Memory techniques for examination success

Memory techniques examination success

Mastering the techniques for examination success requires understanding and good memory of what have been studied.

Spending hour upon hour revising a subject is all well and good but if only a little bit of it sticks in your memory then it really is a soul-destroying process as well as a waste of time. There are a number of techniques that can be used to make things easier to remember. For example, just reading through your notes is fairly ineffective simply because your mind strays elsewhere but making notes will condense your course-work into something far more concise and easier to remember. The very fact that you are writing it down will also help to fix it more firmly in your memory.


Memory techniques examination success

Here are some techniques you can use to help commit those years of work to memory and at the end of the chapter I’ll show you how I used some of them to commit to memory part of the periodic table for my Chemistry ‘A’ level.

It is far easier to commit things to memory if you do it a little bit at a time. So make use of every spare moment you get to do small bits of learning. For example, in the five minutes you spend waiting at the bus stop you could learn five new foreign words or memorise a couple of lines of a poem. Five new foreign words a day is 150 in a month and seeing as the time at the bus-stop is normally wasted you will have put it to an extremely good use.

Whatever you want to memorise whether it is a poem, part of a play or a scientific proof it is a lot easier if you actually understand it. The very process of going through something and understanding it automatically makes the memorising process easier. For example, if you can’t understand a foreign language then learning even a simple sentence is difficult. But if you understand the language enough to make sense of the sentence and suddenly it becomes much easier to remember.
Make as much use of colour as possible. A set of notes is generally pretty dull and boring to look at. A multicoloured set of notes jumps off the page at you – the various points stand out simply because they are in a different colour. You will often find that if you shut your eyes just after looking at the notes for a little while you will still be able to picture them in your mind. In other words you have already partially committed them to memory. If you shut your eyes in the exam you should hopefully be able to recall specific notes in the same way. You can reinforce this visual memory technique even more by writing sideways or at an angle or perhaps in different styles. The more interesting and exciting something is to look at, the easier it will be to remember.


Try and visualise what you are trying to learn as much as possible. For instance, when learning a poem or a piece of text, picture the scene in your mind as you read each line. This makes recall much easier than simply trying to learn the words.
Stick large coloured notices on your walls listing things you want to memorise. Put little notes by the kettle and the telephone. As you sit and work and glance at the wall or as you speak on the ‘phone you will see these notes and gradually the picture of them will become fixed in your mind. You will soon find that by closing your eyes you will be able to visualise the ‘phone with the note beside it and will be able to recall what was written on the note. Once again notice how the use of colour crops up to make mental pictures easier to remember and recall.

Use silly word associations when you need to memorise foreign words, technical terms, biological or chemical terminology etc. etc. For instance, I can still remember a German word that I learnt in 2 seconds flat ten years ago. The word is Rathaus meaning town-hall and I remembered it by picturing a grand town-hall like building with rats running all over the place, like in the Pied-Piper story. The more bizarre the word association the easier it is to remember.

Make use of rhymes and silly phrases as much as possible. Often you will have been taught a silly rhyme in a lesson. As an example, if I were to ask you to name the months with only 30 days you would probably resort to the rhyme – “30 days has September, April, June and November.” Another such rhyme is “i before e except after c.” If you need to learn a group of words, perhaps they are the labels on a diagram, then grouping them together in a way in which they form a rhyme or can be sung immediately makes them more memorable. The next time you have to learn a poem try fitting the words to a song you know and like.

Test yourself or get others to test you regularly. Whatever you are trying to learn self-testing not only checks your knowledge but also continues to fix things more firmly in your memory.

If you need to learn something off by heart parrot-fashion then the best way of going about it is to split it into small sections. For example, if you are committing a poem to memory split it into 4 line sections, (unless of course it is already in, short verses). Learn the poem section by section. When you’ve learnt the first move on to the second, then to the third and so on. Most people don’t automatically work this way – they tend to start at the beginning and learn a few lines, go back to the beginning, repeat what they’ve just learnt and learn the next couple of lines. The trouble with this is that you spend an awful lot of time repeating the early parts. Admittedly this fixes them in your memory but it does also mean that the further you go through the text, the fewer times you’ve been over it and the less well you will have memorised it. Working section by section ensures that each piece of text is learnt as well as the last.


