I consider myself a person with above average intelligence, that is, I am able to understand complex systems with relative ease. My weak point however is that I've always struggled with memorizing. Back in school I excelled in math and physics, but struggled with e.g. history, not because I wasn't interested in it, but simply because I had a hard time memorizing what was necessary.

Is there a good method for memorizing?

Context: I am planning to go back to university this fall. I am learning now for the entrance exam. That is something I will manage, but I anticipate university exams themselves being harder than that, and I will attend to uni while still having a day job. That is, I have no time to waste on improper/suboptimal learning methods. I aim for BA first, then MA. I am 31 years old now.

  • $\begingroup$ What are you thinking of studying? $\endgroup$
    – Mena Labib
    Feb 24, 2016 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ Psychology. (I already have a Masters in Physics) $\endgroup$ Feb 24, 2016 at 13:43
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    $\begingroup$ I would hesitate to say "big amounts" for something that students do daily. And the best way would likely be spaced repetition $\endgroup$ Feb 24, 2016 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ How do you already have a Masters in Physics and yet are returning for a BA in Psychology? Don't you have a bachelors in something already? What's your goal? $\endgroup$
    – Chelonian
    Feb 26, 2016 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ There are some memory techniques that may be useful in memorizing (already mentioned in the answers) such as mnemonics, chunking, etc. I just want to add that your ability to understand complex systems and general concepts would significantly help in studying Psychology. Even though there are indeed many facts to remember, if you understand the general principle, they will come easily. $\endgroup$
    – Nono
    Mar 1, 2016 at 2:40

4 Answers 4


If you want to learn something then investigating how the brain encodes memory, and looking at methods of enhancing these tasks is the way to go. Pop psychology books do the field little credit and are often riddled with academic inaccuracies. However if you are going to use a book I highly recommend Human Memory by the brilliant Alan Braddeley.

Memory is largely split between three according Atkinson and Schiffrin's (1986) model: sensory store->short term store(STM)-> long term store (LTM). Although this can then be sub-split into explicit and implicit memory, and the sensory store is what we would now call attentional processing. Broadly speaking we have little control of attentional processes than STM. So lets look at how you many enhance the encoding between STM and LTM. Much of what I'm about to mention comes developed out of the Levels of Encoding theory which essentially suggests that information is processed at different levels depending upon the complexity and relationships, the greater the depth of the encoding and associations the easier something is to remember. Many Mnemonic (memory) techniques are based on this. For instance, "Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain"= the colours of the rainbow. technically this is shallow encoding because its only the first letter or each word relating to the colour in the order they occur in light refraction. But this is are easier than remember the colours based upon there discrete and unconnected names. The more associations you make the easier something is to remember as it makes more associations heres an deeper example remember this list and hide it once you have read it and try to recall after the maths test: Carrot, Monkey, Telephone, Guitar, School, Bottle, Newspaper, Mansion, Henry, Catastrophe, Worms, canopy, Hairspray.

Answer the following: 2x3.5=?, (7/2)x3=?, square root of 27?, A car accretes from 0-50 m/sec in over a distance of 34 meters how long did it take?

Recall the list?

If instead you tried to recall the list as a story it would be easier to remember all the items...

A Monkey was eating a Carrot when the Selephone rang offering Guitar lessons at a School, he/she decided to go and packed a Bottle and Newspaper. Upon leaving the Mansion he/she walked past Henry who was having a Catastrophically collecting worms under his fishing Canopy with a Hairspray can.

This is a deeper level of encoding that should be easier to remember because it has more detail applying the words in an episodic and semantic style. This activates more brain regions providing more cues for how associations for the information that one wishes to store. I literally can't write enough about neural encoding of memory there is a plethora of research, and I strongly suggest a google scholar search if you are interested. But the over riding suggestion is increase associations, for instance when I was studying for my exams I would write notes and cue cards which were highlighted, I would also create stories and words made of the items I wanted to remember. In addition I would drink a particular flavour of squash while doing my learning and revising. The reason being is that these all create associations, and if you can take a cue with you into an exam, such as apple juice, it well help you to remember. Visualisation a lot too, imagining the place you were when you learnt something and the smells and related tastes.

Finally it cannot be understated the role that affective (emotional) processing plays, information is often affectively encoded. Trying to remember how you felt or giving data affective significance can aid recall or being in the same state of affect helps.

Essentially a large part of memory can be understood in terms of Pavolivan and operant conditioning, coupled with motivational and affective relevance. In other words learnt associations and reinforcement may act as cues and learning mechanisms that strengthen memory. The relevance of these cues one can give both motivational and affective significance, and these may also be used to help recall. In addition the level of detail and information relative to the encoding process strengthens or deepens the learning process.

