Understand how your memory works

To get the most out of your revision, it is helpful to understand exactly how your memory works.

By understanding how your memory works, you can work smarter and better appreciate the revision techniques mentioned elsewhere on this website.

What is a memory?

A memory is learning or information that has lasted over time.

It is information that you have stored and can hopefully recall when needed.

To achieve this humans have a complex memory system.

How do I create a memory?

When creating memories you will have followed these stages:

  1. Encoding
  2. Storage
  3. Retrieval


Encoding is how we get information into our memory system.

We need to consciously register sensory information as a memory, which means paying attention to the information in order to try and remember it.


Storage means the retention of encoded information.

We have two memory stores, short term (working) memory and long term memory.


Retrieval is the process of getting information from memory/storage into short term memory (awareness).

Short and long term memory

Short term memory

To get information into short term (working) memory you need to attend to it, which means paying attention to it.

Most of the information you place into short term memory doesn’t last very long, maybe 30 seconds at best, sometimes much less.

On top of that, we are also limited to how much information we can deal with at any one time, around 7 distinct bits.

To stop information from fading we need to rehearse (repeat) it.

Rehearsing information by just repeating it, and not applying any deeper context or meaning, is called maintenance rehearsal.

Maintenance rehearsal will not usually lead to information moving into long term memory.

Long term memory

Unlike short term memory, long term memory has no size limits.

In long term memory you can store all of your experiences, knowledge and skills.  These can be held for many years.

To move information from short to long term memory requires elaborative rehearsal.

This involves thinking about the meaning of the information you are trying to remember and making connections to other pieces of information or concepts you already know.

Only meaningful connections can make memories last.  Engaging with your subject content in different ways may help create elaborative rehearsal.


To do well in your exams, you are going to need the information from your subjects to be stored in your long term memory.

The process of moving information from short to long term memory is called consolidation.

The more information is rehearsed or used, the more likely it will be retained in long term memory.

Types of memory retrieval

Retrieving information from long term memory isn’t always straight forward.

Sometimes we need help (a cue) to prompt us to remember a memory.

Retrieval cues are like a trail of breadcrumbs leading back to a particular memory.   The more cues you intentionally or unintentionally leave, the better the chance of finding the memory you are looking for.


Recall is when you can retrieve information you have previously learned, without the need for a cue.

Similar to answering open or fill in the blank questions in an exam.


Recognition is when you can identify something you have previously learned, with the help of a cue.

This is similar to answering multiple choice questions in an exam.


Relearning is when you learn information that has been previously learned.

This can help make the information easier to retrieve the next time you need it.


Recollection involves reconstructing memory around partial memories, logical structures or clues.

Why do I forget?

Forgetting information is usually due to one of the following reasons:

Failure to encode

The information was never actually encoded so didn’t make it into your memory system.

Failure to retrieve

The information was encoded and stored but you are struggling to retrieve it.

Deep connections and cues can help with retrieval.

Storage decay

This is the natural process of forgetting something over time.


One memory may be interfering with another.

How can I help my memory?

Get sleep

A lack of sleep can affect your ability to stay focused and learn.

Also, sleeping helps with the consolidation of memories.

Balanced diet and exercise

A balanced diet gives your brain nutrients which can help retain memories.

Exercise increases the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain.

Challenge your brain

Challenging your brain and staying mentally active can literally increase the size of your brain.

Put in the effort

Take the time to try and learn information properly.

Make it personal to you if you can.  Find those deeper connections and meanings that are needed to make it “stick”.


Retrieval is one of the best ways to boost your memory.

Every time to remember something the neural path to that memory gets stronger, making it easier to recall next time.


To create lasting memories in long term memory you need to:

  1. Pay attention to what you are trying to remember
  2. Rehearse (repeat) the information, but find meaning and connections to what you already know if possible
  3. Leave yourself as many mental cues (breadcrumbs) as possible to help you retrieve the information later
  4. Practice retrieving the information, to make the connections stronger
  5. Stay fit and healthy
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