“If I had a better memory, all this work would be no problem”.
Does this thought sound familiar? Does it creep up on you before a test? Day to day in school?
While there is of course more to the IB than remembering things, being able to recall all the facts, formulas, words and ideas is a massive part of it. It’s not enough to be able to understand something in class. Wherever stage you’re at in the IB, you’re going to have to remember all the things you’re learning when it comes to the final exams.
You might think that this is what revision is for, and that revision still feels a long time away. But actually, there’s a lot that you could be doing to improve your memory right now. And given that some research suggests the adult attention span has got worse by roughly 12 minutes in the last decade, you might want to think twice before relying on the technology around you to get by!
From techniques developed over the course of centuries to practical things you can do every day, here are my top tips for improving your memory.
Techniques – methods you can try
Mnemonics are techniques created to help us remember large chunks of information, and they use methods such as association, sense memory and reorganisation to basically give your brain shortcuts to what it needs to know. A study of mnemonic devices back in the 60s showed that students who regularly used these devices increased their test scores by up to 77%!
Acronyms and Acrostics: playing with the words and letters in the information you need to remember can be really effective in turning things that are hard to remember into something, well, memorable. These are especially useful for subjects with hard facts, like sciences. You can create your own or find ones already in use. E.g. How I wish I could recollect pi – count the number of letters in each word to get the sequence of digits: 3.141592
Chunking: breaking down big pieces of information into smaller ‘chunks’ of information. We already do this to remember things like telephone numbers, when we’ll break down a list of 10 digits or more into a few smaller chunks of 3 or 4 numbers.
Music mnemonics: how many song lyrics do you think you’re holding in your head right now? Did you sit down and learn them? I doubt it. Music, and especially catchy melodies, does wonders for helping words stick in our brains. That’s why half the adverts on TV contain some sort of jingle or set the brand name to music in some way. You don’t have to be a composer to make this technique work for you though, and you don’t even need to write a whole song (although if you want to, go for it!), but setting information or words to a melody is a great way to make it stay in your brain and never leave.
If you’re interested to know more, Derren Brown’s website has a fantastic list of where you can go for further reading!
Don’t Repeat – Reorganise
Repetition is probably the most common method of revision and memorising information, but it’s actually one of the most inefficient methods. Most of us find it boring, and that is exactly because repetition alone involves the brain at only the most basic, surface level. Instead, find a way to reorganise the information, and connect it with what you already know – activate your brain. In fancy terms this is called ‘elaborative rehearsal’. So, next time you learn something new in class, don’t just copy down what the teacher is saying, rewrite it in your own words. Next time you are reading a big chunk of text, make notes in your own words in the margins. Think about how this information connects with what you’ve learnt before, and how it changes the information.
Actions – things you can do
Practice a second language
Score for the IB student! We’re all already doing this! And in fact it’s proven that people who learn a second language, even later in life, have better memory, focus, and a better ability to pick out essential information than monolinguals. The best thing about this is it doesn’t matter if you aren’t fluent; all that matters is that you are learning it. So even if your struggling in your Language B, keep working at it, because chances are this is improving your work in other areas!
I know, I know, this sounds like a weird one. Isn’t multitasking what we do, every day, as an IB student? Not exactly. Yes, there are 6 different subjects to manage, plus Theory of Knowledge and whatever CAS or social activities you might do. But that doesn’t mean you need to do them at the same time. Studies show that it takes eight seconds to commit a piece of information to memory entirely. What that means is if we don’t give the important information the time to find a place for itself, it will stroll straight out of our brains, never to be seen again (at least until we try to learn it again).
In other words, focus on one thing at a time. And actually, give your subjects the time that they need. It might feel more productive to do your homework while you catch up on the latest season of Game of Thrones, or while you get the gossip from facebook, but I bet you anything the work isn’t going to stick as well as it would if you separated those two things. When was the last time you had a conversation with someone who was texting someone else at the same time? Do you honestly think they heard every word of what you were saying? The same is true for your studies.
Think (and act) Healthy!
I’m not going to rant on about all those healthy habits I know you know you should have. But I am going to give you a gentle reminder of those general lifestyle tips that do, actually, scientifically, help. Sleep is something we’ve covered before, but getting enough sleep is still one of the best ways to improve focus, attention span, and memory. By ‘enough’, the recommended amount is 7 or 8 hours. Take note, if you’re an IB student who’s proud of your 4-6 hours of sleep a night! Finally, exercise is another tried and tested way of improving our faculties. Plus, a recent study showed that exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain involved in memory.