Take a trip down the memory skills lane

Date: July 11, 2018

An insight into some tried and tested techniques by David Malthouse

Many of us think that we don’t have a great memory and we find here at First Intuition, that we’re often asked by our students how they can remember all the information they need to pass their exams.  Finding the best way to learn and revise something, so you can remember it when it comes to the crunch, can come down to the individual but there are some tried and tested techniques you can fall back on, if you’re struggling.

But first, is it really true that our memories have got worse?  The reality is that, these days, we don’t need to remember things in the way we used to. We often outsource information, that in the past we would’ve written down, to our devices. A good example of this is phone numbers, we now generally store these in our mobile phones, whereas in the past, we’d jot them down in a notebook or learn them off by heart.  We also use the internet to look up information that we may have committed to memory in the past, relying on search engines to recall what we’re trying to remember. For all of us and particularly our students the difficulty, when it comes to exams, is that we’re asking our brains to recall information in a way that we’re not used to.

So what techniques are out there to help us plant the things we need to know, firmly in our brains, so that when we need it, we can tap into it and use it for exam success.

Put in on repeat

One of the most powerful ways of remembering information or how to do something, is to repeat it over and over again.  As a word of caution, reading a piece of text several times may not be enough to ingrain it into your memory. Practice, on the other hand, stimulates the brain, as repeated experiences are sent along a new pathway and reinforce the learning process.  A relevant example of this could be calculating tax. Reading about how to do this, is far less likely to stick in your mind than actually working a number of these through. Learning like this can be compared to navigating our way through a jungle.

Even with instructions, the first time we attempt this, we won’t see the pitfalls; the low hanging branches, uneven ground and lurking predators. Every time, we make a new attempt, we learn from what we didn’t get right previously.  Eventually, after we’ve tried several times, we can see and avoid the dangers before we get to them.

The Medium of song

This may sound strange but there’s actually a method based on using our senses and it’s called Mnemonics. Music in particular can be a powerful way to trigger our memories, but we can also use our other senses too. Setting the knowledge we need for exams to music, may sound a little uncomfortable to some people but check out the ‘Accountancy song’ on YouTube for a little inspiration.

The Accounting Song

If you’re not keen to make up a song that will help you remember a particular accounting strategy, then you could try an abbreviation to trigger your memory.  For example, S.M.A.R.T is often used to summarise how we set objectives (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Timing). We can use made up words as well as normal ones such as P.O.P.I.C which is often used to remember the fundamental principles of ethics:

  • Professional competence and due care
  • Objectivity
  • Professional Behaviour
  • Integrity
  • Confidentiality

The only downside to this is that we may end up remembering the letters of the abbreviation and not what they stand for.

These are some of the tried and tested ways that us mere mortals can help to remember information, but have you ever wondered competitors tackle their challenges in professional memory competitions.  They use a variety of techniques but here are some of the most commonly used that give you the ability to remember huge swathes of information.

Linking Images

By creating images in our mind that links information in a sequence, it becomes much easier to remember.  The key here is to make the images as powerful and detailed as possible, so that they really stick in your mind.

For example, imagine we are trying to remember these five words:

  • Telephone
  • Carrot
  • Crow
  • Carpet
  • Biscuit

We need to link these five random words in the most vivid way we can imagine. Here’s how this might work:

  • Telephone – imagine a mobile phone and picture it in multi-colours in a fluffy fluorescent case
  • Carrot – now think about huge carrot fingers trying to dial the number on our bright and fluffy phone.
  • Crow – Our carrot is now the nose of a giant scarecrow, who is being swamped by thousands or large, noisy black crows. Imagine the noise they are making and the frenzied activity.
  • Carpet – The crows have now landed and are forming a huge carpet. Their beaks, feet and glossy feathers are poking out from this black, moving carpet.
  • Biscuit – Our carpet has now become a large round jammy dodger. Think about the circular shape, the red jammy centre and how we’re going to avoid stepping on this part and getting sticky feet.

The list could go on, if we can continue to link images in this way, if we forget one though, it’s then very difficult to pick up the thread.

