'Memory' is the faculty of the brain to store information and retrieve it when needed. There are essentially three processes to the faculty: encoding, storage, and retrieval. This article looks at all three steps, with a focus on memorising notes, (for taking notes: click here).
Encoding is the function of the brain which enables it to change exterior stimuli and inputs into a form it finds suitable to be stored. We already know that people learn in different ways: some have a visual memory, others prefer recording themselves reading their notes for acoustic stimuli, and more still remember through the physical act of writing.
Basic psychology suggests that short-term memory is stimulated by acoustic or visual coding: like hearing a phone number and repeating it; or seeing a sign on the motorway and trying to freeze that image. Long-term memory, the type of memory we want to be encoding into for revision, can function in both these ways but its main encoding system is semantic (based around meaning, often applied to a context). Neuroscientists have determined that concepts studied in context and with meaning are much easier to encode, and subsequently easier to retrieve when compared with shallow concepts (i.e. without meaning, randomised).
Indeed, as many of us have had our lecturers and tutors point out to us, there is a fundamental difference between learning content off by heart, and having a thorough understanding of a concept, which is enabled by grappling with complexities instead of repeating them. However, even when understanding is not possible (for shallow concepts or lists for example), other techniques can be used to exploit deeper encoding. Mnemonics - using cues such as acronyms, visual images or short poems to aid information retention and retrieval - do just that.
Modern psychology has divided memory into short and long term. The Atkinson-Shriffin model of memory suggests that in order for nuggets of information to be stored in long-term memory, they must be repeated in short term memory first. We will explore space repetition further in a future article, but the basic rule is that a significant “break” must be given before being presented with the same information, for optimal activation of the brain's capacity to store and recall information.
This is the most significant aspect of the process, since it is what you will be using at the crucial exam stage, and the part most people overlook when revising. Many of us focus on highlighting, rewriting, and summarising notes as a means of memorising them: indeed, this creates an instant, tangible, and rewarding result. Even so, the real brunt of the work in the process of learning information is in the retrieval of that information: active recall. Research is near-unanimous in suggesting that active recall is the most efficient and effective way to study written materials, far surpassing passive review. This is because instead of focussing on the metaphorical act of pouring knowledge into your brain, you are instead practicing retrieving it (using your memory).
An easy way to implement it in your revision is with questions on flashcards as opposed to statements. “Donoghue v Stevenson established the principle of a duty of care in tort law” can therefore be replaced with “what principle was established by Donoghue v Stevenson?” or alternatively “which case established a duty of care in tort law?”. In some cases, it may not even be worth writing the answer down, as the physical act of retrieving the answer in your notes or in a textbook will increase your chances of remembering that information.
You can therefore improve your revision process using active recall in easy and simple ways, yet reap huge benefits: when making your notes more concise, summarise them without looking at them first; create “mini-tests” for your next revision session, where you write a list of questions based on your notes; list the topic sub-headings as best as you can from memory, ideally with the most important concepts for each.
When you realise the main challenge of revision isn’t the intake of material but the retrieval of it from memory, you will waste a lot less time, and you can create personalised methods of implementing it. For example, my secondary school German teacher, familiar with this nugget of wisdom, refused to translate words for students and would instead force us to use dictionaries of textbook lexicons. The increase in the length of time we would spend looking for the word as a result (as opposed to an immediate response from him, or a google search), meant we were more likely to remember that same word next time. Sometimes it’s worth making your life that little bit more difficult in the short run, to reap the benefits later on.