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Memory strategies

Memorization is about reproducing information, while understanding is about being able to remember information so that you can build meaning, seek relevance, and discover relationships and applications.

There are effective learning strategies if the purpose is to memorise material and there are effective strategies that work best if the purpose is to understand. Iit is important to know what they are, how to use them and when to use them, so ask yourself if you are memorising to reproduce information or so that you can recall what you have understood..

How memory works

Your memory and how it works:

Attention Taking the information in
Encoding Formatting the information for use by the brain
Storing Maintenance or retention of the information
Retrieving Bringing forth the information to be used

Learning how to use appropriate cognitive learning strategies will help you improve your ability to remember information when it's needed. See next section on different strategies.

Cognitive learning strategies

Basically, there are three categories of learning strategies that help you process information and remember (encode, store and retrieve).

1. Rehearsal Strategies for memory
2. Elaboration Strategies for understanding
3. Organisational Strategies for memory and understanding

Rehearsal strategies

Rehearsal Strategies are useful to aid and develop memorisation.

Use repetition to help increase familiarity with the material and better hold it in your memory

For use if the purpose is memorisation of material
Can be time consuming (remember learning your times tables!) use sparingly


Mnemonics are techniques for improving rote learning


Imagine that each item that you are trying to memorise is pegged to something else. For example, the item could be pegged to another word in a rhyme, or to an object in the room, on your desk.
Here is an example:
one is a bun
two is a shoe
three is a tree
four is a door

You might use the pegword system to remember that the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second. Imagine a hotdog bun [1] entering a gate [8] made of sticks [6]. Since we tend to retain images for a longer time than we retain words , it may be easier to recall this weird scene than the numbers, one, eight and six in order.


Linkwords can be of use for those learning a foreign language. In this case try to form a link between a new word or term in a foreign language and a familiar word.
E.G.: nappe is the french word for tablecloth - so imagine taking a nap on a tablecloth.


The idea here is to devise a sentence in which the first letters of each of the words in the sentence compose the starting point for items to be remembered.
E.G.: Two Old Angels Skipped Over Heaven Carrying A Harp
Tan=Opposite over Adjacent, Sin = Opposite over Hypotenuse, Cos=Adjacent over Hypothenuse


Here you develop a word whose letters stand for the terms to be remembered.
E.G.: PET - This stands for Pinna Ear Tympanic membrane

Repeated Reading and Writing

Repetition of material helps to store information in your long term memory. It involves distributed practice of new information on a continuous basis. This could mean:

  • Passively re-reading text books
  • Verbatim copying of notes
  • Repeating things
  • Reviewing material over and over

The key to turning these into useful strategies is to make them more active and personal. Maintain the idea of repeated, distributed practice but make the brain work. For example, put a list that needs to be memorised on your mirror and go over it as you brush your teeth every morning. Then change the list, leaving out parts. Or if you're going to re-read, try it out loud.

Flash Cards

Flash cards is a system that can be used to help you to remember items from your course of study. For example, on one side of the card can be a word, picture, question etc. then on the other can be a definition, phrase, explanation, picture, answer, etc. Start by looking at them on a regular basis, then just look at one side and try to recall the answer.

Underlining or Highlighting

As you read a book or article, underlining or highlighting the content can be a great way to landmark the work you are currently engaged in. It focuses the brain on what is important. When you return the familiarity of these landmarks jumps out at you immediately.

However, to make the underlining and highlighting strategy even more effective, you need to engage with the text. It is a good idea to write a key word or phrase in the margin. Or at the end write a summary of the text that you have read.

Elaboration strategies

These help you to build up meaning and to integrate the new information which helps to improve understanding and memory:         

  • Assimilating new material into existing knowledge organisations
    • try to link the material to something you already know
  • Making new conceptual frameworks for new material (accommodation)
  • Paraphrasing – restating information using your own words
  • Summarising
    • Giving an overview of concept, theory, etc.
    • Check what you have learned after a study session, try to state the main points just learned
  • Creating analogies
  • Asking or answering questions about the material
    • Write down 2-3 specific questions about the material to be learned before you read it
  • Teaching the material to someone else (or something else!)
  • Applying knowledge to new situations

Organisational strategies

These help you to cluster the information and generate meaning, thereby making it easier to manage and remember:

  • Outlining – using headings to give material meaning
  • Diagramming
    • using mind maps or other means to show relationships, main ideas, etc.
    • flow charts to show procedures
  • Classifying
  • Categorizing
  • Noting similarities and differences
  • Identifying hierarchical relationships (e.g. in mathematics)
  • Separating main ideas from details
  • Paying attention to the layout of the material when you read it first

Elaboration and Organisational strategies require you to be more active about how you learn new material.  Even rehearsal strategies that are more active will help you to remember better.  An example: you have information that has to be memorised in a certain order (like periods of archaeology, bones in the hand or photosynthesis), as you get dressed every morning repeat a piece of information as you put on each item of clothing.  You are combining strategies (repetition, imagery, distributed practice) and will increase the likelihood of remembering the information.  Also because it’s a bit different and slightly more active than sitting at a desk repeating, you might concentrate and not become bored as easily.

Adapted from Weinstein, C.E. & Hume, L.M.  (1998).  Study Strategies for Lifelong Learning.  Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 36-37.   Moran, A.P. (1997).  Managing Your Own Learning at University: A Practical Guide.  Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 111-115.

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