Pegging Images

An alternative method is to come up with a series of pegs, usually taking the form of letters or numbers. These need to be set up in advance and use a rhyme or phonic connection.  For example

  • One = Bun
  • Two = Shoe
  • Three = Tree
  • Four = Door
  • Five = Hive
  • Six = Sticks
  • Seven = Heaven
  • Eight = Gate
  • Nine = Wine

If we then take these pegs and then assign them to a numbered list we need to remember. It helps to exaggerate the connections, so that it comes easily back to mind.  If we were to take UK Law and Directors duties, this is how pegging could work:

One – Duty to act within powers

Imagine a giant bun in the oven and we’ve turned the heat up too high. It’s burnt, as we’ve exceeded our power.

Two – Duty to promote the success of the company

You’ve had your eye on a pair of very expensive designer shoes for a while now. You get a promotion due to the success of your company and head straight to the shops to buy them.

Three – Duty to exercise independent judgment

A small child is swinging on a tree swing and is refusing to be pushed, wanting to do it all themselves and exercising independent judgment.

Four – Duty to exercise reasonable care, skill and diligence

You’ve just washed the floor and it’s still slippery. Unfortunately, despite trying to be careful, you start to fall and grab hold of the nearest door to steady yourself.

Five – Duty to avoid conflicts of interest

Imagine a hive full of bees, they are fighting and using their tails as swords. They are in conflict.

Six – Duty not to accept benefits from third parties

An old lady is carrying a bundle of sticks, they are falling all over the place, as she has too many. You offer help but she won’t accept benefits from others.

Seven – Duty to declare interest in proposed transaction or arrangement

Someone has proposed to you with a huge engagement ring. They’ve definitely declared their interest in you and you’re in heaven.

When using pegging, it’s important to only use a set of pegs for one set of information, as otherwise it can become confusing. Other pegs include linking letters of the alphabet, so that they sound like the letter. For example:

  • A= Ale
  • B = Bee
  • C = Sea

Some people also find that linking numbers to shapes can also work for them and imagine number 1 as a candlestick and number 2 as a swan. The trick here is work out what you see, so that the link is a strong metal images, that resonates with you.

The Journey Method

In order to use this method, we need to think about a journey or place we know really well.  This could be a route home or even your house itself.  Then we imagine ourselves moving from one part of this journey or place and along the way create markers by placing information we need to remember at key points. It’s best to get the route very clearly in your head first and specify key landmarks. So, for example, if your journey is the layout of your house and how you move from the front door to the furthest room in your house, you need to plan the route you’ll take in advance.  If we were trying to remember that we need to buy bread, cheese, milk, bananas, tinned tomatoes and dried herbs from the shops on the way home from work, here’s how we might use the layout of our house to remember.

  • Arriving at the front door, it’s been replaced with a huge slice of freshly cooked bread with a thick seedy crust. The delicious aroma is wafting towards us.
  • In the hallway, the floor is a big piece of yellow cheese with huge crater like holes and an overwhelming smell of cheese.
  • Opening the door to the lounge, milk floods out and creates a cool white pool around our feet. Take time to splash around in the milky pool in the lounge.
  • Heading to the dining room, our table has been replaced by a huge, ripe, bright, yellow banana that fills the room and is surrounded by the usual dining table chairs
  • The next room is the kitchen and we turn on the tap and tomatoes come rushing out, filling the sink with bright red plum tomatoes.
  • Finally, in the utility room, we turn on the light and instead of the bulb lighting up, it starts to rain dried herbs and the room is filled with the smell of rosemary, basil and thyme.

As you can see using this method, it’s also key to make the links you make as vivid as possible, so that they spring easily to mind.  Adding references to other senses such as touch and smell, also help to plant the memory firmly in your head.

With all of these methods, it really comes down to individual choice and it’s worth taking time to work out which one or ones are best for you.  It could be that a combination of methods, or different options is the way to go, depending on what you’re trying to remember.

Good luck with experimenting with the different options and of course, do feel free to share any methods that really work for you.