Memorization techniques to improve memory for facts

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Memory for facts is called declarative memory which has 2 subtypes – semantic memory (concepts, facts, and details you put into words) and episodic memory (holistic experiences, contexts). Dates, geographical details like capital-country pairs, trivia about biology, medicine names, sequences, etc., are examples of information that are governed by decelerative memory using words/language.

I’ll cover 7 very important principles of learning and memory improvement techniques that improve long-term declarative memory. These will help you remember better for tests and on-field jobs. Incorporate these in your study routine, particularly for competitive exams that require remembering details accurately.

The other kind of memory is procedural memory (muscle movements, protocols, using tools, habits, algorithms, etc.). Which also benefits from these techniques, but with a small twist called variation in practice.

1. Spacing effect (Distributed practice)

Distributed practice is when you distribute your learning sessions across time instead of learning intensely once at a time. When learning sessions occur in small time segments many times over a longer period, memory for the material learned remains strong and resistant to forgetting. Cognitive psychology calls this the spacing effect[1]. If you space out your memorizing sessions, you reinforce your long-term memory, making it last longer. A practical version of the spacing effect is spaced repetition[2] – you recall/repeat or review facts with increasing time gaps in between each recall or review.

Example: If you are memorizing 10 capitals and their countries, review/recall them 5 minutes later. Then 20 minutes later. Then 45 minutes later. Then 2 hours later. Then 12 hours later. Then in 2 days. Repeating the fact is key.

The spacing effect counters the forgetting curve[3] which is a natural tendency for most memorized information to lose its neural stability and decay. We call that decay forgetting. It depends on the strength of neural connections that represent a memory. The more it is rehearsed over time, the stronger it becomes. If you rehearse once and leave it be, the decay starts and eventually you forget. Stabilizing the neural pathways that represent memory is called learning and that happens via neuroplasticity – changes in how neurons connect to each other.

The spacing effect is powerful in itself because it strategically counters forgetting. But it can be more powerful by filling the time gap between 2 recall/review sessions with exercise or non-interfering material. Exercise promotes learning in general by improving brain function, but research shows that exercise specifically improves recall after learning. Non-interfering activities like an unrelated subject or any other activity like cooking, music, scrolling on Instagram, etc., can help. Once learning begins, the brain carries on strengthening its memory (as represented by neural changes).

In some cases, there may be creative insights through a process called “incubation”. In incubation, the brain may have unexpected associations between previously learned facts into an aha moment. For example, while learning medical terms, your brain may suddenly click, and you’ll respond – “oh that’s all these terms related to inflammation end in -itis”

Tip: Recall facts with increasing gaps in time to improve their long-term memory. Repeat them. Flashcards and reminders are an excellent way to keep track of your spaced repetition. Flash cards can help you quickly verify what you’ve learned.

2. Prospective memory

Prospective memory is our ability to remember something in the future by giving ourselves a reminder. It is an intention to remember commonly called “remembering to remember.” When you are reading and remember a fact, you can prompt yourself to remember it later and the fact will pop into your mind unexpectedly.

Prospective memory is very useful to remember facts that you come across at random and then revise them later. While studying, there may be too many facts for you to remember and you may not be able to write all of them down. In such cases, simply remind yourself to remember it in the future. As you practice this skill, you’ll get better at it.

Tip: Use phone reminders to remember certain facts with a message like – recall list of proteins at 10 pm.

Repeat = Remember

3. Chunking

Chunking[4] is a process to group information together and organize it meaningfully. Our working memory – the temporary store of information for immediate use (remembering OTPs or names while talking) – is limited in capacity. This limit can be expanded by chunking information.

Example: It may be hard to remember a 10-item grocery list like:

  1. Diet coke
  2. Toothpaste
  3. Toilet paper
  4. Garbage bags
  5. Chips
  6. Soap
  7. Pens
  8. Rubber bands
  9. Ice cream
  10. Towel

An easy way to remember these is to group them together such as food items (ice cream, diet coke, chips) toilet items (toothpaste, toilet paper, soap, towel), stationary (Pens, Rubber bands), misc. (Garbage bags). When information is chunked into coherent groups, it is easier to remember in our working memory.

Chunked information also improves long-term memory by grouping similar facts together – you can remember animals by chunking them as per the ecosystem they are found in. You can chunk chemistry notations according to the family of compounds. Random information is hard to recall because it doesn’t seem coherent; chunking can help you create a pattern. Patterns are easier to remember.

Tip: Charts, Venn diagrams, tables, mind maps, and infographics are great ways to chunk information.

4. The production effect

Information produced by the body[5] externally is remembered better than information that is not produced. When our senses are involved in a memory, the information is processed more deeply resulting in stronger long-term memory. If you mentally revise a quote, you may feel you remember it because it is familiar but you may not be able to recall it. If you say it out loud, you might remember it better because now there is a sensory component to it – your voice.

Generally, information spoken out loud is easier to recall than information rehearsed silently in the mind. Typing and handwriting work too[6]. Handwriting generally works best, but typing improves memory too as one types more instinctively. So if you struggle with typing on a keyboard, it might help to learn how to touch type so it is as effortless as handwriting. If you want to strengthen your memory – repeat it using your voice or fingers for an extra layer of reinforcement on that memory.

