9 Things You Need to Know About Memory and Learning for Exam Success

By  •  Updated: 11/15/22 •  12 min read

When you think about passing professional exams like CIMA, one of the biggest challenges is about finding time to study. It is also about finding ways to optimise the use of that precious time. Knowing about the basics of learning and memory is a good place to begin because unless we do appreciate our own limitations, we cannot really overcome them.

Most of the ideas described in this article are from Moonwalking With Einstein, The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. In the book Foer describes his yearlong quest to improve his memory to take part in the United States Memory Championship with the help from top “mental athletes.” The book is a mix of cutting-edge research, interesting historical facts about learning, memory and creativity and chockfull of tips, tricks, ideas and techniques on how to improve your memory and recall.

There are better ways to learn, memorize, study and succeed

The good news is that anyone can learn these secrets and apply them.

Tony Buzan, who founded the World Memory Championship in 1991, tells Foer that “The brain is like a muscle,” and that memory training is a form of mental work-out. What we have to remember is that “Over time, like any form of exercise, it’ll make the brain fitter, quicker, and more nimble.”

Let us explore some ideas and techniques that will help you study better and learn more effectively into the limited time you have to studying for CIMA exams.

Human memory, which evolved over millions of years was simply not meant to do the things we ask of our memories in the 21st century.

Our memories are good at some things but not at others.

Our memories are good at remembering certain things but not others. We are good at visual memory, but not at long lists of words or numbers. Memory techniques help us take the types of memories our brains are not good at and help us transform them into types of memories we are good at holding on to.

The more we appreciate the limitations of our memories, the better we will be at taking measure to deal with those gaps, effectively, and hopefully better than most of our peers. This knowledge and awareness of various tips, tricks and techniques can serve us well in both studying for exams and in becoming professional experts in our careers.

Here are a few points to help you enhance your memory:

1. Learning is not just about memory. It is also about recall.

After all, what is the point of studying if you cannot recall what you studied during the exams? So effective studying is not just about committing things to memory. It is also about recalling what we studied and using them within a meaningful context.

Think of memorizing as filing a document in a filing cabinet. Unless you have an effective system to know where what goes in, you will have trouble finding the document again. So just as you need a filing index and some form of logical file listing, an organized way of doing things, you will not be very effective or productive. Memory and recall work in just the same way. You have to have means and methods of storing away your memories in an organized and detailed enough manner for you to be able to recall them later.

2. Learners can benefit from using various memory techniques.

The more tips and tricks you know on better storage, the better your recall will be. Effective memorizers use multiple hooks, multisensory memory storage techniques.

You know how sometimes you know a word but you really cannot recall it however much you try? That is an instance when we are able to access only part of, but not the whole of the neural network that contains the idea. That is your process of committing it to memory has been less than effective. This can happen not just with words, but with names and ideas as well.

The secret to avoiding this frustrating experience is using multiple hooks and multisensory techniques to lodge what you learn clearly in your memory.

You have heard of various study techniques. That is what they are all about.

We are told to skim a document or lesson unit before reading; to scan it for key ideas. We are told we should read something fully and to summarize the gist of it immediately afterwards. Don’t just read and read again and again, we are told. Try to express the ideas in your own words. Make short notes. Create acronyms and mnemonics. Highlight, underline, use different colours. Use visual techniques to boost memory. Make mind maps of the ideas and concepts and their relationships. Use flash cards. Answer practice questions. Do practice exams. Teach someone else what you are learning.

Each of the above helps you make your learning more multisensory, compared to just merely reading it. When you do these things you are learning actively.  Their goal is to get more of your attention and provide multisensory hooks for you to hang your learning on. All these have a role to play in improving your capacity to remember and recall what you study. 

3. There are different types of memory.

In general, memories can be divided into two broad categories: declarative memory and non-declarative memory. These are also referred to sometimes as explicit ad and implicit memories.

Declarative memories are things you know you remember. How many wheels are there in a car or the colour of your hair or eyes. Non declarative memories are things you know unconsciously “like how to ride a bike or how to draw a shape while looking at it in a mirror”. And different brain regions are associated with each type.

Psychologists divide declarative memories into two groups. Semantic memories are memories to do with facts and concepts. Episodic memories are memories of experiences we go through in our lives. Episodic memories based on experiences are naturally located in time and space. Semantic memories are not bound by time or space.
Most of the s tuff you study for exams are semantics. But if you try to add an acronym or create a mnemonic to describe a process, you can begin converting it to episodic memories. When a friend was in grade 7, she created a whole poem to remember the first 20 elements of the periodic table. And I recall the pride she expressed in having done so. It was funny. We laughed about it. Both she and I can still list the 20 elements in a row because we made this semantic memory into an episodic one.

