Academic performance, Exams, Memory

Enhancing memory recall for exams

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

Preparation for final exams may not seem like an urgent priority right now. They’re months away, right? Well, yes, they are months away for most of you… however, by bedding down an effective revision strategy now, you will be very well prepared come exam time, leading to improved confidence, lower stress, and ultimately higher performance #winning!

If you haven’t already, set some goals to start writing out your comprehensive notes. Just work on one topic from the curriculum at a time. Work out where in the week you can set aside some time for creating these notes. These will become your exam notes. That’s right – you should start making your exam notes from now, working on them steadily, rather than waiting until the exam is imminent. When the exam gets closer, you will switch your strategy up a bit (I’ll talk about this in a future post).

But for now, concentrate on making clear and comprehensive notes for each curriculum topic. This approach means you create your notes without so much time-pressure and with much less stress, because remember: the brain doesn’t learn well while stressed. Say it with me: “cramming is banned!”.

If you can try to create topic notes soon after you covered that section in class, this will mean the info is more fresh and it should take less time overall.

The style of your notes is really a personal preference. Reflect on what might have worked well for you in the past? Do you have an ability to visualise diagrams from your notes or textbook? Then ensure you have a lot of diagrams and flow charts. Do you find numbered lists or mnemonics easier to recall? Then make sure you include lots of these sorts of notes. Do you really need to see the ‘whole picture’ of how everything is interconnected? Try mind-maps using the key terms from the curriculum. In fact, it works well to include a whole suite of these types of ideas in your notes. You could even try different techniques for a few different topics over the next month or so and see which ones become easier for you to remember.

But I need to emphasise that, when writing your notes, your goal is simply to understand and capture the material. Don’t get overwhelmed by how much you need to recall for the exam – this is not your goal right now! So just complete the notes where you cover off the curriculum points in as much detail as you need to feel that you definitely understand the topic. And let any worries about the exam rise and then fade 🙂

As soon as you have some notes ready, you can instigate your revision strategy. This will be a continual cycle where you are regularly completing new sets of notes and then including them into the revision time.

So how exactly should you revise? If possible, as soon as you complete a set of notes for one topic, have a big read through them then and there. Within one week, read through the set again. Then for the third week, start incorporating a strategy known as forced recall. This is where, instead of passively reading through the material, you start trying to ‘force’ yourself to remember different components. I recommend simply covering up different words/sections/diagrams/labels/definitions and trying to remember them. Don’t worry if you don’t get things right at this stage. Every mistake is actually learning in action! Know that your plan is underway! Continue revising your notes using forced recall – I recommend once per week.

You are probably starting to worry about how big this pile of exam notes is going to get, right? Well, it will be large for some content-heavy subjects. But this is where the next important strategy comes in: spaced repetition (also known as retrieval practice: see great summary here). This is going to help you work smarter, rather than harder! For this strategy, I recommend getting some sort of removable stickers (little flag stickers like these work quite well – you’ll want them in at least 3 colours – I recommend red, orange and green, but you can do whatever you like!). With this strategy, you continue doing forced recall, but really start really paying attention to which topics, and specific sub-points, you recall quite well: for these ones, apply a green sticker label. You see where I’m going, right?! Any topics that you have a of trouble remembering, apply a red sticker. Stuff that’s a bit iffy, chuck on an orange. These labels then inform your approach the next time you revise. For the green stuff, just read/skim though (don’t skip it as we still want those brain connections to be maintained and strengthened); for the orange and red, continue doing forced recall once a week, but put more effort into the red. Over time, more and more things will start turning green and can just be read through or skimmed. And how much of a confidence boost will that be?!

Are you starting to see why you really want to commence exam preparation as soon as possible? In a future post, I’ll delve into how to adjust your revision strategy when the exams are just a few weeks away. For now, go and get started on those notes!

Keen for more?

Check out this awesome video for a more detailed look at spaced repetition, including evidence around just how effective it can be!

The Quizlet platform automatically also uses AI to deliver questions to you via spaced repetition, so consider using that platform to set up some study sets for yourself, especially for things like definitions. You can sign up for a free account and can even join existing study sets for common subjects and topics.

Here is an awesome journal article demonstrating the effectiveness of forced recall and spaced repetition.

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