Besides the current moment, all we have is our memory. Sadly, many of us feel as if our memories never work as well as they should.
To be human is to be constantly forgetting, whether that be memories of fun trips, beautiful sunsets, terrible days, or the info we need to remember for our next exam. While endowing everyone with a photographic memory is unfortunately beyond the current scope of science, there are a number of great research-backed strategies to improve memory. If you are always forgetting your to-do list, drawing a blank on test day, or forgetting why you walked into the kitchen, check out these five great strategies for better memory.
The habit of note-taking is drilled into us from the day we begin middle school. We either accept our teachers’ wisdom on faith or ignore their advice and decide we can fare well enough without taking notes. However, neither approach strikes at the root question: Does taking notes in class really help?
First off, we need to differentiate between two types of benefits that note-taking offers: the external storage effect and the encoding effect. The external storage effect refers to the long-term benefits students receive by being able to refer back to their notes when writing papers, completing assignments, and preparing for exams. The encoding effect occurs when note-taking forces someone to process the material on a deeper level, leading to better memory of that information.
Students that take notes perform better on average than those that do not take notes, both the short and long term. This is due to both deeper processing while taking notes and being able to refer back to those notes later. When it comes to note-taking, folk wisdom nailed it on the head: If you want to remember something better in the short and long term, write it down!
In addition to admonishing you to take notes, your teachers likely encouraged you to study every day rather than cram the night before a test. Again, it turns out that our teachers may have been wiser than we gave them credit for. Spaced learning—reviewing information periodically—is another simple and effective way to improve your memory.
An early study of spaced repetition examined the performance of 87 university students who were assigned to either spaced practice or a control condition. The researchers presented the students with a 1,400-word passage on the endocrinology of pubescence, chosen so that students could begin from a similar baseline of knowledge (pretty much zero, that is). The spaced practice group outperformed the control group by a landslide, indicating that repeated exposure to information substantially improves memory retention. This means that optimal learning occurs through shorter daily study sessions rather than the night-before cramming sessions that all students know so well. So, if you want to remember something, make sure you review it frequently.
The Testing Effect
We all know the feeling of anxiously taking an exam, hoping that our studying pays off. Tests are widely seen as an evaluative tool, a way of making sure that students are studying hard and learning the material. But what if you were told that the act of taking a test actually helps improve memory retention for the information you are being tested on?
A classic study of the testing effect elegantly demonstrated its ability to improve memory retention. Participants were assigned to one of four conditions:
- Participants neither studied nor tested on the material once they successfully remembered the info once (SNTN).
- Participants studied but did not test on the material (STN).
- Participants did not study the material but tested on it periodically (SNT).
- Participants studied the material and tested on it (ST).
Both the SNTN and STN groups performed poorly on the tests, only recalling approximately 35 percent of the information. These groups studied a good deal and still only remembered about a third of what they studied. This shows that, by itself, studying is not enough to remember something long-term. In contrast, the SNT and ST groups recalled about 80 percent of the information correctly. Even the SNT group that did not study at all remembered over twice as much as both of the study groups! For the two testing groups, the act of testing actually helped the participants to better encode new information.
The testing effect is not only for students, though; individuals from diverse backgrounds and differing cognitive abilities can benefit from the testing effect. It is a simple and efficient way for anybody to drastically increase their memory. If you want to get better at remembering something, the best way to do that is to practice remembering it. Next time you really need to remember something, make sure that you use the testing effect to your advantage!
Reduce Retroactive Interference Through Sleep
Retroactive interference occurs when new information interferes with remembering previously learned material. For example, have you ever been to a party and learned the names of several new people, only to find that you can’t remember the name of the first person you met? This occurs because the more recent names override the first names you learned before your brain can encode them properly. Luckily, there are plenty of strategies that we can use to reduce the impact of retroactive interference in our daily lives.
Most of us have learned the importance of sleep, probably through the experience of not getting enough of it. Sleep assists us in several capacities, a lesser-known one being its ability to reduce the effects of retroactive interference. The sooner that people sleep after learning something, the better their memory retention will be. Not only that, but the effects remain in force regardless of the time of day. This means that any sleep will benefit your memory for the information that you learned just prior to sleeping.
Whether it be a nap or a full night’s rest, plentiful sleep will aid you in your memory goals. Be sure to use memory improvement as an excuse to take more naps!
Reduce Retroactive Interference Caused by Similarity
Another way to reduce retroactive interference is to reduce the similarity of information that you learn within a short period of time.
In a recent study, participants were asked to engage in a mnemonic similarity task, which presents subjects with several series of objects and then asks them to evaluate whether the object is new, similar, or old. Some of the objects are only shown once (new), some appear twice (old), and some are similar to the foils but with slight differences (similar). The participants identified the new and old objects approximately 90 percent of the time, but only correctly identified the similar objects 50 percent of the time! The similarity between the new and similar objects caused retroactive interference, which made it harder for the participants to remember which group the objects belonged to.
The takeaway from this experiment is that we should avoid learning very similar information within a short period of time. Returning to our party example, we should try to learn people’s names throughout the night rather than all at once. Trying to learn several names at once will cause a lot of interference and make it much more difficult to remember any of those names in the future.
Remember to Put These Strategies into Practice
As we have seen, there are several simple and effective ways that we can improve our memory. We can take notes, engage in spaced learning, utilize the testing effect, get more sleep and avoid learning too much similar information at once. Each of these methods requires minimal effort and offers substantial benefits. They can be mixed and matched to fit your needs and schedule as well. Next time you need to boost your memory, remember to put these strategies to work!
A version of this article was published by The Daily Herald. It has been republished here with permission.