Preparing for an exam or for a complex learning projects can be… well… complex. I wish I could just tell you “here are the 3 easy steps for guaranteed success”, but unfortunately it’s not that simple. In many ways, preparing adequately for a science exam is much more difficult and more complicated than memorizing a deck of cards. Thankfully, there are some general principles that, if applied, should help a lot.
This is a complicated a subject about which I’ll have to write a lot more about. In the meantime, here are some bullet-points that I hope will help you.
Some bullet-points for last-minute students:
[This is written for some last-minute, unprepared, unfamiliar to memory techniques students in mind. If that’s not you, you should of course feel free to adapt the recommendations below to your current situation.]
- If you haven’t yet done so, go read the relevant sections of this Memorization 101 article I linked to before. All the most important concepts are summarized. You can ignore any paragraphs that, in your current situation, seem less likely to be immediately useful. You can also ignore most of the rest of this site for now. Learning about memory and study skills is very useful in the longer term, but don’t fall into the trap of using this as a form of procrastination.
- Provided that you slept well enough during the previous 24 hours, you can choose to cut back on sleep the night before an exam. However, it is imperative that you recover as quickly as possible. If your sleep deficit is too great, it will be impossible or nearly impossible to memorize anything. It’s better to study effectively for a much shorter period of time than to spend 12 hours like a zombie looking at your notes without remembering anything. If a full night’s sleep isn’t in the realm of possibilities right now, know that a 15 or 20 or 90 minute nap can at least allow you to regain a significant amount of your energy and focus. A 45-minute nap, or half a sleep cycle, however, is likely to leave you feeling confused and tired for a long time.
- Prioritize, prioritize and prioritize again. Not all activities and information are of equal value. It is often easy to waste our precious time on activities that make us feel productive, but should not be considered a priority. Focus on the 20%, 5% or even 2% of activities and information that will lead to over 80% of the desired results. Quickly skip over everything else or even ignore it completely. The vast majority of students do not need to do all their reading. To distinguish between what is really important and what is less important, you can use the course outline as a guide, ask yourself what topics have come up most often in class, ask former students, or rely on your own intuition. You can also ask your teachers directly. If you can access past exams or attend review sessions, it is definitely worth taking advantage of these opportunities.
- For any pieces of information that you identify as being of absolute priority, study them by formulating short questions that you will practice answering without looking at your notes. Ideally, there should be some delay between looking at your notes and answering questions about the topic. If you saw the answer just a few seconds earlier, it’s too easy to answer correctly with little or no retention. If you need to, just make up questions in your head, list them up in a document or a piece of paper and practice answering them. You can look at your notes and books whenever it’s useful or necessary, but remember that anything that isn’t reviewed using a questions-answers format is likely to be forgotten at any time.
- For those pieces of information that seem slightly lower priority, you can read them quickly or skim through them and hope you don’t forget anything too crucial. As for anything that seems to be of medium or low importance, it’s best to ignore it completely and save your precious time for what matters most. We do the best we can under the circumstances!
- If you don’t already have some experience with the subject, the day before an exam is probably not the best time to learn how to use memory palaces. For now at least, the question and answer format is likely to be much simpler and more effective.
- However, as long as doing so doesn’t slow you down, you can and should use various forms of improvised mnemonics. Particularly what I call “direct associations and stand-alone images” as well as the story method. I explain how to use those methods in this important article.
- Take frequent breaks to regain some energy, but avoid using those breaks for anything that might capture your attention. Stay as far away as possible from cell phones, e-mail, the Internet and other unnecessary distractions! If possible, leave your cell phone on another continent or in a parallel dimension. Even when it’s turned off, its mere presence is enough to significantly affect your concentration.
- Do the best you can, but be at peace with whatever may come. Take regular deep breaths and remember that there is nothing absolutely vital or irreversible that will play out on the exam.
Should you build some memory palace with your notes?
If you have already invested the few efforts necessary to become relatively comfortable with the idea of creating a memory palace, there is nothing to stop you from starting to experiment with their use in a school setting now. But if you’re still completely or almost completely new to the art of creating memory palaces, the night before an exam for which you’re unprepared for may not be the very best moment to start. I’ve said before that ideally, I think one should spend at least 10 or 20 hours practicing basic skills with the art of memory before moving on to more difficult projects. However, I mean “ideally” here, this doesn’t have to be case.