Tip: Tell someone what you learned, note it down, type it in your notes (or blog), or record yourself recalling the facts to use the production effect.

5. Schema building

Schema[7]is a memory template that makes it easier to remember certain kinds of information. Someone good at memorizing historical dates will find it easier to remember more and more dates as they learn because they develop a schema for dates. A musician can remember many melodic sequences because they have a schema that makes it easy to remember them. A schema develops with practice and is necessarily a meaningful pattern of information.

Once you start learning various biology terms, you will start developing a schema for biological terms. This schema will include patterns like sounds, parts of words that mean something to you, additional contextual details, etc.

Think of a schema as a memory container made for certain types of information. When that information fits that container, it is remembered with relatively less effort.

Tip: When you have to learn something, commit to learning that type of information and keep learning more similar/related things. Eventually, you’ll develop a schema. If you stop learning one kind of information, you won’t develop the schema. If some type of facts feels useless or pointless, don’t ignore them because they will help you build a schema for future use.

6. Elaborative rehearsal

The most basic way to convert newly learned information into long-term memory is to rehearse it with depth – called elaboration rehearsal as described by Craik and Lockhart.[8]

Once you learn some facts, you can begin elaboration rehearsal to strengthen their memory (and your recall) by thinking deeply about it and giving it some more context. That context acts as a net of supporting information.

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Example: You can learn definitions in physics or chemistry by thinking deeply about them and connecting it to examples and relatable phenomena. You can learn about centripetal force by learning the definition and connecting it to how you feel in your car while taking a turn.

Technical words are also easier to remember when you use elaboration rehearsal by focusing on the sound, spelling, meaning, and context.

Tip: Think deeply about the facts you are learning including but not limited to the sounds, words, contexts, related ideas, etc. Put them in a mental flow chart if it makes sense to you.

Related: Tests can add a different kind of anxiety in the testing room or exam hall. Follow these quick behavioral techniques to reduce test anxiety there and then.

7. The Testing effect/Retrieval practice

The process to memorize something is different from the process of recalling/remembering that information. Different neural pathways govern both[9], even when the pathways access the same neural structures to “shift” a memory trace from long-term memory to working memory. Remembering something you’ve already learned (retrieval) is activating a long-term memory and approximately reconstructing[10] it in your working memory. Sometimes, retrieval is prone to errors and false details, so practicing retrieval is necessary to verify and rely on your memory.

The testing effect: Memory improves when you are tested[11] on information you have already learned.

Retrieval practice: Practicing your ability to recall[12] a fact improves retrieval ease in the future and promotes long-term memory.

In exams or real-world contexts like decision-making, interviews, or on-field work, memory is only as good as your ability to recall it. So improving your recall is as important as committing facts to memory. Thinking of doctors – they are supposed to know their medicines and what they do without referencing. It’s not enough to just memorize them; they have to recall that information without effort in the clinic.

To improve recall, use the testing effect – information you actively remember without help strengthens memory and improves confidence in your memory. Research has, for decades[13], shown that students who test themselves on facts before an exam do better in exams than students who just re-study the material and never verify their learning by actively remembering the facts.

Between memory and remembering, there is meta-memory – a system that tells you if you know something or not. Meta-memory creates judgments like “I know this, I don’t have to learn it again” or “I knew this, I don’t think I can remember it now” or “I’ve learned this, I’ll remember it.” These judgments can be inaccurate. The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon – where you feel you know the word but can’t remember is effectively your meta-memory saying you know something but your recall system is failing.

Tip: Use quizzes, flashcards, mock tests, review questions, multiple choice questions, etc., to test yourself on your memory. Practice testing till you are confidently remembering your facts.

Combining techniques

These techniques can be combined into a holistic fact-learning session – no matter what kind of facts you are learning.

Begin with spaced repetition for completely new information and then chunk similar facts together. Use elaboration rehearsal to process your facts deeply. Use retrieval practice or the testing effect to verify your learning.

You can combine[14] the spacing effect with retrieval practice by spacing your fact-review sessions with only quizzes for a combination boost in memory.

Instead of only mentally reviewing your material during spaced repetition, you can use the production effect by telling your friend or study partner what you learned.

These techniques are flexible, so you can find a creative way to combine them according to your needs.

Points of caution

  1. Avoid massing (massed learning). Massing is a common bad study habit that involves cramming one subject matter for hours at a stretch, particularly when it is complex[15]. Massing is fine when you are first reviewing your material to get a general idea of the study material, but it isn’t an ideal way to study once you are already familiar with it.

    Tip: For complex study material, ensure your long hours of massing is actually elaboration rehearsal where you spend time thinking hard about the material to comprehend it. Avoid using massing to just read and re-read for hours. Read, review, and think instead.
  2. Avoid sleep deprivation. The brain solidifies and condenses memories while sleeping[16]. Information that you’ve deemed important is given importance biologically to strengthen its memory. So let sleep do its job.

    Tip: If your sleep isn’t as good as you want it to be, consider using an eye mask and earplugs[17]. Eye-mask and ear plugs improve the quality of sleep by blocking ambient noise and light, which further helps consolidate long-term memory.

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