Most people are doing it wrong.
. . . learning, I mean.
In college, I was going about learning all wrong (even though I made good grades).
I was just doing everything the hard way.
I studied harder than I had to. I studied longer than I needed to.
Then I found a few simple tricks that made everything, much, MUCH easier. Changed my academic life.
I’ve now spent almost twenty years passionately pursuing insights, hacks, and tricks that make learning easier for anyone. 🙂
I’ve read all the books. I’ve used these tricks to help my friends—and my own kids. I’ve taught THOUSANDS of students—from kindergartners to grad students—easy ways to get better grades by working with their brains instead of trying to force things.
Each and every trick I talk about, I’ve used. They really work (whether you already have good grades or whether your grades stink).
And now I’m passing them on to you. Lucky, lucky you!
I’ve collected seven simple—and very powerful—tricks for making the most of your memory. These are not the only ways to supercharge your brain, so why these seven?
1. They give instant results
2. They are easy to implement
3. Most students don’t know about them or don’t use them
4. Exceptional students do know about and use them.
When I say “instant results,” I mean instant! These tricks begin working the moment you begin using them. Before learning these tricks, you study in the same way you’ve been studying, and you will get the same results you’ve been
getting. But start applying the tricks I’m about to show you, and you’ll be able to study in a new and better way. You’ll learn things faster and you won’t have to work as hard to do it. Really!
It actually takes less effort to study this way. It’s like the difference between walking on all fours and walking on two legs. All fours work. It’s the way most of us got around for the first year or so of life. But walking on two legs is much more efficient, fast, and versatile. These tricks will put you—academically speaking—up where you belong! Just like walking on two legs, this is the way you were designed to work. Knowing these tricks will allow you to run memory rings around most people!
The best part is, these tricks are way easier to implement than it was for you to learn to walk. You probably went from crawling to walking efficiently over the course of a year or more. Walking is definitely a learned skill that requires
practice, and it’s hard to get everything moving in the right direction in a coordinated fashion.
Wasn’t it worth the effort though? Can you imagine if you had never learned to walk? The hundreds of hours it took you to become proficient at getting about on two legs was totally worth it.
Unlike walking, which you had to learn and practice, these memory tricks are already a part of you. You already know how to do them. You already apply these tricks effortlessly in many parts of your life. Most people, however, do not
use them in academic settings.
One of the reasons I picked out these particular tricks is because most people aren’t consciously aware of them and don’t apply them to their studies. Most people do apply these tricks in other areas of their lives. The clever bit is in
knowing how to apply the tricks you already use well in one area to this new area. Psychologists refer to this as “the transfer of learning.”
According to David A. Sousa, author of, How the Brain Learns . . .
[Transfer] encompasses the ability to learn in one
situation and then use that learning, possibly in a
modified or generalized form, in other situations.
Transfer is the core of the problem solving, creative
thinking, and all other higher mental processes,
inventions, and artistic products. It is also one of the
ultimate goals of teaching and learning.
Many top students, especially the ones that don’t seem to work too hard at their studies—are just better at transferring their learning. They take the things that work well for their memory in the “real world” and transfer those tricks into
the academic world.
Noted author Cal Newport speaks about this basic truth. While in college, he noticed that he and other straight-A students didn’t necessarily study any more than anyone else, nor were they necessarily smarter. They just got better results. His book, How to Become a Straight-A Student, comes from interviews of master students from top-shelf schools across the country.
Newport found that top students tended to use the same basic techniques to boost their scores. By the way, I highly recommend his book. It’s a life changer for any student!
Let’s take a look at some of the most powerful techniques he and others have identified. I’ll show you how you can start using these now to get better grades with less work. Here are seven Simple Tricks to memory mastery.
Flashcards, as I’m sure you know, are a really powerful way to review. They are the go-to method for many students. However, most people do them completely wrong!
There are a few simple things you can do to make flashcards much more effective and useful. There are also several common mistakes to avoid.
Flash cards are a powerful tool to help you memorize things such as vocabulary, mathematical formulas, history facts, and spelling. Here are some strategies to help you get the most from your flash cards.
Use flashcards in several different colors. Use each color as a cue to help recall something about the fact on that flash card. For example, if you are using the flash cards to memorize vocabulary words, use a different color for words that have different connotations. Positive words—such as benign, sagacious, and staunch—could go on green or blue 3 x 5 cards. Negative words—such as mendacious, stultify, and malevolent—might go on red or yellow 3 x 5 cards. Neutral words—like rebuttal, soporific, and nominal—could go on white or tan cards. The particular colors you use don’t really matter as long as you are consistent.