For students who want to start using memory palaces
Whether or not you feel “ready”, you can start using memory palace for complex subjects right now if you want, as long as you proceed carefully. There are many ways in which complex concepts can be represented in the form of images and stories. Unfortunately, since all courses and subjects are different, it is not easy for me to explain how to do this in just a few sentences. Again, I’ll have to write a lot more about this subject in the future. A relatively simpler method I can recommend to start with would be the following:
- Prioritize the methods already explained above. Identify the information that seems particularly important and priority. First and foremost, try to understand what there is to understand and be able to briefly explain the main points. Spend as much time as necessary in “I ask myself short questions and check what I can reproduce from memory” mode.
- Imagine for a moment that your teacher has allowed you to bring a page of notes to the exam. What should you write on that page? Probably not the unimportant stuff. Certainly not the stuff you already know and don’t mind forgetting. What you should write is a series of keywords that will allow you to reactivate as much of your knowledge as possible. These keywords won’t be very useful if you haven’t taken the course, but otherwise they have the potential to be extremely helpful. What are the 10 points you want to address in this or that long answer question you anticipate? What are the three most important things to understand about this or that fundamental concept? That kind of stuff. Again, prioritize as much as possible to keep only the essentials. Identifying the key words in question may already be particularly helpful to your memorization process. Taking the trouble to handwrite these keywords on a piece of paper may be even more helpful. I know you are not allowed to bring this sheet to the exam, but it is still relevant to write it down anyway!
- Once you have identified all the keywords you want to remember, memorize them using a memory palace. This is done in much the same way as if it were a list of random words (see the relevant link posted before on this page).
- Your keyword memory palace can be carefully pre-planned, but it doesn’t have to be. Skipping the pre-planning phase can be a very efficient way to save some valuable time. You can just start placing things related to some subject in some section and things located to some other subject in some other section, and then come back and add details as needed. Or you can just pick a starting place – that shop that you vaguely remember for example, and start placing images around while improvising the layout.
- Review the memory palace as often as necessary to make sure you remember everything. If your exam is tomorrow, in most cases, three revisions should be enough.
- Once you’ve memorized all the most important elements, if we are motivated, we can choose to add many more key words to our memory palace. It’s amazing how there is no real limit (other than time and effort of concentration) to what we can manage to store in this way.
- Pass the exam while laughing ( :
- Once you’re done with the exam, you can then let some or most or all of the stored images disappear. For whatever you want to keep in memory indefinitely, review the associated images sporadically using spaced repetition.
- For long-term memorization, I will note down both the information memorized and (super briefly) the mnemonics used in another word document. It will be useful later on if I neglect to review them (bad habit) and need to relearn many parts.
What memory palaces should you use?
- Personally, I like to keep the majority of my best-known places (apartments and workplaces and so on) for training and/or for short-term uses. For long-term memorization, optimizing speed and efficiency don’t matter nearly as much and I’ll use just about anything. The place can be real or it can be partly imaginary. It can be a place I’ve visited a thousand times or just once or twice while traveling years ago. Google street view or Matterport or almost any random photo or artwork can provide a practically infinite amount of potential new palaces. A common fear among beginners is to assume that they will quickly run out of possible memory palaces. I can assure you that this fear is unfounded. Once you stop limiting yourself to those first few places that quickly pop to your mind, it’s not that hard to find more viable memory palaces that you could possibly need.
- When creating new palaces, it’s not necessary but sometimes I like to take pictures of them, put those pictures in a power-point document (use the “insert multiple pictures to multiple slides” feature) and maybe add numbers to the specific locations that I will use.
An important precision:
For complex subjects that aren’t purely based on the memorization of not-very-meaningful facts, you don’t want to rely solely on memory techniques. When possible, use logic and understanding and retrieval practice and your natural memory for most things and use images for what’s more difficult to remember. What is “difficult to remember” to remember will vary a lot depending on the type of project you’re pursuing. For some memorization projects, most of what you want to remember should be encoded into images placed into one or more memory palaces. For the main points of some book, you can use memory palace for keywords, key concepts, some names and some statistics. But most of the memorizing/understanding/remembering/explaining work will be done using more “normal” forms of learning.