Not all approaches to studying are equally effective so you should choose wisely. The more deeply you think about the material you need to learn the more readily you will be able to remember it. For example, simply re-reading lecture notes or text book chapters requires only a very shallow or superficial engagement with the material and will not be well recalled. A more active approach to your learning, such as re-writing your lecture notes, synthesising and summarising the content for yourself, or even better – testing yourself on the content - will result in deeper learning and stronger recall.
You can make it easier to remember information in exams by employing various strategies when you are learning including: categorising, reorganising, and rehearsing information. In particular humans have a great capacity for storing and retrieving visual images, so where possible convert words into pictures – draw diagrams, make mental images, graph data – you can bring them to mind when you need them.
Learning and storing new information in your brain involves physical changes to your brain structure – synaptic connections need to be formed or altered, neural systems rejigged and refined. This takes time. So be realistic about the way your brain works and give yourself time to accommodate new knowledge by scheduling breaks into your study. Revisit content on multiple occasions rather than focusing on one thing for extended periods just before the exam.
We are better able to recall information when the learning and testing environments match. This is because contextual information acts as a cue to help us recall other associated information (i.e., what you were studying in the context). So think about the space you are studying in and make it as similar (authentic) to the space you are going to be tested in as you can. The more you study in quiet, uncluttered, peaceful environments the more likely you will be able to recalling that information when you are tested under exam conditions. For same reason you should avoid too much coffee or other drugs which will result in different internal learning contexts to the one that you will be tested in.
Our memories are unique, individualised, interconnected webs of experiences and knowledge. The more we integrate new knowledge into our existing personal narratives and information networks, the more deeply it is learned, and the more routes we have to locate and retrieve that information when we need it. For example, help to make information personal and embedded by considering how the information relates to you. Think about what else it reminds you of. Consider how it matches with or explains your experience of the world. Evaluate how it relates to other things you know. Make it about you and it will be easier to remember.
Want to know more?
Craik, F.I.M., & Lockhart, R.S. (1972). “Levels of processing: A framework for memory research”. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.
Bahrick, H.P., Bahrick, L.E., Bahrick, A.S., & Bahrick, P.E. (1993). “Maintenance of foreign language vocabulary and the spacing effect”. Psychological Science, 4(5), 316-321.
Godden, D.R., & Baddeley, A.D. (1975). “Context-dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and underwater”. British Journal of Psychology, 66(3), 325-331.
Rogers, T.B., Kuiper, N.A., & Kirker, W.S. (1977). “Self-reference and the encoding of personal information”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 677-688.