navigating either room to room around the house, or the walk to the park.

So, for example, if you were trying to remember famous psychologists, Freud could be hanging around the downstairs lavatory, Milgram could be plugging his shocking machine in the kitchen, and so on.

As with the peg-word technique, once you have your visualised route, and the respective objects and landmarks, it is easy to associate the items you wish to remember with them. For both, you put the items you wish to remember into pairs, and then visualise them with the object or landmark.

The great thing about this method is you only have to remember where to start and the walk takes you past all the items you need to remember. This method is more complex than the peg word system because you have to visualise the entire journey and not a single point.

Things to consider

Each of the three techniques described is easily learnt, but requires practice and none can work well with information that is being received very rapidly. Both loci and peg word are useful for short term memories and lists, but the spaced revision technique can help you learn detailed information for longer.


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