Study Better with Memory Hacks

Written by Angela Dong

Like many students, I’ve spent the better part of high school learning how to learn.

More specifically, learning how to memorize, considering how secondary school tests tended to emphasize knowledge more than application, unlike university. I’ve churned out color-coded study notes like printing factories, committed my DIY-abridged textbooks to memory, and relied heavily on a plethora of retention techniques fine-tuned over the years. By the end of high school, I had trained myself to memorize verbatim approximately one study note page per 4 minutes. To me, memory was a muscle and study time my work-out. (Pretty sad, eh?)

Sadly, much of my memory-based study habits fell into disuse as I entered McMaster, since my classes focused more on problem-based learning and required more critical thinking, application and extrapolation. However, memory techniques still remain a valuable asset in the study toolbox as there are still courses, such as anatomy, that require extensive memorization.


Here are two memory-enhancing study tips and the science behind why they work:  

1. Chunking:

One of the simplest methods, chunking organizes content for better recall. Instead of memorizing various terms separately, memorize in “chunks” of preferably 3-5 units. Which one is easier to remember? 193620051932 or 1936-2005-1932? If this rings a bell, just think of how our telephone numbers are grouped.

To use this, find a common linkage between the terms in one group – are they all referring to the same region of the human body? All related to viruses? This way, when you recall the group in your head, those connections automatically allow you to recall the commonality between the terms.

Chunking works by focusing on the compression of conscious data, relating it to underlying themes or to pre-existing memories and emotions. As humans have evolutionarily evolved the ability to structure our world through recognizing and linking patterns, this corresponds well with chunking, which allows us to compartmentalize, and then interlink subjects into a web of connections fueled by the patterns we see. With the build-up of interlocking ideas borne from “chunks” of similar data, there is a larger foundation upon which newer information can be integrated, thus making our memory system more efficient and effective.1

2. Method of Loci

This spatial memory technique, popularized in pop culture as a “mind palace” by the BBC show Sherlock, was originally developed in Ancient Greece, allegedly due to a particularly macabre event where the ceiling collapsed on partygoers, thus rendering their remains unrecognizable.2 The only way the sole survivor of the party, who had stepped outside the moment prior to the accident, could identify the bodies for burial was to employ this technique.

To do this, imagine walking through a familiar location, such as your room, and note the location of “marker” objects such as furniture or posters on the wall. These objects will then be integrated with the to-be-memorized items on your list in a whimsical or memorable manner. When you take a mental re-walk through your room, you’ll remember the location of your marker objects in the order in which they were encountered as well as the associated items. Although it seems like a lot of unnecessary work to do and doesn’t yield as much conceptual understanding as chunking and association, for completely random items to memorize, it’s surprisingly effective.

This technique exploits the pre-existing “hacks” to memory in our brains. Firstly, people tend to remember events associated with strong emotions or past experiences better than events without such links.3 This occurs because the neurological systems regarding emotional arousal and memory are closely linked, with certain hormones such as epinephrine and corticosterone aiding in the consolidation of long-term memory when triggered alongside the event. By associating an otherwise “boring” item on the memory list to something personal and/or emotional, memorizing the altered item becomes much easier. The hippocampus, a brain region important for both spatial and recognition memory, also aids in the process of recall by associating abstract items with spatial locations.


Each person has unique approaches and preferences for studying. Though these tips may not be for everyone, try these out, experiment, find what works for you and fine-tune the details. Above all, be adaptable – you wouldn’t want to crash and burn solely because you used rote memorization for a course like math.

Best of luck on the upcoming mid-terms!



  1. Popova, Maria. “The Science Of “Chunking,” Working Memory, And How Pattern Recognition Fuels Creativity”. Brain Pickings. N.p., 2017. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  2. Thomas, Nigel. “Ancient Imagery Mnemonics”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2014: n. pag. Print.
  3. McGaugh, J. L. “Making Lasting Memories: Remembering The Significant”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110.Supplement_2 (2013): 10402-10407. Web. 28 Jan. 2017.

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