A psychologist’s tips to remembering things quickly, accurately, and more easily


We pick the brain of a clinical psychologist to find out the best ways to store and retrieve information for your next test

Nicola Chan |

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Rote learning is a memorisation technique based on repetition. We use it all the time; when we study vocabulary for tests, for example, or try to remember someone’s phone number. The technique may work for you but there are other, better ways to make information stick.

To prevent you from having any more mind blanks, Young Post spoke to Hong Kong Psychological Society’s registered clinical psychologist Nicola Chung Yee-lan for some advice on better ways to keep information in your noggin for longer.

Encode, store and retrieve

It is helpful to understand the process of memorisation which consists of three stages: encoding, storage and retrieval. During the first stage, we encode information in visual, acoustic or semantic form, meaning we take information and process it either as a picture, sound or information we give meaning to. This information is then stored in our short-term memory (STM) or long-term memory (LTM). Information stored in STM only lasts up to 30 seconds whereas information in LTM can last a lifetime. We can store information in LTM by using techniques like rote learning.

Lastly, we retrieve pieces of information stored by using cues associated with them. This is why we might remember information better if we are in the same place we learned it and why multiple-choice questions are easier than short answer questions – because we have cues that help us remember.

Remember more for longer

Reading aloud helps us store information into our STM which is “most sensitive to acoustics”, according to Chung. It also helps to transform short-term memories into long-term memories.

Our STM can only hold up to nine items at a time, so if you need to remember a long or complex piece of information, you can use a technique called chunking where you break the information into smaller, more digestible pieces. For example, when trying to remember a 10-number sequence such as 8726472781, it would help to divide it into 3 smaller chunks like 872-647-2781.

Using mnemonic devices (memory aids)

Chung introduced to us a few types of memory aids which help in memory retrieval. One of them is the method of loci, where you place individual items to be memorised along an imaginary path and follow that path in your mind to retrieve the information you left behind.

For example, if you want to remember items on your
grocery list, visualise the path you take from your bedroom to your kitchen and place the grocery items along the way (i.e. a loaf of bread on your bed, a carton of milk on the stairs, etc.)

Link by story is another method to enhance memory storage where you make up a story with the items you need to remember.

Chung remarked that “method of loci and link by story are two of the most effective means for memorisation”.

The next mnemonic recommended by Chung is categorical organisation, a technique most of us have tried when making notes.

“It’s hard to remember when the pieces of information we have are scattered and unorganised,” said Chung. Tables, mind maps and lists are all good ways to organise information.

Chung added that we can make acronyms to help us remember long phrases or sentences, similar to the way chunking works.

“Just as ATM reminds us of automatic teller machines, and Fat Boy Eats All Day helps us to recall the first four Flat key signatures.”

Avoid cramming

It’s always better to repeatedly go over what you need to remember over a period of time rather than trying to cram everything into your head in one sitting.

“Sometimes students would play it by ear and cram for exams. But revisiting your learning materials from time to time will help you to hold your knowledge in place better than squeezing in a
lot of information into your brain at one time,” said Chung. “If you study just before your exam, you would still manage it. But your memory will not last for long.”

Best to sleep on it

Chung has one final piece of advice: make sure you sleep well after a study session, which is something overlooked by many students. This is because memories are consolidated or strengthened while we are sleeping.

“Teenagers should have nine hours of sleep every day because it helps to strengthen
their memory,” she said.

Edited by Nicole Moraleda

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