Memory Techniques for Exam Preparation

Memory Techniques for Exam Preparation

Memory and exams are closely linked. One of the biggest myths you’ll hear is that exams are simply memory tests when, in fact, the reality is that all your studying and revision is to develop your understanding of the subject, which will minimise the need to memorise.

Having said that, in almost every subject, there will be facts you need to know. The problem with many facts or statements is that nothing is memorable about them, and they don’t require any understanding; simply being able to reproduce the information is enough.

In such situations, memory is important and can contribute to an extra few marks in an exam. Students often think that this is the easy part, but it can be difficult to accomplish.

Memory Techniques

In the article, I’ve covered several memory techniques that, when mastered, can save you some marks when it comes to exam time. The methods are typically for single words and short phrases, but with practice, you could use them for longer passages of text.

However, you shouldn’t need to memorise huge long passages of text word for word. It’s all about picking out the main points and using them as prompts.

For me, being able to recall information comes from proper studying. The goal is to see a question, and something pops into your head. This is a trigger word or a prompt. Once you have this word, it is easy to remember the details and expand upon it. I imagine it like a flow chart with the trigger word at the top.

So the first memory method is to look for trigger words in your notes and books and Study with those in mind.


The word memorise implies sitting down solely intending to remember information by repeatedly going over it until you are bored to tears. This can work, but the problem is that it’s just so boring. It also takes a lot of time and can prove ineffective unless you are determined.

This can lead to people saying that they have a poor memory. You also need to keep going back over it regularly. That’s why I wouldn’t bother memorising some things until close to the exam.

Having said that, repetition is how you get good at anything. But the trick is to be able to do it over and over without becoming bored.

It’s a bit like when kids play football. They might go to football training, where they need to do a bit of running to improve their fitness, but the last thing they want to do is just run; they want to kick a ball. So they need to be made to run without realising what they are doing. This requires a variety of exercises that involves running plus something else. Combining the ‘something else’ and the boring part is effective.

It’s the same here with studying. You are, of course, going to have to read the material many times, but you need to do it in a variety of ways.

Some people can sit down and read things over and over for hours, but it takes a lot of willpower, and even then, they could probably use their time better. In previous blog posts, I’ve discussed introducing variety into your studying to ensure that you are learning and not hitting a plateau. This approach applies to memory too.


While studying, I was always trying to simplify things and make life as easy as possible. I noticed that I would use little techniques to aid my memory when faced with things I got mixed up with. Most of the time, they weren’t even what you would call techniques. I would look at the things that I couldn’t remember and ask myself, ‘How can I make this more memorable?’

The reason I did this was to maintain momentum. Sometimes you could be working on understanding a concept, but going from one part to the next could be a statement or fact that links them. If I could remember this little fact, I could work through a large concept. To me, it made sense to try to memorise this fact there and then. I am not talking about long passages of text or anything too demanding here, just something short and quick.

Simple Language

Every subject you study will be swamped with technical language and use “big” words that probably mean nothing to you. As they have no real meaning to you, it can be difficult to learn them and remember their meaning.

For example, in science, definitions are a pain. There is lots of technical jargon, and students forget them all the time, even after working hard work to learn them.

So, what you need to do is put technical jargon in your own words and have an example. If you can see the example, then you can usually piece together the definition.

A Few Simple Memory Techniques

You will have experience with some techniques already. TV adverts introduce stupid annoying jingles, concepts and phrases so that people will remember them. Even brand names can be totally unrelated to the product to make them memorable.

What has the word Apple got to do with computers, what has the word Google got to do with search engines, and what has the word McDonald’s got to do with burgers?

Now think about some TV adverts like ‘’ or ‘compare the meerkat’. Again, both are memorable because of a jingle or a concept. The point is that the more abstract or silly you can make something, the more likely you are to remember it.

You could be trying to remember quotes from a book in English, mathematical formulae, or words in another language. If they don’t interest you, don’t require any understanding, mean nothing to you, or are written in over-complicated technical language, then you have no chance of remembering them unless you put in hours of repetition.

You need to link the thing you are trying to remember to something more memorable or interesting.

You can do the first 4 in the list below in a matter of seconds. These are the sort of things I would do all the time, like when describing maintaining momentum above:

1. If it is a word that you are trying to remember, you can try to make a different word from it. A word that is ideally stupid, funny, or at least more interesting than the one you are trying to remember. The word could be similar sounding to the original word; it could contain some of the original word’s letters or be associated to the original word.

2. Relate it to something else. Something that is memorable to you.

3. Put phrases in your own words. If they use complicated jargon, simplify it by putting it in your own language. It could even be silly text-type language or something that makes you laugh or how you would speak to your friends, rather than boring technical jargon.

4. Look for links and differences. If you always get mixed up between two similar-looking or sounding things, you need to find a way to differentiate between them. Play spot the difference or learn one of them and reverse it for the other.


Quite often, people use abbreviations to remember phrases or a list. For example, the classic: Richard Of York Goes Battling In Vain = red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, which is supposed to represent the colours in a rainbow. I’m sure there are countless examples of this alone. These are called mnemonics (silent ‘m’ at the start).

Mnemonics works very well. The Richard of York example above is one way to do it, and another is to turn the word or phrase into a picture and relate it to another picture.

This works well by firstly having a predefined list from, say, 1 to 20. Each number has a predefined picture attached to it (this is getting a bit more technical, and there are ways to do this on the internet if you look for it).

Briefly, as an example, the predefined list that you need could rhyme; 1 = bun, 2 = shoe, 3 = tree, 4 = floor, 5 = dive.
You then take the word that you are trying to remember and make a mental picture with the thing in the predefined list. Make the picture as silly or wacky as possible. So when you then try to recall the word, you think of 1, a bun should pop into your head and then the picture, with the word you are looking for.

Don’t Rely on Memory Techniques

You should also not rely upon memory techniques. They should be viewed as a bonus. They are there to be used when needed but are not a substitute for proper studying. If you study well all year, you will remember most of your course material without necessarily sitting trying to remember.

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