How to Remember Things for Exams

Struggle to remember names, dates, or book titles? Here are a few handy hints for remembering more of what you read

This post is titled ‘How to Remember Things for Exams’ but it could also be known simply as ‘How to Remember Things’. Want to know to create your own Mind Palace or Memory Palace, like Sherlock? This post will go some way towards showing you how. The following memory tips can be used very effectively to remember information for exams – and although our examples will specifically be drawn from English Literature, these tips can just as easily be utilised for other subjects. These memory techniques can also come in handy for remembering other things: speeches, lectures, presentations, or facts for the local pub quiz.

The link method

Of the three basic memory techniques we’re going to outline in this post, this is probably the simplest to master if you want to memorise things for exams or other related tests or quizzes. As the name implies, the principle is linking something to something else, so it’s particularly useful when you wish to associate two things – a writer with the text they wrote, the relationships between two characters in a play or novel, or a writer with a particular literary period – even a specific date (but we’ll come on to dates, and numbers, later on). It’s easily the easiest memory method to master and very effective for remembering pieces of linked information for exams and the like.

What’s the secret? The trick is to take the things you wish to remember and transform them into vivid images, and then to associate the images in an equally vivid and memorable picture. Let’s take an example. Let’s say you want to remember that Tennyson wrote ‘The Lady of Shalott’. You sherlock1may be thinking, ‘I know that, I don’t need to remember it’, but let’s say for a moment that it’s the sort of silly thing your mind is always misplacing. It’s hard to associate these two things because unless we have a vivid and instantly recognisable image of Tennyson in our minds, using simply an image of ‘Tennyson’ isn’t going to be enough to make you remember that he was the poet who wrote ‘The Lady of Shalott’. (After all, many Victorian authors had a similar beard and hair – the male ones, anyway.)

You need to turn ‘Tennyson’ into a clearer image. What about ‘tennis’? So, a tennis ball, or a tennis racket, or a tennis court – anything sufficiently tennis-related should be enough to recall ‘Tennyson’. Then, you need to do the same for ‘The Lady of Shalott’ – again, unless you have the famous painting by Waterhouse emblazoned in your memory, this image isn’t going to be enough by itself to recall the poem, so you need to translate the poem’s title into something that you will be able to recall. What about a small onion – i.e. a shallot? A different spelling, I know (and many people get the spelling of Tennyson’s Lady wrong!), but the pronunciation is the same. So now you have something you can visualise for the poem.

To make it even more clearly linked to the poem, you might throw a lady into the image (gallantly, of course) – perhaps you see a refined and elegantly dressed woman, who is draped in small onions.

Now, to link that to Tennyson: this Lady of Shallots is playing a tennis match on a tennis court against – well, how about none other than a bearded poet (Tennyson himself)? Now you have the poet and the poem firmly etched in your mind in a vivid image. So when you see ‘The Lady of Shalott’ you’ll recall shallots and a lady and that lady will be playing tennis, and that will give you the name of the poet.

The same can be done with many other things you wish to associate in order to remember them for exams: let’s say you want to remember that the author of Oedipus the King was Sophocles (rather than, say, Euripides, Aeschylus, or any other ancient Greek writer whose name you’ve got floating around the brainbox). Start by doing the same thing: turn Oedipus into a memorable image, e.g. a cat which really smells, with the stench coming off its fur in squiggly lines (as it tends to be rendered in cartoons). In other words, an ‘odour-puss’. For Sophocles you might imagine John Cleese stretched out on a sofa, i.e. sofa-Cleese. Then, you can imagine your odour-puss crashing through the ceiling and squashing your sofa-Cleese – thus strikingly bringing the two images together.

A note on how you make these two images interact with each other. We use this image of violence because you want to make the images, and the associations between the images, vivid in any way you can: by using lots of colour, by making them larger-than-life (perhaps John Cleese is a giant on a small sofa, for extra comic value), or by making their interaction physically shocking or memorable. Do whatever you can to make the images as vivid as possible. This will really help you to memorise, and then recall, this fact for an exam (for instance).

So, that’s the link method. That’s fine if you want to associate a couple of things, and although you can use it to link more than two things, this is not the most efficient method. For instance, let’s say you want to remember a sequence, such as the order of Charles Dickens’s novels, from the first book he wrote to the last. You can link the first novel to the second and the second to the third and so on, but what happens if you should happen to forget one of the links in the chain? You can’t then retrieve any of the later novels in the sequence. In this memory system, they’re lost to you. There is a better method to use for remembering a series of something – a shopping list, a sequence of events, or the complete works of a writer – which means that, even if you should forget one item in the sequence, you can still recall the others. This is called the loci method, though it is also known as the Memory Palace or Mind Palace. (This is where Sherlock comes in.) This is the next method for memorising things for exams that we’re going to introduce you to.

