8 effective, smarter ways to remember what you read

prep for exams
To memorise fast, give a speech on the topic you're trying to remember. Source: AFP

When you prep for exams, you have to make sure you cover everything.

But it’s not just facts, equations, formulas and theories you need to focus on. And these aren’t the biggest hurdle to you getting that A you want.

Instead, one key thing most students miss out on when they prep for exams is learning how to remember well.

Memorisation is absolutely crucial as you prep for exams. The challenge of retaining information can be overwhelming, especially on top of the stress that exams bring.

When we struggle to memorise key terms and concepts, we become frustrated. 

Then we become more tired and more stressed over the fact that our brains can only focus on one thing at a time. 

It reaches a fever peak when we realise the dire consequences of forgetting details in an exam. You could fail, get kicked out of your course and even out of the country  (if you’re an international student).

Before you know it, you’re about to get a mental breakdown. 

prep for exams

Cramming is not the best way to study because it requires more effort from the brain and does not produce long-lasting results. Source: AFP

How NOT to prep for exams

Cramming before an exam might seem like a quick fix, but the reality is that it doesn’t work well for many reasons.

Our memory functions optimally when we focus on one concept at a time, allowing us to link new information to what we already know.

This cognitive process takes time, and cramming doesn’t give your brain the necessary intervals for effective consolidation. 

Plus, taking in all the information without breaks denies your brain the chance to absorb and retain the information.

According to studies, students who cram as they prep for exams are more likely to experience stress, memory fatigue and bad concentration levels.

You’re not consolidating, not absorbing and not retaining information — this is definitely not the smartest way to prep for exams.

And that starts by not understanding how our brain works.

The first step to prep for exams the smart way

Don’t beat yourself up for failing to remember things. It’s not a “you” problem, it’s an “us” problem.

That’s because of the very object you’re holding right now: your phone.

When everything can be Googled, why do we have to remember anything anymore?

The good news is our brain isn’t something that withers away just because we have a phone that can do seemingly everything.

We can still train it to remember enough for our prep for exam.

The first thing to know is that there two main kinds of memories:

  • Explicit memories are created when we experience something consciously
  • Implicit memories are made when past experiences affect us, sometimes without us knowing this.

The second thing to note is that our memory changes all the time. It’s not like a piece of photography that stays the same eternally.

To understand this, try remembering your favourite moment as a child. When you do that, that memory is brought back to your short-term memory — giving it a new context.

When you recall the same moment again tomorrow, you give to it another new context.

It’s like you’re recording these memories all the time, each time making it different from what your actual experience of the moment was.

Now that we know this, how can we use our understanding to help us prep for exams?

8 best study tips to retain information as you prep for exams

prep for exams

Taking notes is an effective strategy as you prep for exams. Source: AFP

1. Take notes

When it comes to effective study tips, one of the best ways to retain information is by taking notes. But not just any kind of notes and definitely not taking down everything your teacher says or from your textbooks.

Instead, use the Cornell note-taking method. It’s known as one of the most effective note-taking methods.

Writing engages a different part of the brain than reading, creating a dual reinforcement of concepts.

This means that when you take the time to write down key points or summaries during or after reviewing the material, you’re essentially covering the material a second time, enhancing understanding and retention.

Whether you’re a visual or auditory learner, this simple practice can significantly boost your ability to grasp and remember information.

By dividing your notebook page into two main sections, one for key points and another for related questions or summaries, you actively engage with the material.

After class or while studying, you can add cues or questions in the right column, using the left column for brief notes. This method helps organise information and encourages active thinking and reflection.

Studies have shown that students who use the Cornell note-taking method show improved comprehension and retention.

prep for exams

If you need to remember the first prime ministers of India, try using a fun mnemonic related to The Beatles. Source: AFP

2. Use mnemonics (and have fun with it)

Mnemonics use letters or phrases as a form of association to aid memory. Whether remembering the points on the compass with NEWS (north, east, west, and south) or creating your own mnemonic, the key is to strike a balance—make it memorable without making it more complicated than the information you’re trying to retain.

For example, if your prep for exams requires you to remember the first five prime ministers of India, you can try the following. Remember the first alphabet of each of their first and last names (in bold below):

  • Jawaharlal Nehru
  • Gulzarilal Nanda
  • Lal Bahadur Shastri
  • Indira Gandhi

You’ll end up with JNGNLSIG — which can be turned to a sentence. The wackier the better. For example: John Needed George’s Nest and Leaves. Sally Irritated George for it.