Case studies are another example of converting semantic learning into episodic memories. This is why practice tests are important for your CIMA exam learning process. They help you cement your learning.

4. Memories are dynamic, not static.

This is important for study revision. Studies on brain damaged people show that memories are not static. They can age and their complexions can change. This is why periodic reviewing of what you learn is important.

As Foer notes “Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged.” He also goes onto note that in the process, we end up transforming and reshaping our memories. And over time, our episodic memories turn into facts. 

The more creativity you put into memorizing something, the easier it would be to recall and then the better your learning related to it.

Imagine you just met a man called Rex Baker. Don’t try to commit his name to memory by repeating Rex Baker over and over again. Instead, imagine him wearing a white baker’s outfit, with baker’s hat and carrying a fresh smelling loaf of bread in his hand. Rex means King. Imagine a huge R or Rex printed on his baker’s uniform (like the Superman’s S) and a tiny little crown atop his baker’s hat. He’s the king of bakers. Rex Baker. Now are you likely to forget his name again?

You can use similar means to remember ideas, concepts and lists you must learn to get through your exams. The harder you work at it, the better you’ll commit them to memory. 

6. Creativity, animation, jokes, rhymes, are all useful.

In the book Josh Foer gets a lesson in memorizing a shopping list.

Six bottles of wine talking to each other, making fun of their qualities.

Think of a durian fruit, looking a bit hurt, and other items on the list before and after it holding their noses. You are unlikely to forget all three of the items.

And if you’ve seen Sesame Street and similar programmes. Their creators know that the funnier, the more unusual  and the more animated you make each word or letter the more easier they would lodge in memories of kids.

If you need to study various models and diagrams, use the animation techniques to make them come alive for you on the page. You will remember them all the better for it.

7. Memory is about attention. What captures your attention is more memorable.

Now it must be clear to you why you fall asleep when you try to study certain subjects. It is because you are failing to give it attention. Or the creator of content, or your tutor failed to make it attention grabbing. Unlike movie makers and game creators, our teachers do not believe they are in the business of capturing attention. Hence most of our learning tends to be boring or make us bored.

However, we can’t go passing professional exams if we expect everyone to make things funny for us so we’ll remember better. It is for us to make it so.

Remember the Alphabet song? It introduces 26 letters toddlers do not know putting them together into a rhyme to make them easier to recall. Even the kids who forget the exact order can pick up the rest as they go along because of the rhyme. The same goes for poems like Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.

And the fact remains, if you spend time making something seem funny and laughing about it, you have given it enough attention that you are more likely to remember it.

8. We don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context.

This is a key limitation in our memories. And to make that into a strength, professional memorizers use various techniques. All that we discussed above, using fun, humour, jokes and animation are there to extend the context into a memory picture rather than have it as a mere piece of information or fact, floating in isolation without a context.

One of the main techniques professional memorizers over the ages have used to add context is a technique called the Memory Palace.

9. The Memory Palace

We are spatial beings. So we may not be able to remember long lists of poems, but we can describe the layout of our homes, schools, the route we drive or take to work, the layout of the public gardens we walk in or the library or the market we visit regularly. That is we can place things in context.

This is the idea of a memory palace. Using a memory palace or home or hut or mansion or market is about placing different concepts in specific locations. This is what enables memory champs to within seconds commit to memory the order of a shuffled deck or cards or two decks or more.

Take the list of things you want to remember and keep placing them in order in the memory palace. If you are memorizing a shopping list, for example, you can place the first item (say milk) at the gate, the next items along the garden path, on the doorstep, outside the door, inside, one per window, along the staircase and so on. This technique provides you a way to peg things in space. When you need to recall, just imagine rewalking your original route. If you made things funny, animated and exciting, you will not have any difficulty remembering.

Now if you are using the Memory Palace to remember things by, as the types of things you need to remember increase, you need more and more places to use as memory palaces. This is why travel and going places is a good idea. It helps you boost your memory. At the worst, go to a website which provides 3D experiences of the great creations of the world, the great pyramids, Stone Henge, the Taj Mahal and take a virtual tour. And you will remember the order in which you travelled because your human brain is meant to remember and recall things in 3D.

Use your creativity and imagination. You have 32 teeth and there is the whole digestive tract to use as a memory palace too. Ten toes, ten fingers, eyes, ears, nose etc. All of these can be used as memory palaces. All the classrooms and building in your primary school which you probably recall very well.

Use all the points given in this article and use the basic memory techniques the next time you study and see how you fare with your exams.

You may want to watch this TED Talks video by Joshua Foer to fully appreciate the value of memory techniques. 

As a bonus, I have selected this videos for you, have a look. 

Joshua Foer (from the moonwalking with Einstein) talks about memory palace. I find that interesting, I’m not sure I’m personally there (yet) but I tend to hear more and more about the memory palace. There must be sth in it.