The loci method

This method, known often as the ‘memory palace’, was reportedly invented by a poet – the ancient Greek lyric poet Simonides of Ceos. Here’s what you will need to build your Sherlockian Mind Palace. You’ll need a building or place you know well, with plenty of distinct landmarks whose location you can remember. Your home is usually the best place to start. What you need to do is plan a route around your house, mentally ‘walking around’ it from room to room, clocking the ‘landmarks’ in each room. You are going to use these ‘landmarks’ to help you remember whatever it is that you wish to remember.

So, let’s say you arrive at your house and you have the front door. That will be point number 1, or your first locus (Latin for ‘place’) on your mental route. Then, when you open the front door, you find yourself in the hallway, and have a welcome mat on the floor beneath you. That can be your second locus. Then let’s say you come to the table in the hall, on which the house phone sits (for instance). That’s your third locus. Continue to Mnemosynewalk around your house from room to room, being sure to settle on a particular route so you don’t later forget the order of rooms. For instance, in the kitchen you walk round in a clockwise fashion from the fridge to the oven to the sink to the kettle to the table and so on, then through into the dining room, walking round from the painting on the wall to the window to the plant in the corner, etc.

Fix this route in your mind, and the particular ‘landmarks’ or loci you will be using later on. These loci are going to help you to remember long lists of information for exams. Then, go back to the start of the route – your front door, for instance – and start attaching things to each point on the journey, the things which you wish to remember for your exam or whatever. To return to our first example, let’s say you wish to remember the order of Dickens’s novels, because you don’t want to make a fool of yourself in the exam, or in that lecture or presentation on Dickens that you’re giving, or when talking to that person you wish to impress who loves Dickens, or whatever the reason might be – perhaps you simply wish to improve your knowledge of Dickens and his work. His first novel was The Pickwick Papers, so you need to associate this image with your front door. Let’s say that there’s a man at your front door who is picking at a giant candle with his front-door key: he is picking at a wick. Perhaps the morning’s papers are under his arm. There we have it! Now, let’s go inside. Dickens’s next novel was Oliver Twist, and what should you find on the welcome mat under your feet but a boy gazing up at you, holding a bowl of gruel, asking you for more. Or you see a large olive with arms and legs performing the twist dance. You walk through to your hall and standing on the hall table, kicking the phone about the place, is a woman wearing no underwear (I say!), spinning a large metal coin in one hand with a giant bee buzzing around her. This is your image for remembering that Nicholas Nickleby (knicker-less nickel-bee) comes next! (Really, let your imagination run wild – it will help you to remember this stuff in the exam.)

You may think that there’s no way you’ll be able to remember that a woman with no underwear standing on a desk should be converted into the novel Nicholas Nickleby, but the point is that your ‘true memory’ is better than you think it is: all you need to do is give it something to jog it, and then your true memory will take over and recall the rest. That’s why it doesn’t matter that you’ve got a giant candle being picked at in the first image at your front door: your true memory will remember that the novel is called The Pickwick Papers rather than The Pickcandle Papers.

You can see the advantage to this method, I’m sure: even if you should happen to forget what image is on your welcome mat, that won’t mean you won’t be able to recall Nicholas Nickleby, whereas if you were linking each image to the next, the rest of Dickens’s entire oeuvre would be lost to you. But in this case, should your mind draw a blank at Oliver Twist, simply step over your welcome mat and continue to your hall table. You’ll be able to remember the rest of the things you committed to memory, regardless.

This is a useful technique, but there’s one thing it can’t help you with, at least not by itself: numbers. What if you wish to remember specific dates – when a text was published, when an important bill or act was passed, when a writer was born – but find that you have no head for remembering numbers? There is an easy way to commit numbers to memory for exams, which requires a little preparation at the outset but which will enable you to remember dates, ages, and all manner of numerical data very easily thereafter.

How to remember numbers and dates

The reason many people struggle to remember numbers or dates is that, whereas it’s relatively easy to convert words into images, it’s very hard to do the same with numbers. We have no way of imagining numbers in such a way as to make a vivid and memorable image. So, what’s the solution? To convert numbers into words first, and then convert these words into images in the usual fashion. This is the best way to remember these sorts of things for exams.

But how do you convert numbers into words? How do you turn a string of meaningless digits into meaningful words and images? There are several ways to do this, but perhaps the easiest is to have a code for the ten basic digits, whereby each digit between 0 and 9 corresponds to a letter of the alphabet. Since letters are the building blocks of words, it’ll be easy, once you’ve turned the digits into letters, to make words of those letters. You can choose which letters you choose to correspond to the digits of 0-9, but stick to consonants – don’t use the letter O for the number 0 for instance – because this will help when trying to come up with words for the numbers you need to remember.