Illustrate and embellish the cards. Use different color markers. Draw pictures on the card or even cut them out of a magazine and paste them on the card. The more you work at making the card distinctive, the easier it will be to recall. Usually, you’ll want that distinctiveness on the back of the card, rather than the front. The front of the card should be in the same format, if possible, as how it will show up in a testing or recall situation. For example, I might put just the word stultify on the front of a vocabulary card, with no pictures or embellishments, since the embellishments will not show up on my test later. The back of the card—the side I’m trying to recall—can have pictures, colors, symbols, etc. Those are what will come to mind later when I see the word in a book or on an exam.
Carry the cards around with you and review them whenever you have a chance; at the stoplight, before class, in the line at the grocery store or the bank, on long trips, or walking across campus. Make reviewing the cards a daily habit just like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.
Don’t put too much on any one card. The biggest mistake people make is putting too much information on a single flash card. One card equals one fact.
Put the word to be learned on one side of the card and a short two or three word definition on the other side. On a history fact card, for example, you might have “George Washington” on the first side of the card and “first US president” on the other side. You should NOT have “George Washington,” on one side of the card and “first US president, from Virginia, general in revolutionary war,” on the second side of the card. There are three different facts there, so you’ll need three different cards.
. . . . Don’t be content to simply get the concept into your notes. You must really understand it. One powerful way to do that is by asking and answering great questions as covered before in the section on elaboration.
Most students ask simple questions like “What does EEG stand for?” or “Who signed the Treaty of Versailles?” Such simple questions might be useful for quizzing yourself on basic facts, but there are better questions that will promote recall and understanding.
Better questions force you to evaluate, predict, judge, compare and contrast, or synthesize, etc. For example: Instead of asking the low-level question, “What were the causes of the European conquest of the Americas?” ask the higher-level question, “What strategies could indigenous Americans have used to more effectively resist the European conquest?” To answer that question, you need to know what strategies indigenous Americans used against the Europeans, what worked, what didn’t, European responses to those strategies. Then you’ll have to go even further and elaborate on the information by coming up with alternate strategies that might have been more effective. Another example: Instead of asking, “What are the stages in cellular mitosis?” ask, “What stage of mitosis is most dangerous and risky for the organism? Why?” You will still need to know the stages, but memorizing a list of stages won’t be enough. You’ll need to know what happens at each stage and what could go wrong.
You can use these same questioning strategies to help learn vocabulary for tests like the SAT and GRE. Low-level questions such as, “What does prolix mean?” aren’t nearly as helpful as higher-level questions such as, “In what situations would the word prolix be a better word choice than the word verbose?” Again, you will need to know the definition of each term, but you’ll have to go further and gain an understanding of how each word is used in context, their underlying connotations, and how you’ve seen each word used in a variety of different circumstances. Again, this naturally brings in the process of elaboration. That makes for a stronger memory!
Good questions force you to work at a whole new level, and that will show on your test performance. Notice, in each of the examples above, the higher level questions can’t be answered unless you know the answers to the lower level questions. You can’t tell me when prolix is a better word choice than verbose unless you know the meaning of each.
Higher level questions are also great to ask in class. Most profs really like well thought out questions. They will take notice of the students who ask them. That can’t translate directly into points on the next class essay. The professor will often give you the benefit of the doubt when you use a sentence or paragraph isn’t completely clear. If you’re the student who asks the really good questions, they assume you know what you’re talking about! BONUS: If the prof is going too fast during a class lecture, and you are following behind in your note taking, a good question will slow them down. That will let you catch up.
A few cautions about asking higher-level questions during class. Some professors—especially the newer or less-confident profs—can feel challenged by these questions. They may get defensive and see you as a trouble-maker. Pay attention the first time you ask a good question. Did the professor get enthusiastic and answer thoroughly or did they try to avoid it or brush you off? If it’s the latter, save your questions for more confident teachers. Also, your fellow students may not appreciate your questions, especially if it causes the class to run longer. It may still be worthwhile if the prof really shows some positive responses, but you may pay for it if there are group projects later in the semester.
Actively go and pursue knowledge by paying careful attention, capturing concepts in your notes, and then processing the knowledge with good questions. Don’t settle for being a vegetable waiting for the next load of manure. Be a hawk! Go own that knowledge!
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