Memory works (to put it simply) in 3 stages: attention, encoding
(storing/associating with other info), and retrieval (remembering)
To optimize the final stage, you have to optimize the first two stages.
This means you have to pay attention to the material, and you have to
encode it well. (Which I’ll explain below.) Additionally, if you repeat
the process, you reinforce it. By retrieving something, you start to pay
attention to it again, and then you are able to re-encode it better than
To optimize encoding, remember GOAT ME.
G is generate and test. i.e., quiz yourself, or otherwise come up
with the answers on your own without just reading them. Even if you get
it wrong, it helps more than if you just read the answer off the bat,
because you’re forcing yourself to think more about it (why was it
wrong?). Test yourself in a way that will resemble what you’ll actually
have to do during the real test. (e.g., if you have to write essays on
the test, instead of just writing and memorizing bullet points, actually
write an essay multiple times without cheating, review it, and repeat
until you can write it without forgetting any important points.) Other
effective ways of testing yourself are teaching the material to
someone else and talking about it out loud to yourself.
O is organize. This reduces the load on your brain and helps create
reminders just by coloring, position, or associations with nearby
material. For instance, a time line helps remember that event A came
before event B in history, not necessarily because you memorized the
dates but because you organized the info so that event A was written
earlier and you happen to remember that it was written earlier. The
position of the information becomes meaningful. You can organize with
outlines, pictures, color coding, related material, etc. My use of “GOAT
ME” can be thought of as organization. Another fun example (chunking) is
as follows. Which of these seems easier to memorize:
“CIAFBIKGBCNNUSABBCUK” or “CIA FBI KGB CNN USA BBC UK”?
A is for avoid illusions of learning. There are two kinds of memory:
familiarity/recognition and recall. Recall is what you want. That’s
where you can remember the information on your own, as you might be
expected to do on a test. Recognition is where you can’t think of it on
your own but if you see it you suddenly remember it. That’s not good.
You won’t necessarily see it on your test, so you won’t get a blatant
reminder of it. Avoid study methods that rely on recognition. Similarly,
a major problem with rereading material is “fluency”. The more you read
it, the easier reading it becomes, and when it feels easier to read, you
assume you have learned it. You have not. You’ve just become more
skilled at reading it. Don’t bother highlighting your textbook in the
first go either. You feel like you’re picking out the important parts
of the chapter but you can’t know what’s really important until you’ve
read the whole thing. And then all you’re gonna do anyway is go back and
reread all the highlights, and as we’ve established, rereading is
useless. If instead you actually organize the highlights and quiz
yourself on them, highlighting may be useful. For a similar reason,
rewriting information is also not very helpful unless you use it as a
method of quizzing.
T is take breaks. This is HUGE. If nothing else, walk away with just
this tip. Your memory works best if you study in frequent, short
sessions rather than one long cram session. You don’t give your brain
a chance to store the earlier info you studied, so it just slips out of
your mind, and you’ll have wasted your time studying it. So study for
awhile, go do something else for a bit, and come back to it, and
repeat. One of my students said she taped information in front of her
toilet so whenever she went to pee or something she could study for just
a couple minutes. It sounds strange but it’s actually a great idea (I’d
advise, in line with G and A that you tape questions in front of the
toilet and tape answers elsewhere so you can quiz yourself.) Another
important part of this is that you need to sleep to keep that info in
your head. Even if you take regular breaks, an all nighter will do more
harm than good. Your memories are stored more permanently after sleep.
This is just how the brain works. You can even try to work naps into
your study sessions. It’s a break + sleep! [EDIT: I do not know how
long breaks SHOULD be, but I believe this varies from person to person.
Just try to study over the course of days instead of hours.]
M is match learning and testing conditions. This is based off the
principle of encoding specificity, which states that, if you want to
optimize memory, then the conditions surrounding encoding (e.g., where
you are when you study, how tired you are when you study, etc.) should
be the same as those surrounding retrieval (e.g., where you are when
you’re tested, how tired you are when you’re tested, etc.). This is
because the conditions themselves serve as reminders. (Have you ever
walked into the kitchen for something, forgotten why you were there, and
as soon as you return to the other room you suddenly remember why you
went to the kitchen?) This includes your environment and your
physiology, serving as reminders. Think about noise level, size of room,
lighting, types of furniture, mood, intoxication, sitting position, and
even the way you work with the material (remember G and A). Studies show
that learning while drunk is best remembered while drunk again. Learning
after exercising, also best remembered after exercising. The alternative
to this is that you should study under MANY different conditions. This
way, the information comes easily to you regardless of your surrounding
conditions. Otherwise, the information will unfortunately be associated
with the specific circumstances you studied under and will be difficult
to remember in any other situation. If you want to remember this stuff
outside of being tested in class, STUDY UNDER MANY CONDITIONS. Study in
a noisy place AND a quiet place, with and without coffee, etc.
