Good memorization skills are essential for doing well on tests and in your classes. Often there is a large amount of information presented in a class that you must learn for a midterm or final exam. Tests like the GRE, MCAT, and others needed to get into graduate school will also demand that you have a large amount of information at your fingertips.
Memorization can be overwhelming, so it's important to have a systematic approach. Here are five tips that will help you create a memorization routine that will work well for you.
1. Know what you need to memorize
This has to be your first step. If you are taking a college course, your professor or TA may be able to give you a study guide with terms you will need to have memorized for your exam. Sometimes, you will have to have taken notes during lectures and other times you can find these terms in your texts. Numerous books are available to those studying for a standardized test, which give lists of terms to know and sometimes even come with ready-made index cards.
2. Keep your goal in mind
Decide how long you want to be able to retain the information. That is to say: are you cramming for an exam that you'll have to take in the next couple of days/hours? If your only goal is to get through a situation like that and you don't care if you will still remember the information next week or next semester, your strategy will be different from someone who wants to develop long-term memory. Even in the case of grad school entrance exams, getting information into your long-term memory is usually preferable because it is less stressful than cramming and because it is frustrating to learn a lot of information just to forget it a few days later! If you are memorizing information, I assume it is because you want to be able to access and use that information in future academic or professional settings, not just in the test you're studying for this semester, so the next three tips are designed to help with this type of memorization.
3. Don't try to memorize too much at once
Now that you have compiled everything you want to memorize, your first instinct may be to learn all of it! Right now!! Unless you are cramming, try your best to suppress this impulse. Instead, put your initial energy into organizing the information into bite-sized chunks or batches. The best size for a batch like this will usually be between seven and fifteen items. This is the amount of information you can sit down and learn at one time and still remember it weeks later, because you didn't overwhelm your brain with too much at once. The amount of time you have between now and when you'll want to use the information (that is, your exam) will be a big factor in determining how frequently you move to learning a new batch of information, but it is always a good idea to give your brain a rest between starting the memorization of one batch and starting the memorization of another. (Reviewing is somewhat of a different story, see number four below.)
4. Be consistent
Whether you need to memorize one batch a week or one every other day in order to have everything memorized in time to meet your goal, note on your calendar which day you plan to start working with each batch and stick to your plan! Once a batch's week (or day) is over, don't put it aside for the rest of the semester. Organize your material so you have a place (if you are using physical index cards), a tag, or a folder (if you are using digital tools) for items you have already learned. Then, each time you sit down to work on memorization, spend the first third of the time you think it will take you reviewing these older items. (So if learning one batch takes 10 minutes, spend 5 minutes on review before looking at the new material.) You won't get to every item every time, so make sure to cycle through and/or shuffle your review items. If you are introducing new material less often than a week, make sure to schedule a review at least once a week so you don't forget the old stuff!
5. Introduce variations
The ability to shuffle or rearrange the items in your batches is important so that you know you are memorizing the information itself and not just the order it is in. Once you think you have the information in a new batch down pat, change the order and see if you still do as well. You can also introduce variations in whether you read the information aloud or silently, and if you can get a friend to help you study (perhaps someone who is studying for the same exam), you can make a game of saying the information out loud to each other or seeing who can write down the answer the fastest. Even if you are studying by yourself, introducing an extra challenge like this will help cement what you are trying to learn into you long-term memory.
Good luck and remember to take breaks and reward yourself with physical activity and time to socialize when you have successfully taken steps towards your goal. This will not only help you focus when you get back to work, but will add an aspect of positive reinforcement to further bolster your memory!
Lily Jane Hart was the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship in teaching English and has been tutoring in Latin, English, Spanish, and German for more than a decade. She now tutors Latin remotely via Skype. You can visit her website at www.latintutor.net.