Start early and avoid stress

Exams can be a time of high stress for students. The best way to avoid stress is by starting preparation early in the semester. The section on time management, showed you how to make time to pre-read, attend lectures and revise on a weekly basis. If you can manage to do this throughout the semester, you will find that your capacity to remember will improve enormously and thus exam time will be less stressful.

Some facts about memory

You probably realise that we have two types of memory: short term and long term. Basically these two memories are designed for different purposes. Short term memory is designed for thinking and problem solving while long term memory is designed for storage. Short term memory has limited space (capacity) to store memories, whereas long term memory has enormous capacity to store memories. When we cram close to exam time, the memories are stored in short term memory which, because it is so small, becomes cluttered and leaves limited capacity for working and problem solving in the exam.

Storing memories

Based on the fact that short term memory is small and long term memory is large, we need to use long term memory to store information because it is bigger and is designed for storage. Long term memory can hold a near infinite number of memories and it is easy to retrieve memories from long term memory even when we feel stressed, which is often the case during exams. Short term memory does not handle stress well and it is often difficult to retrieve memories from short term memory when we are under pressure. Typically students who have crammed either have trouble recalling information under the stress of exams or they manage to recall the facts, but have difficulty applying the facts to the problem solving questions. Often, once the stress of the exam is over (going home afterwards for example), it is easy to remember some of the facts that they could not recall during the exam. These problems are typical of students who use short term memory to cram before exams.

Repetition is key to improving memory

In order to overcome the problems associated with cramming and to ensure that information is well stored in long term memory, we need to repeat the information to be remembered at least three to five times, with periods of time between repetitions. So, we have a much better chance of remembering information if we have repeated the material over say five days, rather than five repetitions all in one day in close succession. This improvement with spaces between the repetitions happens because when we take time away from the information that we are trying to learn, our brain subconsciously “thinks” about the material without us even being aware, so that when we come back to the material, we understand it better because the brain has been working on it without our conscious awareness. If we do not have time away from the material, the brain does not have the opportunity to work on the information, so we miss the chance to come to it a second time with a better understanding.

There is much that we can do to ensure that we repeat material a number of times with spaces between repetitions. Most importantly, we need to be sure that we understand the material to be learnt. When we understand, we naturally link ideas to concepts that we already understand and this makes them easier to store in memory. Buzan (1996) likens repetition to cutting and walking a path through a forest. To explain and extend his analogy, pre-reading helps to prepare the brain for the information that is going to be learned (something like deciding that a path needs to be cut through a forest). This is the first time you encounter the material you are going to learn. Having pre-read, you are able to go to class with a brain ready to receive information and because you have some idea of what the class is about, you expect to understand it or expect to have some of your questions answered. Attending the class is your second encounter with the material and it is like flying over the dense bush, and with the lecturer’s help, realising exactly where the path needs to be cut.

Your third encounter with the material is when you go home and make (organise for yourself) revision notes. This is where the hardest work is done. This is where you “cut the path” and really think about the material and try to make sense of it for yourself. This is the hardest and most important work of all. This is a surprise to many students who think that the most challenging part of tertiary study is actually attending the lectures! After you have made your own notes (I thoroughly recommend concept mapping), you can regularly look over your notes and remind yourself of the material that you have covered, or using Buzan’s analogy, you “walk the path”. This walking the path simply requires you to look over the notes. At this stage you don’t necessarily need to try to actively commit them to memory (or learn them). So, walking sessions can be lots of “quick looks” at your summary notes over the semester. Of course, if you have time to learn the material at this stage, you will have less to do later, but many students find it sufficient, just to keep the ideas and the understanding of them fresh in their minds by quickly looking over weekly summaries regularly throughout the semester. The more often that you walk the path, the clearer the path will become and the stronger your memories will be. This will make it easier to really learn the material close to exams.

Make time to revise weekly

A good way to build this revisiting of your notes into your program is to look through your summaries or concept maps each week before you make your new map or summary notes to help you understand the topic for that week. Close to exam or test time, you need to employ some different strategies. At this stage, you need to deliberately commit the information to memory or actively learn it. It is very important that the information is clearly organised before you start committing it to memory. This is why concept mapping is so important, because it enables you to see the main ideas and how the ideas link together. It is very important that you gain that overview of the information and how it is organised before you start to seriously “learn” it.

Clustering or chunking ideas together improves memory

Most strategies that help us to learn efficiently, rely on clustering or grouping ideas together. It is very difficult for human brains to remember isolated bits of information. We are by nature creatures who try to make sense of ideas by making links and trying to decide where ideas fit best in terms of the categories for understanding that we have set up in our brains. If we try to remember isolated bits of information, the greatest number on average that we can manage is about 10, plus or minus two.

