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Dainis Eglavs

Whether you’re heading back to school soon yourself or helping your child get back into academic mode, this week is the perfect time to think about implementing some new memory-preserving strategies. Such study practices can help the brain recall important information on tests, according to psychologist Kenneth Higbee, author of Your Memory and How It Works.

Here are the five strategies he recommends to maximize retention of material.

1. Reduce interference.This occurs when information you’ve previously learned interferes with new information that you’re trying to learn often because of similarities between the two topics. This can come from memorizing scientific formulas or various President’s speeches. One way to eliminate this problem is to overlearn the new material so you have it down cold. You can also make the information more meaningful by creating cues to remember it like creating rhymes “i before e except after c” or mnemonic devices like “every good boy does fine” to remember the notes of the treble cleff.

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2. Space it out. The brain remembers better when it’s given information in small doses—like three one-hour study sessions rather than one three-hour study session. That’s because there are certain limits to the mind’s attention span. Also, mood makes a difference for learning, so if you’re tired or grouchy for one study session, chances are you’ll be in a better mood during the next one.

3. Use whole and part learning. If you need to learn a large chunk of material, is it better to learn it straight through or should you learn small pieces at a time? Higbee recommends employing both techniques. It generally involves reading the whole section through once or twice to get a basic understanding before breaking it into smaller parts to learn each one in detail.

4. Recite it. Saying the information out loud forces you to pay better attention and helps improve memory recall. Flash cards can replace recitation if you aren’t alone and have to study quietly. Using a partner to test you, though, is ideal since you can have the information presented in various ways, helping your brain synthesize the information to improve learning.

5. Use a study system. A study system is simply a standard method of approaching the study of any material. One of the best known methods is the SQ3R: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review. To survey, read the various structural parts quickly without digging too deep. It’s almost like forming a mental outline, according to Higbee. After completing your survey, ask yourself questions about each of the parts like “What was Lincoln’s intention in giving the Gettysburg Address?” “Why was it given when it was?”

After that, it’s time to read sections in great detail, and then to recite the information from memory by going through headings and sub-headings in the textbook and reciting what you know from memory. A good portion of study time should be spent reciting. If all these steps are followed, the final review shouldn’t take that long, perhaps a few minutes of each study session.