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We know there is a lot to remember with these types of exams. Guess what though? We also know a lot about how our brain works, which can be used to our advantage. Enter, mnemonic systems.*

A mnemonic (m is silent) device, or a memory device, is any learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval (remembering) in the human memory. Mnemonics make use of elaborative encoding, retrieval cues, and imagery as specific tools to encode any given information in a way that allows for efficient storage and retrieval. Mnemonics aid original information in becoming associated with something more accessible or meaningful—which, in turn, provides better retention of the information.

The oldest known mnemonic technique is called the method of loci* (pronounced low-sigh), where loci is the plural of the word locus, meaning place. You might have heard of this as the mind palace technique if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fanatic.

The method of loci posits that to remember a series of abstract words, you need to attach them to different spaces inside a location that you are very familiar with.

The legend goes that this was first put to practice by a poet named Simonides of Ceos, who was the only survivor of a building collapse during a dinner he attended. This was during the Roman Empire, more than 2,000 years ago. Simonides was able to identify the dead, who were crushed beyond recognition, by remembering where the guests had been sitting.

actionThe next time your parents ask you to go grocery shopping, don’t write down the items on a paper or into your phone. Rather, go to the entrance of your home and slowly begin walking inside. Attach every item to be bought to a specific checkpoint in your home, like a TV set or a kitchen sink. To make it easier, try to visualize a scene involving the item. If one of the items were toothpaste, imagine your sibling brushing their teeth as you walk through the bathroom. Once you’re done, do a mental walkthrough of your home and recollect each of the items. You will be surprised at how effective you are at remembering abstract words and facts by linking them to a place of choice.

Of course, we know you cannot do this for the thousand words that you learn for your exams. The point is, you will be able to retain and recollect better if you use one of the well-established mnemonic techniques as you learn a large amount of information. A few are mentioned below:

Imagery

This is the most obvious one. Whenever you can, try to link a word to the mental image that it generates in your mind. Let’s take the word cupidity. It’s hard not to think about a cupid flying around with a bow and arrow when you hear this word. That’s good! Now, instead of thinking of a smiling and loving creature, imagine it to be filled with greed because of all the love floating around. That’s it. Cupidity means greed for money or possessions. The next time you see the word, your mind will be primed to think about a greedy cupid. Try to do this for as many words as you can.*

Chunking

Do you notice that when you’re reciting someone’s phone number, you always chunk the digits together in groups of three or four? It’s not 9479286724; rather, 947 928 6724. This doesn’t have to stop with phone numbers. We can extend this to vocabulary. When you see two words that seem related, try to form a mental association between them so when you think of one, the other comes to mind. For example, the words extinct and extant have opposite meanings. If you learn to chunk such words together in memory, knowing the meaning of one will help you recollect the meaning of the other.

Reading

That’s right. New words and facts will stay reluctantly in your memory, constantly trying to escape. However, if you begin reading rich diction where there is a high probability of finding the words you learned, you will experience a brief sense of joy (I know that word!) which will register that word stronger in your memory. Why? Now you have context surrounding the word. We don’t forget words like apple and tree because we come across them on a daily basis. So use the unofficial resources we mentioned in the table earlier to read long articles. This will also serve you well with your reading comprehension sections.

Spaced Repetition

This is not a mnemonic technique per se; rather, it’s a method to retain what you learned for the long-term. It has a fancy name for a simple concept: you remember things better the more times you come across it. The trick here lies in the frequency of revision, according to Gwern Branwen, an independent research and long-form writer.*

[Spaced repetition] essentially says that if you have a question (“What is the fifth letter in this random sequence you learned?”), and you can only study it, say, 5 times, then your memory of the answer (“e”) will be strongest if you spread your 5 tries out over a long period of time—days, weeks, and months. One of the worst things you can do is blow your 5 tries within a day or two. You can think of the “forgetting curve” as being like a chart of a radioactive half-life: each review bumps your memory up in strength 50% of the chart, say, but review doesn’t do much in the early days because the memory simply hasn’t decayed much!

When you learn the word hegemony for the first time today, you should not review it every day for the next five days to retain its meaning. Rather, you need to space it out so that you review it exactly when you’re about to forget it, as shown by the forgetting curve below. This way, you will also reduce the number of words to be reviewed each day.

Forgetting Curve for Newly Learned Information

Now, you must be thinking, how will I know when I’m about to forget something? You don’t. That’s where technology can help.

There is a software called Anki* that lets you create flashcards and displays them to you at intervals set by the algorithm (following the spaced repetition technique). When you review a flashcard, you can choose options such as hard, good, and easy, which sends the app feedback to show you at the right intervals. If that is too much work for you, you can always use ready-made flashcards by apps such as Quizlet and Chegg that contain the word and meaning, but don’t necessarily implement the spaced repetition technique.

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