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Memory Stories: A Revision Aid

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A person tries to remember the date 1066.

Revision - the bane of almost everyone who has to take an exam. While many of us have the best intentions, eventually we will find ourselves with 24 hours or less to learn some vitally important information. What do you do? Run about in a panic? Write out notes again and again and again? Try to break a bone or catch an illness so you can avoid the exam? Don’t lose hope. There is an alternative method which can be a quick and easy way to learn facts.

A word of caution before we start: while this method has been known to work, it is not suitable for everyone, nor should you leave your revision until a few days before an exam hoping this method will work for you. Use it either in addition to normal (ie, planned) revision or as a last resort if you run out of time!

The Basics

This method works by constructing a story in your mind that connects all the facts you need to learn. At a very simple level you can use it to learn a string of numbers quickly, such as a phone number or a numerical password. With slightly more effort and practice you can use it to learn whole lists of facts, for instance dates of important historical events or what certain philosophers thought about an idea.

So, how does it work?

An Example

Say you have to remember a phone number quickly. For instance, your new boyfriend or girlfriend has given you their phone number and they want you to know it by heart by the next day. While they are rattling off the number to you, and you are scribbling it down furiously, you can make up a short memory story so that you can recall the number easily. Let us take 74481911. So how can you learn it as a story?

  • Imagine it as a morning routine, so you wake up and look at your clock to see the time is 7:44 (the first three numbers).

  • Getting out of bed, you go downstairs to make breakfast but unfortunately you fall over on the stairs and do two airborne spins creating an 8 shape before landing (the 8 is now learnt).

  • As you land on the floor at the bottom of the stairs one of your legs is sticking straight up in the air (the leg looks like a number 1).

  • Going into the kitchen, you decide to boil some eggs for breakfast. As you pick up the saucepan you are going to use, the handle bends so the saucepan looks like a 9.

  • You put a couple of eggs in the saucepan and set an egg timer for one minute (the final 1).

It’s as simple as that. It can seem like a waste to use the memory story for just learning numbers, but once you've become practised at using it with numbers, make a list of facts and try to learn them using the method . See whether it works for you. If it doesn't work for you, your memory might not work pictorially

Making The Memory Story Stick

So what can you do to make this memory story even better?

  • Make it bright, colourful, action packed and loud. The more actions (especially crazy things you're likely to remember), the more movement etc, the easier it is to remember the story. But don't go over the top; the actions should have some relevance to the fact. For instance when remembering that Henry VIII destroyed the abbeys during the English reformation imagine a construction worker standing by a cartoon style TNT plunger with wires leading to an abbey. When he presses the plunger Henry VIII falls on the abbey crushing it.

  • Restricting the story to one or two locations will help it to flow and make it easy to remember.

  • Try setting the story in a location you know really well. For instance, if you had to remember that a particular historian thought that the Spanish Armada lost due to the skill of the English fleet, then you might imagine him sitting in your bath playing with toy ships - some flying the English flag, others with the Spanish flag aloft - and eventually sinking all the Spanish ships2.

  • One story, one topic! Divide your notes into separate areas and learn each one as an individual story. Try to keep stories as short as possible (but don't cut out information!).

  • If you're making two memory stories in close succession don't set them in the same or very similar locations; if they start to cross over in your mind you might have all sorts of trouble!

  • Write down the story and what each image in it means when you make it. That way if you forget why Descartes is getting hit on the head by a falling tree you can go and check up on what it meant. Also, if an image really doesn't seem to work and you can't remember it, then try changing it or scrap it and make a new image.

  • Go through the story at least two or three times in your mind after you've made it, making sure you can remember it all and what it means. Also (if you have the time) go through it the next morning. If you are using this technique as part of planned revision then try to recap all your memory stories every couple of days to make sure you don't forget parts.

  • Try to connect themes and images in your story with the facts you're trying to learn. For instance if you have to remember what a man called Bossy said then have a stereotypical office boss (or maybe someone like Ricky Gervais from The Office) and have them perform actions about what you need to remember. This makes it easy to remember names and associate them with events.

  • Don't be afraid to use the object/date/person/whatever in the story. If you need to remember that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066, imagine a giant '1066' dropping into the middle of a battle, crushing troops. Don't feel you have you remember every number in a story by using a mini-story, just plonk the number in. You might be surprised how well you can remember it!

Remember, these stories can be used as either a very quick way to learn something in the short term (a few days), or to remember large amounts of information for long periods of time (the story will last as long as you keep reciting it). Many people use methods like this to remember things such as the order of playing cards in a deck3. Whatever else you do give this a few goes, and if it doesn't work then don't use it; it isn't for everyone. But if it does work for you then it should be a major boost for revision, fact learning, and however else you choose to apply it!

1This may or may not be a real phone number!2This is not a necessity. It is just as easy to create a location for the story, which can have its own benefits! Try stories with made up and real locations and see which works best for you!3The current world record holder for remembering the order of decks of cards uses a very similar method, setting his story around London.

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