Learning and Memory Course, Think and Grow Smart

Lesson 4: Five steps to better memory

Posted Jun 25, 2020

The more you know, the smarter you can be. The more you know about how to memorize, the more you will know. I identify five steps for thinking effectively about how to memorize.

Step 1. What NOT to Memorize. The first crucial step in thinking about what you are trying to memorize is to identify what does not need to be memorized. Why memorize something you can easily figure out? Use core principles and logic to arrive at answers and thereby reduce the amount of information you have to memorize.

Jude Infantini / Unsplash
Source: Jude Infantini / Unsplash

Step 2. Associations. Memory is easier to form and recall if you think about how items are associated. Bread and butter go together, thinking of one helps you think of the other. Once you begin to encode your memory target, thinking about its context and implications will help you remember it. Also, think about how the memory target relates to what you already know, and how all that fits into its context. Thinking is the best kind of memory rehearsal because, in the process of thinking about information related to the memory target, you are repeating the basic information in your mind in different contexts with useful associated cues that promote encoding and later retrieval. 

Step 3. Missing Information. Think about the related information that is not presented that should have been. In learning science, for example, I have found that spotting key omissions crucially aids my understanding, because it usually makes me ask a question that I try to answer. Figuring out the answer or looking it up, expands both my understanding and the knowledge base while at the same time creating associations for the memory target that make it easier to remember. 

Step 4. Mnemonics. Next, think about an image, acronym, or memory gimmick you can use to help to remember. Such a process is vastly more effective than the simple and boring rote-memorizing approach of repeating something over and over again.


Don’t shy away from difficult material. Thinking about it makes remembering more likely, and you gain analytical skills by forcing yourself to figure things out. The popular belief that it is easier to learn things that are easy rather than harder is also probably wrong. Easy material may not elicit enough attention and engagement to produce lasting learning.

Kent State psychology professors reported that when college students think something is easy to learn they may have only a superficial level of learning that does not last much beyond the next test. Just staring repeatedly at learning material is not nearly as effective as thinking about it, forcing retrieval, and correcting any memory errors.

Easy learning, as in a single cramming session, is deceptive. It is not nearly as effective as the harder learning of spreading out the study over many days and weeks and each time thinking about it anew. Even greater benefits come from forced recall. The self-testing under delayed conditions is much more effective precisely because it is harder to recall material learned days ago.

The deceptiveness of ease of learning was reinforced in a study reported in Psychological Science by Nate Kornell and collaborators at three other universities. Participants were asked to predict how easily they would remember vocabulary words after studying them once or multiple times. Some of the words were presented in the standard font size on the person’s computer screen, while others were presented four times larger—something that makes the text feel easier to process, but prior research shows that it does not improve memory. In addition, for some words, participants were told they would be allowed to study more than once. The participants uniformly predicted that studying the words in larger font would help them remember more than studying the words multiple times. In fact, increased font size did nothing to help them, but studying even once more improved their recall of the new words.

Some school authorities have it backward. They want teachers to make the material as easy to learn as possible. I don’t mean to excuse teachers whose instruction is disorganized and confusing. But teachers who challenge students with difficult material and assignments, as well as frequent testing, are actually doing their students a favor. They are just the opposite of the common accusation of being “bad” teachers.

When learning is difficult, learners are obliged to be more engaged. This brings me to the last step.

Step 5. Engagement. Be deeply engaged with your learning material. It is the engagement that achieves deep and lasting learning. Of course, this only works for students who are motivated to learn.

I learned an even more useful lesson on difficult learning from my professor, Dr. C. S. Bachofer, at Notre Dame. The course involved was about radiation biology, and all the learning material came from a leading textbook. Instead of lecturing, Dr. Bachofer assigned a section of text each week for us to read. Each student was required to identify three major problematic sections in the text, such as statements that were confusing, incomplete, or open to challenge. We had to write these down in precise terms. Then, we were to write an answer for each of our questions and share it with the other students for open debate in class. That meant we had to think hard and maybe do library research. We learned from our own inquiry and from the insights of each other.

This approach to teaching and learning stimulated our engagement with the subject, forced us to state things precisely in writing, and required us to be creative in resolving issues that we understood poorly initially. Key facts and concepts were memorized almost automatically as a consequence of the thinking process. Dr. Bachofer’s role was limited to correcting any of our collective errors and occasionally adding some key item that none of us knew about. Unlike most of today’s teachers, he didn’t think it was his job to explain things we should be able to figure out on our own.

Many years later, I developed with Jim Snell, a computer tech friend, an online collaborative learning computer conferencing system for implementing this process. This software, Forum, was a precursor to Google Docs. We won a $5,000 first prize in an international contest for the “Best New Idea in Distance Education.”

You can think about memory targets most anywhere, most anytime. Think about what you are trying to remember during “downtimes,” when you have nothing else constructive or entertaining to do. Think in between classes, while riding the bus, getting a haircut, while waiting in line, and so on.


  1. First thing: Identify what you need to memorize.
  2. Think about the context and implications of your memory target. Use these associations to help you remember it.
  3. Identify what is missing, not stated.
  4. Think about an image, acronym, or memory gimmick you can use to help to remember.
  5. Welcome difficult learning tasks because they train to engage more robustly with learning material and thus remember it.
  6. Make learning your responsibility, not your teacher’s responsibility.

Next Lesson from “Memory Medic:” Lesson 5, Taking Notes.


Memory Medic: http:thankyoubrain.com