Concept mapping is one of the best ways to cluster ideas, because the process of making a map helps you to understand how the ideas fit together and to see which ideas fit under which headings or major concepts. Making concept maps to help you to learn for exams is a really useful way of organising and understanding information. You do not need to fully understand the information before you make a concept map, rather the process of trying to map the material makes you think deeply, and this helps you make decisions about how best to organise it. As you think and make decisions about the material, you will find that your understanding will increase.

When you make concept maps to help you memorise, it is usually best to start with your lecture notes (usually power points) and look through the whole lecture to try to identify the key ideas. Sometimes these are laid out as objectives or goals of the lecture in the first couple of slides in the presentation. Once you have identified the key ideas, you need to decide how you will organise them into your map. For example, will each idea be a separate leg (branch) of the map or will two key ideas be dealt with for example under another broader heading? Will you use exactly the same terms that your lecturer has used or will you alter them to reflect your understanding of the issues? As you map, it will be useful to check in your text book or book of readings for clarification or detail that might be missing in the lecture notes. In this way, the map will become a synthesis of the lecture notes, texts, additional readings and possibly also material covered in tutorials.

See how the map below integrates material from three different sources. Notice also that each branch shows the main ideas, which show the development and detail of ideas down to three or four levels. While detail is important, be careful not to overload the map so that it becomes confusing and you lose the clarity of being able to “see” the main concepts. If you have more detail to learn than you can fit on your map, you can refer to a page number in your notes on your map and then go to that page to learn the extra detail once you have mastered the key concepts on your map.

Gender Reps 3 Readings map with images png

Acronyms simply use the first letter of a number of words to make a word. For example, in the map below, each leg or branch has a key word beginning with the letter above the branch. The primary branches are about knowing your Self (S), Intending to learn (I), Understanding well (U), making multiple Links (L), and Tricks (T). These letters (SIULT) can be rearranged to form the acronym U-SLIT and then the picture of someone with a dagger reminds you that to improve your memory.

Improving your memory png fixed

Stories can be simple, for example, many science students are familiar with the one line story: “Kings play chess on frosted glass surfaces” to remember Kingdom, phylum, class, family, genus, species (each letter of the story stands for each of the first letters of a list that needs to be remembered in order). If the student then associates this with a picture, it will further cement the memory.


Rhymes and jingles can also be used to help remember key words, especially words that have to be remembered in order. Some of you will remember the jingle that you may have been taught at school to help to remember the planets in order from the sun: My very easy memory jingle seems useful naming planets. Notice how the first letter of each word in the jingle reminds you of the first letter of the planets in order:
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.
In terms of taking charge of your own learning, it is important that you make up appropriate stories, rhymes and jingles for yourself that will help you to remember the content that you are learning. You will always remember a rhyme or jingle that you have made up yourself.

Analogies provide another method for you to group ideas together, by finding similarities between ideas that seem to be different. An example of an analogy is the forest example described above. On the surface, learning is not like cutting a path, but on closer examination, there are similarities. If you had to remember each stage of the learning process and understand what was happening at each stage, the forest analogy would help you to do this. You can make analogies like this to help you to learn all sorts of ideas. When you make analogies, you link new material to information that you already know and understand. Material that you already know is stored in long term memory. Thus the analogy helps you to store the information straight away in long term memory.

Doodling or drawing pictures can also be used to cluster ideas together. These can be imagined or drawn as a simple doodle to help you to remember some key points. Make sure that you don’t spend too much time drawing the picture because this may become more distracting than it is helpful! Here is a simple example. A student has to learn the four elements which make a contract binding: certainty, consideration, intention and agreement. So to make a picture that represents this, you could draw a person called Con-rad, with his two feet labelled ‘certainty’ and ‘consideration’, while drawing one hand held out ready to shake (labelled ‘agreement’) and the other making a thumbs-up sign (labelled ‘intention’). See the drawing below for an example. 


Loci is another method of helping you to remember key words in sequence. Loci comes from the Latin word locus which means place. With this technique, you identify the key words that will help you to remember each of a series of concepts. Then you place these words into a series of physical locations that you know well, for example, the route you take when approaching your house. So if you walk down the path to the front door, the first location will be the pathway and the second will be the front door. If you then open your door and walk into the hallway and from there you usually walk to the living room, your next locations will be the hallway and the living room. Now you place the items that you have to remember in each of those locations. You can do this in your imagination and the more exaggerated, humorous or colourful the item is, the more likely it is that you will remember it. Also, the stronger the links between the images and the key words that you have to remember, the easier it will be to learn. Let’s imagine that you were trying to learn Piaget’s stages of cognitive development (see the table below):

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.01.30 am

Here is an example of how a student has used loci to remember each stage. Notice the link between the concept and the physical location is in bold.

 Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.07.00 am


Sensory motor


Location 1: pathway
A toddler walking and sensing the environment
 Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.07.06 am



2-6 or 7

Location 2: door
A child playing doctor doing a pre-operation check
 Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.07.14 am


Concrete operational

7-11 or 12

Location 3: hallway
A bag of concrete in the hallway
Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.07.20 am 


Formal operational


Location 4: living room
Teenagers in formal clothing in the living room

Another method that is similar to loci is to use a memory peg system. Usually this involves learning a rhyming list and then visualising the key word in the peg. So for example, a commonly used rhyming list is the one below:

Rhyming word Image
1 bun  Bun Coloured
2 shoe  Shoe coloured
3 tree  Tree coloured
4 door  Door coloured
5 hive  Hive coloured
6 sticks  Sticks coloured
7 heaven  Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.14.07 am
8 gate  Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.14.14 am
9 mine  Mine coloured
10 pen  Pen coloured

If you wanted to use this system, for example, to remember Piaget’s stages (above), you would simply place each of the key items in or on the peg, for example, the toddler could be on the bun or eating the bun, the child playing could be wearing adult shoes. Remember, the more interesting, colourful, exaggerated and humorous you make the images, the more likely it is that you will remember them.

The importance of understanding plus self-testing

All of the methods discussed above, require you to understand the material and identify key words or concepts so that you can learn the main ideas. The key words will help you to recall the main ideas, but you will also need to do a great deal of repetition to be sure that you can recall the ideas and the information that goes with them. It can be helpful to cover over parts of the concept map and to try to recall the ideas you have covered. Keep doing this self testing until you can recite the whole map or summary easily. Make sure that you are able to recall the main concepts as well as the ideas that accompany them, so for example, in the memory map under the heading “Understand well”, there is a sub heading “Deal with” and coming off that are the words “complexity” and “detail”. If you were learning this map, you would need to know what is meant by complexity and detail. In this case, it means that it is important to understand the details of what you are learning and not to oversimplify material to the point that you are not able to show that you understand the complex relationships between ideas.


A useful method to help you to learn definitions and formulae and other material that you have to know well, is to use flashcards. You simply cut small pieces of paper about the size of a business card. On one side you write the word that has to be defined and on the other side you can write dot points with the key words in the definition or a clue that will remind you of the definition. You then carry these cards around with you and when you are waiting, for example for a bus or a tardy friend, you can pull out your cards and test yourself. Do this many times until you are confident that you “know” these facts. You can tie the ones that you know together and then work on those you have not yet mastered. This gives you a sense of achievement. You can also use a program called quizlet to help you to make flashcards (Google quizlet). The program is free and enables you to print flashcards. It also has banks of cards that other students have made, so you may not even need to type in your definitions. However, make sure that the cards you use are accurate! Additionally, there are apps for iPads that will enable you to look at your flashcards on screen.

Strengthen learning using all five senses

Finally when you are learning, you need to use as many senses as you can. You will recall from the section on learning styles, that most people (around 80% or more) are visual learners. This means most people like to see the material they are learning (concept maps help us to do this clearly). Other people prefer to absorb information by listening to it, for example in lectures, and can do this very easily. These students are auditory learners. Kinaesthetic learners tend to be people who want to move around as they learn, so they sometimes pace around or make models.
It seems important to start with the sense that you feel most comfortable with, but to be sure that you also use other senses, so for example, drawing a map (kinaesthetic when doing it and visual when you look over it), explaining it aloud (saying it and hearing it, so using auditory senses as well). Some people use smell as well, so for example, they use a particular scent when they learn one subject and another scent for another subject. Then they use the corresponding scent when they go to each exam. Scent is a powerful memory trigger, so this may be helpful to some students.
To summarise, make clear notes, don’t simply rewrite notes. Identify key words and use memory tricks to commit them to memory. Be sure that you understand the material and that you test yourself, making sure that you know the key words and the concepts that they stand for. If you start the process of note making and reviewing at the beginning of the semester and revisit the material throughout the semester, you will have a very good chance of learning successfully.

Reflection and Conclusion

Primary sensory modalities

• From reading this section and the section on learning styles, you will probably have a sense your primary sensory modality.
Reflect on what you think is your strongest or primary modality and how this might be used to help you to learn. Also consider a plan for how you could include your other senses.

Short term vs long term

• Cramming in short term memory involves study very close to exam time with few repetitions or spaces between repetitions, whereas long term memory involves at least 3 to 5 repetitions with spaces between repetitions over a long period of time.
Which memory do you believe you usually use and what is your plan for memory storage now? How will you put this plan into place?

Memory strategies

• This section introduces a number of strategies to help you to cluster ideas together so that you can learn them easily.
Think of at least one of these strategies and apply it to something you need to commit to memory.


• Concept mapping is a powerful way of “seeing” how key ideas fit together in a topic.
If you are already studying, go to a topic that you need to learn. Look at your notes, reading and other relevant materials and try to make a concept map of the key ideas.