Studies show that students who incorporate mnemonics into their study routines significantly improve their ability to recall information, particularly for lists or processes with multiple steps.

3. Practising concept association

Concept association involves forging connections between the new information you’re learning and existing knowledge.

This is a strategic approach to making sense of complex material. Studies show that students who actively engage in concept association exhibit improved recall abilities, especially during exams. 

When studying mathematical concepts, you could associate formulas with real-world applications.

For example, when learning the area of a circle, you might think of a pizza and associate the formula with calculating the area of the pizza to make the concept more understandable.

prep for exams

Need to remember the formula for pi? Think of pizzas! Source: AFP

4. Test yourself 

Testing your knowledge is not just about rereading content; it involves actively practising and assessing your ability to retrieve information from your memory.

You can integrate practice testing into your study routine by questioning yourself as you read, explicitly asking the meaning of paragraphs or sections.

Another effective method is to read a section, cover the material, and challenge yourself with questions like, “What was the main idea of this section?”

Recite your answers aloud or write them down, then compare them to the original information to reinforce your understanding. 

You can even record yourself giving a lesson on this topic and listen to it like a podcast when you’re out and about.

According to research, practice testing strengthens memory recall and fosters a deeper understanding of the material by encouraging critical thinking and creating additional connections to existing memories.

You could take it a step further by simulating exam conditions by incorporating timed writing into your study sessions, aligning with the specific format and skills required.

This approach prepares you for the exam environment and ensures you are more confident and prepared for your exam.  

prep for exams

Music is effective for relaxation and stress management a you prep for exams. Source: AFP

5. Listen to music or white noise

Enhance your study sessions by incorporating the power of music and white noise. This is a proven technique to boost information retention.

Many students discover that background music or ambient sounds can enhance concentration and create a conducive study environment.

Popular choices include classical music, instrumental tracks or even white noise.

Experiment with various sounds to identify what suits you best, ensuring that the music or background noise doesn’t become a distraction but rather aids your concentration.

Avoid lyrics as they can be distracting and do more harm to your attention than good.

You can also create memorable jingles or associate facts with catchy songs, making the content more memorable during exams. 

prep for exams

Getting enough sleep each night as you prep for exams leads to improved scores and helps you retain information better. Source: ETX

6. Sleep more, move more

To boost your study game, you need to do less studying and more sleeping and exercising.

Neuropsychologists have found that memories are initially stored as short-term memories and then solidified into longer-term memories during sleep, particularly in the later phases like slow-wave sleep, typically occurring 45 minutes into the sleep cycle.

As each person will go through these phases multiple times each night, aiming for at least seven hours of sleep is crucial to allow your body and mind to undergo all sleep cycle stages for effective memory consolidation. 

Aside from getting a good night’s rest, exercising and keeping your body active are just as important. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of exercise each week, whether in short bursts throughout the day or longer chunks a few times weekly.

prep for exams

Some foods, such as fruits and vegetables, have antioxidants that help protect your brain from damage. Source: AFP

7. Adopt a good diet

Harvard Medical School affirms that making the right food choices can enhance memory, as unhealthy low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, known to harm the heart, can impact the brain negatively.

A study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital revealed that those with a diet high in saturated fats found in red meat and butter performed poorly on memory and cognition tests compared to those with a diet low in saturated fats.

The study recommended a diet rich in healthy unsaturated fats, such as:

  • olive oil
  • fish
  • nuts

Fuel your brain with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil to promote blood vessel health as well. These are satiating and can energise you as you prep for exams.

Though we all love a sweet treat, cutting back on sugar is important if you want to improve your memory.

8. The SQ3R method

SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite and Review, offering a structured approach to studying textbooks and academic materials.

The method begins with a survey, where you skim through the material to grasp the chapter or topic’s overview, paying attention to headings, subheadings and summaries.

This initial survey sets the stage for active learning.

Then, you will formulate questions based on the headings and subheadings, creating a purpose for your reading.

Actively read the material to answer the questions and gain a thorough understanding of the content.

The interactive nature of the SQ3R method gets you engaged with the material, allowing for better comprehension.

After reading a section, the recitation step prompts you to close the book and articulate key points and answers to your questions aloud or in writing.

The last step is the review step.

Research supports the effectiveness of SQ3R, proving that this method not only improves comprehension but also aids in retaining information over time.