Memory techniques for exams

Demystifying Exams

Lots of information is presented to you by your teachers during the semester and some of it will need to be memorised. However simply re-reading notes, over and over again, may help some information stick, but overall is inefficient. Here, we present some ideas to experiment with to help prepare you for your exams. 

  • Use mnemonics. Any trick that helps you remember something is a mnemonic e.g. Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain for the order of colours in a rainbow. These include creating mental pictures; making stories to remember a sequence of information; or creating words whose letters stand for something. For example, if a social sciences student wanted to remember that an essay structure should follow the point, explain and example format, they could keep the word ‘PEE’ in mind. Make use of mnemonics that are already out there as trying to create your own is not an effective use of time.
  • Draw mind maps. These are a good way of organising and simplifying information, as well as seeing connections between different aspects of a topic. Often, the act of drawing the mind map itself can be a good memory trigger in the exam. Making your mind maps colourful and including images may make the information on them more meaningful and memorable.  
  • Layering. Learn and summarise the easiest facts or ideas about a topic. Then, gradually add more complex information, layerbylayer. Working in this way means you should still remember the foundation layer in an exam even if you get anxious. When you think back to your building of the layers during revision, it should help you remember the more complex information as you write. 
  • Sticky notes. Write short facts, like the dates of battles and the number of troops who died in them, on sticky notes and place them in prominent places in your house, like next to your kettle. Every time you are near them, read them. When you know them, place them in a pile in your study area and place new facts in the prominent places until you memorise them.
  • Make memorable listening experiences. Record yourself reading your material aloud, using exaggerated and dramatic accents, and then play these back. Adding this variety will help you recall information in an exam. Just don’t recall the material in the same way in an exam hall.
  • Create tables or grids. These can help to bring arguments, the assumptions underpinning them, your analysis of these arguments, and examples and statistical evidence to support/oppose them together in an easy-to-remember, condensed format. This can be particularly useful when you need to do a comparative analysis.
  • Teach it to others. This helps to simplify a topic, cements your understanding of it and therefore develops your memory of it. Encourage others to ask questions about it.
  • Practice, practice, practice. There is no substitute for putting the time and effort into reviewing and revising your course material and/or memory aids. Write your notes/memory aids out from memory at regular intervals and check them against the originals to identify gaps in your knowledge and areas you need to work on. Practicing exam questions also helps in this respect. 


The IAD’s Exam Bootcamp has further information on preparing for exams.



Cottrell, S. (2019) The Study Skills Handbook: Fifth Edition. London: Red Globe Press. ISBN: 9781137610898 (e-book). 

McMillan, K. and Weyers, J. (2012) The Study Skills Book: Third Edition. Munich: Prentice Hall. ISBN: 9780273773313 (e-book). 

University of Birmingham (2015) ‘A short guide to memory techniques for revision.’ Available at: [Accessed on 25th June, 2020]