For instance, you might use a Diagram of the Brainletter L (or ‘l’) for the number 1, because they look similar. A number of memory experts use ‘n’ for the number 2 (because it has two downward strokes), and ‘m’ for 3 (for a similar reason). ‘4’ can be ‘r’ because it ends with an ‘r’, and so on – you can fill in the other digits as you wish. ‘7’ might be ‘T’ because they slightly resemble each other, for example. ‘8’ could be ‘B’ – you get the idea. As for ‘0’, you might use a Z, because ‘zero’ begins with that letter, but also (as Zs are quite rare in English words) the letter ‘s’ as well, as they sound similar. This is an ingenious yet simple way to remember numbers (and therefore dates) for exams.

Now, once you’ve decided on the letter that each digit will correspond to, you can start the process of remembering dates. For instance, Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847. Using the system outlined above, we can convert that date of 1-8-4-7 into the corresponding letters L-B-R-T. A meaningless string of letters, but now we can make a strikingly memorable word or phrase from those letters, e.g. ‘lab rat’. (It’s important to remember only to use vowels for the extra letters here – if you add extra consonants, this may end up getting confusing!) Now, using the link method outlined above, you can see Kate Bush singing Wuthering Heights while a white lab rat runs all over her. Perhaps she uses a copy of Brontë’s novel to try to swat the rat away. As we’ve said, be as vivid and imaginative as you wish: it will help you to remember these things when it comes to the exam!

But the uses of this technique don’t end there – you can remember an author’s birth and death dates, or, looking beyond revision, security codes, PINs, phone numbers, and so on. The possibilities are almost endless. And the other advantage to this system is that it gets you using lots of different aspects of your brain: not just memory, but your visual imagination and your ability to make connections between different things. Have fun with these techniques – whether you use them to remember works of literature, the shopping list for your trip to the supermarket, or the errands you need to run today. Use your imagination – and you’ll be surprised how much they will help when it comes to remembering things for exams. And let us know how you get on…

You might also enjoy our tips for how to write a good English Literature essay and our advice for how to read a poem.

Further reading:
Harry Lorayne, How to Develop a Super-Power Memory.
Dominic O’Brien, Learn to Remember.
Images (top to bottom): Benedict Cumberbatch filming Sherlock, by Fat Les (bellaphon), 2010, Wikimedia Commons; Mnemosyne, or Lamp of Memory and Ricordanza, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1881, Wikimedia Commons; Diagram of the brain, c. 1300 (unknown artist), Wikimedia Commons.

About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on February 11, 2015, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I have vivid pictures in my head and they remind me of many things. Good points but is not the mind cluttered and compartmentalized with information.

  2. Actually really interesting. In particular the loci method.

  3. Excellent. An amusing read too.

  4. The worst part about remembering anything is having to remember it for a test.

  5. As I get older, this will come in handy. Thanks!

  6. I have a masters exam next week and I needed this. Thanks!

  7. Ah now you’ve entered into MY territory! I’ve been developing a comprehensive memory system for students for several years (tried and tested in the classroom countless number of times) and hope to finally bring the book out later this year (if I can get through my backlog of freelance work first!). These are great first steps.

    I’ll add an extra little twist to your second and third tips which helps reduce the amount of numbers you have to memorise when dealing with dates. In you ‘memory palace’ make rooms for each of the centuries you have to deal with. For instance, for the 1800s I have a picture of a dove (moving around, Harry Potter style because action pictures are always more memorable than static) on the door to my 1800s room – for me, 18 is a dove using a similar number-letter system from Tony Buzan.

    Now inside I can use the loci method to place objects which match just two numbers instead of four. For Wuthering Heights then, I only need to remember 47 – which for me is a rake. So in my dove room I have a little mini-author raking the leaves in front of her farmhouse on a windy moor! I can, of course, now add many other dates for that century in the same room as I please.

    • That’s fantastic, Ken! Thanks for these extra tips – I hadn’t thought of having a room for each century, but that’s a great way of remembering dates so that they’re easily separated and compartmentalised in the memory palace. I especially like the image you have for linking ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘1847’. It just goes to show how much fun coming up with these images can be. (Memory techniques could be great training for any writer of fiction/poetry in developing the art of metaphor…)

      I hope you find time to get the book out this year. I, for one, would love to read it, and I’m sure there’d be many others who’d find it very useful. (You’ve also reminded me – as it were – of Buzan, so I might add one of his memory books to the ‘further reading’ section at the end of the post.)

      • Yes indeed – one of the key tenets of good memory skills is make it fun, outrageous or downright rude! I’ve always told my students that if they follow my system faithfully then the biggest worry they will have when taking exams is about not laughing out loud as they recall facts! In fact some of the most fun lessons I ever taught were when going through the process of making memory pictures with the class. We used to disturb neighbouring classrooms, howling with laughter!

        As for Buzan, oh yes, Tony is the man who made mnemonic techniques popular and we owe him a great deal of thanks for ‘Use Your Head’, outdated through the original edition is now.

  8. These tips actually seem really helpful.Thank you

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