Memorising lists of words, (e.g. labels on a diagram), can be made easier by taking the initial letter of each word and making a silly sentence out of them. For example, consider a diagram of a human with the labels head, neck, arm, stomach, leg and foot. Taking the initial letters gives us H, N, A, S, Li and F. We can then make up a sentence such as “Happy Nancy And Simon Love Figs”, using the same initial letters. This makes it much easier to remember the six initial letters of the labels and when drawing the diagram in the exam this silly sentence will help you to put them in the correct place and also help you remember what the labels are. (Memorising labels in this way also makes it easier to draw the diagram because these strange techniques all work hand in hand in fixing things in your mind.)

Committing diagrams to memory is easy if you continually draw them and test yourself. Always draw the diagram in the same way each time, starting and finishing at the same point and always putting the labels in the same position. This helps you to get to know what the complete picture looks like. If the labels are in a different place each time then you will simply confuse your visual memory. The continuous drawing of the diagram in the same way time after time not only commits the diagram to memory but also the drawing process itself. Simply by remembering the ‘funny squiggle’ halfway through can jog your memory when recreating the diagram which may in turn jog your memory to come up with an associated label. Don’t forget that use of colour will also help make your diagram more memorable.

Finally let me take you back to the days of my ‘A’ levels when and one of the memory techniques for examination success we used. We were told by our chemistry lecturer to learn the first 33 elements of the periodic table. (I have to confess that it was actually quite useful!). Let me take you through the methods I used to remember it and I suggest you refer to the table below to make sense of what I’m about to say.

H                               He Li Be                     B C O F Ne Na Mg                     Al P S Cl Ar K Ca Sc Ti V Cr Mn Fe Co Ni Cu Zn Ga Ge S Br Kr
The first thing I should point out is that having studied chemistry for a few years I was aware of what elements the symbols stood for and I was also confident that I knew the positions of H, He, Li, Na, K, F, Cl and Br. This left me with 25 to learn.
First of all lets consider the transition elements, Sc, Ti, V, Cr, Mn, Fe, Co, Ni, Cu, Zn. Initially just learning these ten looks pretty daunting but this is how I went about it. Taking Sc, Ti, V, Cr, Mn and saying it to myself it sounded like “Scatty v Kreman”, the ‘v’ being versus as in a football match, Scatty being a ‘scatty’ or scatterbrained person and Kreman,’ another person who in fact was a character in a sketch on a radio show I listened to at the time. (Do you remember Captain Kreman on the Kenny Everett show?). So Sc, Ti, V, Cr, Mn becomes “Scatty v Kreman”.

Fe, Co, Ni, Cu, Zn to consider next and again saying it to myself I turned it into “Feconi cousin”. Feconi is a meaningless word but it stuck in my memory and Cu, Zn sounded like ‘cousin’ to me.
Now lets consider the vertical line, B, Al, Ga which I remembered since the initial letters spell ‘bag’. The C next to B is simply the next letter in the alphabet and I remembered that Ge came next to Ga simply because they both begin with ‘G’ and again are in alphabetical order, (Ga coming before Ge). Simply thinking of silly things like the fact that the elements were in alphabetical order made them easier for me to remember. Consequently, as I wrote down the B and the Ga my mind immediately recalled the C and Ge


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Looking at the column now, I had a friend nicknamed Oz, which sounds similar to OSSe. The Se goes next to Ge since both their second letters are ‘ e’.

For Ne, Ar, Kr the initial letters spell ‘ NAK’ pronounced knack. The remaining elements then generally came to mind as I worked out what was missing and I had no need for any further memory aids at the time.
To test how well this learning method worked I decided to see how much of the table I could still remember nine years later. Here is what I came up with:-

H                               He Li                       B C O F   Na                       Al   S Cl   K   Sc Ti V Cr Mn Fe Co Ni Cu Zn Ga Ge S Br
Though I say so myself I didn’t do too badly considering I haven’t glanced at a periodic table since my exam nine years ago. I got 26 of the 33 elements correct, that’s 78%. You will also, note that I named no elements incorrectly, even in the gaps – I simply couldn’t remember the element. It is also noticeable that apart from the Ne, Ar, Kr column the areas where I hadn’t made use of a memory technique I found it difficult or impossible to recall the element, (for instance the gap below C).

READ: How to prepare for exams days and weeks ahead of the paper


I think I can safely say that the results go to show how well memory methods work compared to straight absorption learning. Obviously not all of these memory techniques examination successtech will work for everyone but try them out and adapt them to your own needs.

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