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Exams & revision: Remembering

“Being in a position to recall information under pressure is important, both in relation to the 'building blocks' of your answers ... and in relation to concepts arising from the deeper thinking you have done about the subject.”

Kathleen McMillan & Jonathan Weyers, How to succeed in Exams and Assessments

Although exams at university are more about understanding than remembering, there will always be some things that you do need to commit to memory as building blocks for your answers.

For example, even in a more theoretical subject, it is a good idea to memorise references to key pieces of research and any alternative theories (just the surname of the authors and dates of the research is enough for exam essays).

There are four stages to memorisation:

Visual representation of text below.


Step 1: Take in information


This requires focus, so make sure you are attentive and purposeful when you are revising (don't do it in front of the TV and make sure your phone is turned to silent and preferably away from where you can see messages appear). You also need to take regular breaks so you can still check your phone at that point (i.e. when you decide to – not when it wants you to).

Try to:

  • Make links to your existing knowledge
  • Label and categorise information
  • Make it stand out to you (highlighting, re-arranging, illustrating etc.)

Step 2: Retain information


The best way to make sure information goes into your short term memory is to understand it. If you can make sense of it then it is easier to get it into your long-term memory. If there is something that you are trying to revise that you simply don't understand, try looking for alternative explanations on the internet. Even Wikipedia can be useful for explaining some concepts. YouTube and are other useful sites to consider.

There are other ways to make information more easily retained - the two most common are using chunking and mnemonics. Whilst these are included here under the 'retain information' section, they actually work as a way of getting information from the short term to long term memory and as a recall tool.



Chunking is a way of binding together pieces of information so that you remember them as a whole. Think how you remember your telephone number...and how you tell it to other people - usually in 'chunks' at a time - 07654 987 345. You can use the same technique for anything that can be broken down.

Example using the planets of the solar system

You could chunk these into three groups: Closest to the sun (Mercury, Venus, Earth) then the next two (Mars, Jupiter) then the rest (Saturn, Uranus, Neptune).

Notice that we didn't include Saturn with the Mars-Jupiter pairing, this is because Saturn, Uranus and Neptune form the word "sun" with their first letters and are therefore easier to chunk together.


Mnemonics are memory devices that usually assign the first letter of each word you want to remember to another word or phrase.

The most common example is probably Richard Of York Gained Battle In Vain to remember the colours of the rainbow and you may have learned OILRIG in school chemistry (Oxidisation Is Loss, Reduction Is Gain).

Example from Biology

Dumb Kids, Prefer Candy Over Fancy Green Salad - helps to remember the order groups in taxonomy:

Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

Step 3: Encode information

This is a really important step and dictates how the brain stores the information in long-term (which affects how you recall it). If you can associate information with various codes you can remember it by recalling the code. This is why certain smells or songs bring back really strong memories. Coding can be:

  • Sensory i.e. auditory, oral, visual, kinaesthetic (associated with touch)
  • Verbal/semantic (associated with meaning)
  • Emotional
  • Motor (associated with muscle movement)

In order to make use of this, you can purposefully help your mind remember things by thinking about or experiencing the codes during an exam.
For example:

  • Revise different topics in different places (in library reading room, on library floor, at own desk, sitting on bed etc).
  • Chew different flavoured gum or eat different flavoured sweets whilst revising different topics.
  • Illustrate your notes with drawings (even bad ones) - it can be easier to recall images than text.
  • Record yourself reading your notes (or listen to a relevant podcast) whilst doing other tasks like walking/running/cooking
  • Wear different clothes for revising different modules.
Visual representation of text below.


Remembering the situations, (sitting in the library reading room/cooking a lasagne) or recreating them (wearing certain clothes/chewing certain gum) will help you recall the information encoded with them.

Story/Journey Technique

The story or journey technique is a particularly powerful way of encoding information and is used by a lot of memory experts. 

You imagine a familiar story (or make up a new one) or a familiar journey (walking to university/going from the front gate of your house up into your room) and place things that you want to remember at different points in the story or along the journey.

Here is an example story to remember the main muscle groups:

I bought my triceratops (triceps) a bicycle (biceps) but he rode through a group of hens pecking (pectorials) on the ground. He fell off and hurt his abdomen (abdominals) so I felt obliged (oblique) to get him a quad bike (quadriceps) instead.

I turned and went to the Deli (deltoids), the owner was hanging from a trapeze (trapezius) and started to speak to me in Latvian (latissimus dorsi) and told me if I was gluten intolerant (glutus maximus), I should leave and go to the gastro-doctor (gastrocenmus).

You will be amazed how much you remember when you have to write something so stupid!

A triceratops on a bicycle riding through pecking hens and a deli owner hanging upside down on a bicycle asking 'Are you Gluten Free' in Latvian!

Step 4: Recall information

This is obviously closely linked to how you encoded it in the first place. Try doing past-paper questions (at least planning them) and see if you recall things better if you use any of the techniques above. Try a few different ones to see what works for you.