This is a REDUCTIONIST explanation of memory there is a lot more on it and the precise mechanisms related to what is being learnt, there is also a lot i haven't mentioned. Sorry for the lack of references I have a job to do, but you can google a lot of these topics and you will encounter most while learning about cognitive neuroscience. Memory research is probably one of the best understood areas of cognitive neuroscience along with perception.


Barbara Oakley, author of A Mind for Numbers, gave a talk about her findings on effective ways of learning and thinking. Some of what she said were things we've all heard before: eat right, exercise, sleep well, etc.

What was more interesting to me was the research on having the right schedule for learning. How everything added up to your highest level of retainment. According to their findings, the easiest way to retain new information (aka study for an exam), was having an effective daily routine:

 - Eat breakfast
 - Study/learn new material
 - Take breaks for your mind to think on it subconsciously (called diffused learning)
 - Go for a walk or bonus if you exercise regularly
 - Get a full night's sleep

All for the highest level of retainment of the information learned from the day before.

Starting this kind of routine early is also a great recipe for avoiding procrastination and cramming! Not to mention even more beneficial to you, since you will also be working while attending university.

The only other shortcuts I know of come from personal experience of flashcards, writing things over and over again, and cramming techniques. I'd recommend the other thing if you can swing it.

  • $\begingroup$ Also State Dependent Learning: study in similar conditions to the test. If it will be in the morning, then study in the morning and make your morning routine the same on the day of the test. The brain doesn't like surprises or novelty when it has to perform. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Feb 26, 2016 at 12:30

Since you excelled in math and physics, I'm going to guess that deriving information from first principles is fun, easy, and rewarding for you. And memorizing just feels wrong. Memorizing doesn't feel like "learning" because you're not deriving from first principles. You don't understand WHY the answer is correct.

I can relate 100%. At least for me, the only answer was (1) mnemonics and (2) repetition. When you're memorizing a lot of information for exams, just coming up with a clever mnemonic isn't enough. You need to practice the mnemonics, so when asked a question, the mnemonic comes to mind right away. I personally found flash cards helpful for this.

Take heart. This memorizing (in my opinion) is an artifact of certain teaching styles. When you're out of school and working in a field, those things that you use all the time you memorize out of sheer repetition without even trying (like a phone number you dial often). Those things you don't use all the time--even if you did have them memorized--you forget them anway. So you look them up as needed.


Thanks for everyone for your answers.

I've found this book and it seems to be what I was looking for: Make It Stick - The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown et al. The basic premise is that retrieving things from memory makes them actually stick. The more effort to retrieve it the better. Therefore you shouldn't mass learn because it's more or less a waste of time, rather embed waits and do something else, interleave subjects, and most importantly test yourself by retrieving from memory instead of rereading, and so on.

Also, there is an other book that looks great, with a seemingly great deal of overlap with the former: How We Learn by Benedict Carey.

I am also mentioning that I've stumbled upon a book asserting that everyone has to find about what their "learning style" is, like visual/auditory/etc... and left vs right hemisphere, but concluded that it is unfounded at best (the word pseudoscience comes to my mind), so I returned it. See Criticism at Wikipedia.

  • $\begingroup$ All you have done is stated that you have found a book/s that answers your own question. I agree that recall helps to consolidate memory, that is true...to some extent however the relevance of information and the level of its encoding are far more important. Large or small amounts of information are largely recalled with the same error rate so long as you can maintain concentration. Its the level of processing that make it really stick. Also its a bit of a faux pas to award yourself the correct answer when you haven't even answered the question. I believe you should leave the question open. $\endgroup$
    – Comte
    Mar 2, 2016 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ I understand (and sadly, anticipated) that accepting my own answer might annoy some, nevertheless I still believe that it's the most helpful answer to my question, and that's not because I like myself so much. If somebody else would have given the same answer, I would have accepted it (more) happily. I gave your answer a +1 because it's an interesting read and I appreciate your time and effort. It's hard to directly apply on my original question though. Also, in my view, this (stackexchange) is not a competition of some sorts, rather an ever growing useful collection of questions and answers. $\endgroup$ Mar 3, 2016 at 13:12
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    $\begingroup$ It does not annoy me, I posted my response knowing you had already been awarded the answer to yourself before i wrote my response. My issue is that your response to the question is not an answer, if someone was to here for the same answer they would get 'read this book'. The point of stack exchange is to provide an explained response to a question so other people could get the full answer here. My answer while incomplete explains briefly how memory and associations are made that one can take advantage of to enhance learning. Your response lacks this level I'm sorry to say. $\endgroup$
    – Comte
    Mar 3, 2016 at 13:57

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