by Melanie Greene

Memorising strategies

Key point

Remember: when you are learning to memorise things, it is important to minimise mistakes as they are hard to unlearn.

What techniques do you use when you need to memorise a list of facts, codes, symbols and so on?

Boosting your learning abilities

There are various points to bear in mind if you are to enhance your chances of good recall and prevent mistakes occurring in the first place:


Avoid making mistakes when learning something for the first time; using a part-learning technique (see below) can help you to do this.


There is a tendency to remember the last thing you read.


The more you test yourself, the more you learn and the longer it lasts.


The more you concentrate, the more you learn, so make sure that you can find a time and place where you can really concentrate on what you are attempting to memorise.


The more important the material is to you, the more you learn. If you understand or know why it is important, it is easier to memorise.


Your state of mind or how you feel at the same time of learning affects what you learn.


The more you can relate the material to be learned to other things, the more you learn.


There is a range of techniques that people find useful when learning to memorise things. It’s usually best to practise each technique a couple of times to find what works for you.

1. Association

  • Verbal techniques:
  • Group things together: for example, it costs the same to send an airmail letter to Argentina, Canada, Kenya and South Africa.
  • Pair things, such as knife and fork.
  • Link with things you already know: Brighton is in Sussex, Worthing is near Brighton, and is also in Sussex.
  • Make up unlikely associations, such as chalk and cheese.
  • Make up a story that links things together.
  • Visual techniques:
  • Group things together and visualise them.
  • Visualise the location: imagine opening the pantry door and seeing the things on the shelves so you remember what to buy.
  • Write a list and visualise it.

2. Repetition

  • Written: write things out a number of times – for example, to get spellings correct.
  • Verbal: repeat aloud a number of times – for example, to remember poetry.
  • Auditory: listen several times to a tape or record.
  • Visual: read it over and over again.

3. Self-testing

  • Used in combination with repetition, self testing is a particularly helpful technique.

4. Part-learning


Learning all the parts separately before testing yourself (pure part-learning) is not a good method.

This is a matter of not biting off more than you can chew.

  • If there is a lot to be learned, break it down into parts.
  • Learn each part thoroughly before going on to the next part. For older learners, it is helpful to revise the first part while learning the second part (this is known as cumulative part-learning).
  • Test yourself on the first two parts before going on to the next part (progressive learning).

5. Special aids

Anything that interests or amuses you, or that is unusual, is likely to help you to remember.

  • For example, rhyme rules can be used, like the one about the number of days in each month (Thirty days hath September, April, June and November...).
  • First letter mnemonics: for example, to learn the colours of the spectrum – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet – there is ROYGBIV, or Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.
  • Number-rhyme systems:
  • First memorise associations between numbers and rhyming objects, such as one – bun, two – shoe, three – tree
  • Then form unusual associations between the things to be remembered and the rhyming objects, so if the objects to be remembered are piano, daffodil and chocolates, one could imagine a piano piled high with buns, a shoe used as a vase for daffodils and a tree with chocolates as fruit.
  • Where there is confusion between the spellings of words that sound similar but have different meanings, use spelling associations. Taking stationery and stationary as an example, the correct spelling can be helped by associating stationery with envelopes.
  • The Roman/Greek method, used by orators in ancient times, involves having a strong mental picture of a large house or palace, with a number of different rooms, passages and stairways that you can ‘walk through’ in your mind. You then associate each window or doorway with an idea or thing that you want to remember.

What would help you?

It takes practice to get used to a technique, so you might want to use it a few times before you decide whether it works for you. Some might feel a little strange at first, but with practice they will become second nature.

Also see the topic on Memory.