We’ve been chatting with The University of Law’s Dean of Social Sciences, Catriona Morrison, and drawing on one of her many areas of expertise, memory. Here, we discuss some of the most effective ways students can better understand how memory works and some strategies for enhancing it to get the most out of studying.
By Elena Carruthers. Published 24 August 2022. Last updated 11 January 2023.
I started out as a language researcher – words fascinate me. Language and memory are very closely related. When I was at The University of Leeds, my language research complemented the memory research already going on in the school, and we formed the Leeds Memory Group. It was an ambitious move for me because memory is a very popular field of psychology research, but my interest had been in how we learn words, so then to progress that to how we use those words and concepts, from a memory perspective, was a very natural next step.
People worry a lot about memory errors and feel concerned that they are a signal of more concerning psychological issues. In fact, memory slip-ups are a part of everyday life. Is there anyone who can’t say they have run upstairs to fetch something and when they get to the top of the stairs, they can’t remember what they went to fetch? That happens to everybody, at whatever age.
Memory is, by its very nature, fallible. A positive memory, including your life story, helps preserve a positive sense of self. So, memory is not a veridical account of our lives – it’s not like watching a video. It is malleable, fallible and open to suggestion.
Some of the best ways to enhance memory are to avoid rote learning which is superficial and, while it shows a basis of knowledge acquisition, it doesn’t demonstrate a critical approach. Use different modes of learning, e.g., written, spoken – say the words aloud as well as writing them down. This means you have two ways to access the information if you are in a time-limited exam situation – verbal and visual.
Take time and don’t cram. We know that crammed knowledge only hangs around for a few days and your career depends on you being able to use that knowledge for many years to come, so cramming is not a good strategy. Consolidate your learning as you go along, don’t leave it to the eleventh hour. This way, you will have a far more solid knowledge base that you can continue to build on.
There is a lot of psychological knowledge about location and contextual cues – we know that people remember more if they are producing work in the context in which they learnt the material. While you can’t necessarily sit your assessment in your study environment, you can make things consistent – how about a scent of lavender? Smell is a great cue to memory, and if lavender isn’t your thing, try another consistent scent that you can use while you study and also while you are doing your assessment. It sounds simple but it works remarkably well. Context is really important, so when you are doing assessments, keep the environment as familiar as possible. Keep your desk in the same format, with your familiar lucky charms around you.
When it comes to different learning styles, there is a lot of debate around the matter. This debate is generally debunked by psychologists. Learning strategies are different – and this brings me to the point about deep learning, focussing on material, finding ways in which you best engage with the things you’re learning. Application of learning is always best, and this is something we promote at The University of Law.
Anyone can have a good memory. The human mind has huge potential, almost everyone is born with a massive capacity for learning and memory. Consider the challenge of learning a foreign language; if you have tried to do that as an adult, it’s quite difficult – so how is it that babies do it with seemingly no effort whatsoever? Learning words is obviously a key element of memory and babies can learn 50 or more words per day. So, humans are born with this huge memory capacity, and we can all work to improve our memory skills by simple techniques like deep processing and avoiding being absent minded.
We have the ultimate power to improve our own memory. I think a classic example of this is in the book by Joshua Foer “Moonwalking with Einstein”, where Joshua, a regular guy, set himself the challenge to enter the United States Memory Championship. He did this out of a genuine fascination with memory but absolutely no distinction in this area of cognition. He did his research, spoke to lots of experts, and ultimately won the competition. He said: anyone can do this. So, we could all be champions if we harnessed the capacity we have within our minds – we all have the potential to be brilliant mnemonists if we put our mind to it.
Interested in memory and the mind? Learn more about studying Psychology at The University of Law.