E is elaborate. Think deeply about the material and make other
associations with it. At the most extreme, this can mean truly
understanding the concept, why it works, how it relates to other
concepts, and how it’s applied. But on a simpler level, it can be the
following: Does it remind you of something else? Can you make a song out
of it? Can you visually imagine it? How does it apply to you or your
life? Instead of taking the material at face value, do something with
it. The reason this is important is because of reminders. Memory works
by having a network of associations. One thing reminds you of
another. If you’ve thought deeply about it, you’ve probably associated
it with something else in memory, which can then serve as a reminder.
You can think, “Oh yeah, this is the term that inspired me to draw that
silly stick figure to represent it. And I remember what the drawing
looked like so now I remember what the term means.” Additionally, the
quality of the memory will be better if you have elaborated on it.
Elaboration allows for a lot of creativity and individuality among
studiers. Choose whichever method of elaboration works for you. Maybe
you enjoy making up songs, drawing doodles, creating stories, visually
imagining it, relating it to yourself, or just pondering about it. If
you’re studying history, you might try to think about it visually,
imagine what people would have said or looked like, watch them in your
head doing their historical stuff, or maybe you’d like to draw a quick
doodly comic about a particular event, or maybe you wanna think about
why this even was significant, or how it relates to another historical
If I had to summarize this in fewer points:
Keep similar conditions during studying and testing. This includes
environmental surroundings, mental and physiological state, the way you
think about the material, and so on. But if you want to remember this
outside of class, study in a VARIETY of conditions, so that you don’t
associate the material with any particular condition.
Study briefly and frequently, and sleep.
But one other good point I would add is this:
Take notes BEFORE class if possible, and add to them whenever
necessary. Do this by reading the textbook chapters ahead of time (and
take notes; refer to your syllabus to find out which chapter is next, if
applicable) or see if your teacher posts Powerpoints online ahead of
time. This way, you’re not just frantically writing notes in class and
you’ll actually be able to more fully pay attention to what the teacher
is saying (remember: attention is the first step of the memory
process!). You may think you can pay attention to the professor as
you’re writing, but you are actually dividing your attention and hurting
EDIT: Whoa, thanks for all the comments, the gold, and the upcoming
pizza(s)! I’m trying to get to those who’ve asked questions, but my
inbox has exploded, so sorry if I take awhile! I will try to edit as
people offer other good points, but I’m already super close to the
character limit! Trying to cut it down now.
You can relax if remembering everything is not your strong suit. Recent
research makes the case that being forgetful can be a strength — in
fact, selective memory can even be a sign of stronger intelligence.
Traditional research on memory has focused on the advantages of
remembering everything. But looking through years of recent memory data,
researchers Paul Frankland and Blake Richards of the University of
Toronto found that the neurobiology of forgetting can be just as
important to our decision-making as what our minds choose to remember.
“The goal of memory is not the transmission of information through time,
per se. Rather, the goal of memory is to optimize decision-making. As
such, transience is as important as persistence in mnemonic systems,”
their study in?Neuron?states.
Making intelligent decisions does not mean you need to have all the
information at hand, it just means you need to hold onto the most
valuable information. And that means clearing up space in your memory
palace for the most up-to-date information on clients and situations.
Our brains do this by generating new neurons in our hippocampus, which
have the power to overwrite existing memories that are influencing our
“If you’re trying to navigate the world and your brain is constantly
bringing up multiple conflicting memories, that makes it harder for you
to make an informed decision,” Richards told?Science Daily.
If you want to increase the number of new neurons in our brain’s
learning region, try exercising. Moderate aerobic exercise like jogging,
power walking, and swimming have been found to increase the number of
neurons making important connections in our brains.
When we forget the names of certain clients and details about old jobs,
our brain is making a choice that these details do not matter. Although
too much forgetfulness can be a cause for concern, the occasional lost
detail can be a sign of a perfectly healthy memory system. The
researchers found that our brains facilitate decision-making by stopping
us from focusing too much on minor past details. Instead, the brain
promotes generalization, helping us remember the most important gist of
“One of the things that distinguishes an environment where you’re going
to want to remember stuff versus an environment where you want to forget
stuff is this question of how consistent the environment is and how
likely things are to come back into your life,” Richards said.
If you’re an analyst who meets with a client weekly, your brain will
recognize that this is a client whose name and story you need to
remember. If this is someone you may never meet again, your brain will
weigh that information accordingly.
We can get critiqued for being absent-minded when we forget past events
in perfect detail. These findings show us that total recall can be
overrated. Our brains are working smarter when they aim to remember the
right stories, not every story.