Have you ever had that nightmare where you realize that you skipped a class all semester and the final is today? Suddenly you have to scramble to learn an entire semester’s worth of academic material before the big test! Obstacle after obstacle gets in your way, but all you want to do is study for your life!
This scenario is enough of a nightmare when you’re asleep. When you wake up and realize that you still don’t know how to study for finals? That’s when the real terror sets in!
What’s the best way to study when you don’t have time?
If you’re trying to figure out how to cram for an exam, you’re not the first and you won’t be the last! Even though you’re reading this article instead of reading your textbook (yes, I see you), learning about learning is a great way to improve your approach for the future. Keep reading to learn a little more about memory and pick up some quick study methods that you can put into practice immediately!
How Long Is a Memory?
On a very basic level, humans possess two distinct types of memory: short-term memory and long-term memory. Understanding and exploiting the type of memory you need is key to learning how to cram for finals – or retain any kind of information quickly. These tips can also be helpful for actors learning lines, speakers preparing for a presentation, or anyone looking to remember company details before a job interview!
Long-term memory is what allows us to store information over a long period of time. Sometimes our long-term memories are explicit, and we can recall information consciously. Other times, our long-term memories are implicit, and we act on that information without even realizing it.
In other words, we use explicit long-term memory when we tell a story from childhood. We use implicit long-term memory when we brush our teeth while half-asleep, without having to think about the steps.
Short-term memory is memory processed over a short period of time. Scientists also call it “active memory” because it’s the information you’re working with right now. You can retrieve short-term memories for several days.
When you cram for an exam, you are taking advantage of short-term memory. It might actually be easier for you to retrieve information after you cram, which can feel like genuine fluency. Hooray, you’re a genius!
You will not have “learned” the material until it becomes part of long-term memory, however.
All that to say – cramming feels great! It makes you feel competent and can create success endorphins. If you rely on cramming all of the time, however, you might find that you haven’t really learned anything during your very expensive college education.
Cram if you must, but don’t make it a habit!
The Trick Is Using Tricks!
The key to successful memorization tricking your brain. Researchers have studied the techniques used by competitive memorizers (yes, they exist!) and have found that they all use similar approaches. In essence, you need to create the conditions that make recall easier.
Trick #1: Make a Connection
Once information has made its way to your long-term memory, it’s probably not going anywhere for a while. When you seek to learn something new, use those long-term memories as anchors. If you can build a link between what you already know and what you want to memorize, learning comes a lot easier.
If you’re really living your nightmare and don’t know anything about the topic you’re cramming, make a crazy connection instead! The more novel it is, the more likely your brain will be to hang onto it.
For example, you might be trying to remember the parts of the neuron, and can’t seem to recall the word ‘myelin.’ Maybe you picture your friend Maya hugging a snake. That will help you recall the word, its function, and give you a clue when it’s time to find it on a diagram!
Crazy? Sure! But it works!
Trick #2: Get Active!
Just because your notes seem familiar to you when you’re looking them over doesn’t mean you actually know that information. As soon as those notes go away and the test is in front of you, you’re doomed. The best way to keep the new learning in your skull is to actively quiz yourself.
In other words, force yourself to recall information without memory aids. If you can give yourself time and space between studying and recall, you’re more likely to recall that information later.
You probably do want to begin with some memory aids, however. You might study digital index cards flashcards, for example.
Trick #3: Write It Down!
Another way to activate your memory is to write out what you’re trying to learn. This can be as simple as transferring your notes from one piece of paper to another. To successfully re-write everything, you’ll have to focus and think about the information and how to arrange it.
Scientists also believe there is a direct connection between the hand and the brain. Physically moving the information can help you physically move it into your active, short-term memory.
Trick #4: Make It Simpler
Mnemonic devices are great, theoretically. Memorizing a nonsense phrase or a series of initial letters is only helpful if you know what they’re about! If you attach the acronym or phrase to a visual image, however, you’re more likely to be able to recall the information in a meaningful context.
For example, you may recall having learned the nonsense name ROY G. BIV to memorize the order of the colors in the rainbow. If you remember the name but not what the letters stand for, you’re out of luck. If you associate Mr. Biv with an image of a smiling man dressed in a rainbow suit, you have a much better chance of remembering!
Trick #5: Talk It Out
Sometimes the best way to move information into your short-term memory is to hear it out loud. One way to do this is to simply talk to yourself about the material! Stand in front of your mirror and give an imaginary TED Talk to an adoring crowd of thousands!
If you feel too silly to talk to yourself, recruit a friend or classmate. This works great if they don’t know anything about the topic. Try to teach them as much as you can, assuming they have no background on the topic.
This will force you to break the information down and build it back up again. If your captive audience has questions for you, even better! The more you turn the information over in your mind, the better!
Trick #6: Walk the Memory Palace
The memory palace technique is great if you need to cram a speech, monologue, parts of a diagram, a list, or other concrete information. In essence, you’re going to create a mental walk through a space you know well. It might be your house, your college campus, or the amusement park you work at every summer.
Visualize the place, and as you approach landmarks, think about a part of what you’re trying to memorize. Tie that information to that place in your mind. Then, move on to the next landmark and repeat the process.
Every so often, go back to your first landmark and start from the beginning. You should be able to “travel” to the palace during your exam or presentation and use your landmarks to help you retrieve the information that you need.
Trick #7: Sing About It!
Just about everyone learned a song during childhood that remains stuck in their head today. Maybe it was a song about the United States Capitols, or perhaps it was a Schoolhouse Rock! tune about math facts. Whatever the case, it helped you remember then – it could probably help now!
Make up a jingle about your material, set it to a melody you won’t forget, and you’ll know the info in no time! Just try not to sing during the test!
Trick #8: Sleep on It
Don’t use this trick on its own and expect a miracle! When paired with one or more of the other tricks, however, results are excellent. The tip is just to look at your notes and then get a good night’s sleep!
During sleep, your brain converts the day’s experiences into memory. You can subconsciously process information and build new connections. When you wake up, you might have some brand new insight into the material – and you’ll be well-rested!
If you can avoid having a nightmare about the exam, you’ll be on your way to acing it in the morning!
Now You Know How to Study for Finals Like a Pro!
Whether you have one day, one week, or one month, you can take steps that can increase your capacity to retain material. Learning how to study for finals is just a matter of tricking your brain into holding on to information. Put these tips and tricks into practice for finals – but next time start a little sooner!
It’s clear you have work to do – but now that you know how to study quickly you can stick around and check out a few more articles! The blog is full of plenty of posts that can make you a better student!