Preparing for Exams – Part 6 – Memory



The Preparing for Exams series was first posted in 2017. Each year now we update the posts and repost them as exams approach. Let’s face it, the rules for preparing for exams don’t really change that much over time. 

We’ve covered a lot of stuff in this series of posts on preparing for exams.

We looked at managing exam anxiety, evidence-based study tips, common study/writing traps, taming your brain and embracing failure.

I want to continue the series by looking at memory – something you are relying on heavily during this exam preparation period.

Memory is critical to exam revision and having even a basic understanding of memory can help you enhance your revision.

In today’s post we look at what we currently know from brain science about enhancing memory. Some are repeats of suggestions I made in previous posts this week, but others are sparkly and new.

So sit back, grab a latte and lets get going.

Note: In this post I have focused on the techniques you can use to enhance memory. If you’d like to know more about the underlying science, I can HIGHLY recommend the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) website on memory and learning – You will get to know the different types of memory, how memories are formed and stored, the areas of the brain responsible for memories and how our understanding of memory is influencing teaching and learning.

Memory 2
Gareth’s brain fits on this

Methods to improve memory/ learning

Get regular physical activity – Turns out the hippocampus (the brain’s memory index) is one brain region that continues to produce new neurons into adulthood. Exercise has been shown to increases production of new brain cells, ergo, exercise is purported to improve memory.


Get plenty of sleep – During sleep the hippocampus replays recent events and transfers storage of memories to the neocortex (the outside surface of the brain), therefore sleep is critical for consolidation of memories. Poor sleep –> Poor memory consolidation.


Connect learning with fun (e.g. positive emotion) – Memories with strong emotional content are more easily recalled, because an additional part of the brain (the amygdala) gets involved in adding emotional significance to the memory. Where possible, combine learning with strong emotions (preferably positive) through having fun (e.g. self-testing with a friend) or cultivating a sense of curiosity (e.g. learning more interesting facts alongside core facts).


Manage your stress levels – While stressful events can be more easily remembered, overall chronic stress interferes with both laying down and retrieval of memories. Good time management (i.e. planning your revision) and targeted stress reduction techniques are your best bet.


Read on paper where possible – So I know we are all addicted to our screens, but there is some (albeit limited) evidence that reading from paper leads to higher comprehension and lower likelihood of trying to multi-task (e.g. get distracted). Grab that 14kg paper textbook!


Limit device use at night – The blue light emitted by computers, mobile phones and tablets can inhibit melatonin production, interfering with the body’s natural sleep cycle. Avoid late night use of screens. Sleep instead.


Don’t cram – I know this is the worst thing to say whilst you are in the middle of cramming for the exams, but spaced repetition is far superior. Cramming associated with higher levels of stress and lack of sleep which both affect memory. Spaced repetition doesn’t have to be over weeks. For example, you can revise the same content every day in the week leading up to an exam.


Embrace confusion – Confusion leads to working harder to understand a concept, which leads to a deeper grasp and retention of the material. That confusion that is freaking you out right now might be the right trigger for you to really learn the material.


Reduce distractions – The parts of the brain that process explicit memory (facts about self and the world) and implicit memory (automated unconscious skills) are different. Having too many distractions tends to inhibit explicit memory (the one you want) but strengthen implicit memory (the one that is less useful for exams). Turn off notifications on your phone. Most of your friend’s snapchats can wait till later.


Avoid multi-tasking – That friend of yours who says they can multi-task is talking out their a*^e. ‘Multi-tasking’ is just rapid switching which activates inhibitory networks in the brain and ultimately impairs short and long-term memory.


Active testing and recall – The repeated activation of memory networks makes them stronger, in the same way that walking the same way through a grassy field, eventually leaves a path. The best way to activate memories (from a revision perspective) is testing yourself with free recall exercises – i.e. get old test questions and try to answer them.


Mix it up – Mixing up the practice of interrelated skills can work better than working on each skill, one at a time. Dance exam requires popping and locking? Instead of focusing on popping alone, then locking alone, trying alternating popping and locking (editors note: this wins the award for worst explanation ever).


Use stories – If you can attach content you want to remember to some kind of story, it will be easier to recall. For example, Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit gives you the five musical notes of the lines of the treble clef, in addition to a wicked story about a boy. Learn more.


Study in widely varying contexts – This was a new one to me. Turns out if you can mix up the different settings and contexts of your study, you can train the brain to remember stuff in different settings, which is very useful when you are sitting in the new unfamiliar exam room. It is not just venue that you can vary. Vary your outfits, who you are with or around, your position (sitting, standing, lying down) and your activity at the time. For example, try remember key facts when you are making dinner, or taking a walk.


Some of these tips are nicely summarised in this fact sheet/poster.


Closing remarks

My thoughts are with all the students doing exams soon. I wish you all the best and hope the many tips covered in the last few posts are helpful to you whilst you study.

If you’d like to learn more, please contact me and I will try to point you in the right direction. As a starting point, consider the excellent College Info Geek site and the Learning Scientists. Over time,  you’ll accumulate good quality learning resources that help you learn better.

Also, let me know if you’d be interested in a more formal course covering advanced study skills.


Want to comment on this article, or ask me a question about the health and well-being services available to you as a student? Feel free to comment below, abuse me on Twitter, or email me (


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