Memory and Attention


Although it is true that having information stored in our heads is not the same as understanding that information, memorization still serves a vital function in our learning. We cannot continue to advance our knowledge in any subject if we don’t remember the basic components on which that knowledge is building.

Here are some tips for enhancing your memorization skills:

Girl taking notes.

Don’t cram for tests!

Information crammed into your head right before a test does not get embedded in your long-term memory in reliable ways. As a result, you will find it harder to build your understanding as the course progresses.

Watch out for illusions of fluency!

An illusion of fluency is the sense that you know a concept that you don’t actually understand. To avoid this illusion, self-test yourself on material at different intervals, with notes and readings put away. 

Space out study sessions.

Because we forget things as time passes, we need to schedule times to reinforce the concepts we’re committing to memory. Put review and self-testing sessions into your schedule at planned and consistent intervals. Planning time for review and self-testing will help you deeply learn the information for future use. And it will prevent you from needing to cram at exam time!

Create mnemonics or memory palaces.

Use mnemonics or memory palaces to help with remembering lists. For example, many math students use the mnemonic "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" (PEMDAS) to remember the order of operations for complex equations – Parentheses, Exponents, Multiply, Divide, Add, Subtract. You can create your own mnemonics or memory palaces to remember all sorts of things. Not sure how to do that? Come to an ARC workshop on memory!

Find time for exercise and sleep.

Exercise and sleep both improve memory, so make sure you’re getting plenty of both!

Sustaining Attention

It can be difficult to manage distractions and to stay focused when you’re studying, particularly if you’re sharing a space with others.

Here are some tips for reducing distractions:

Image of hand taking notes.

Use "do not disturb" signs and website blockers.

If your phone or the internet on your computer distracts you, use "do not disturb” signs and website blockers (e.g., Freedom, Cold Turkey Blocker). Also consider putting your phone in a different room or at least out of sight. Research shows that productivity levels go down the closer we are to our phones (even if they are turned off!).

Use a distraction pad.

Keep a notepad by your study space. If your mind wanders and you think of something important, write it down on your distraction pad. Knowing you can come back to that thought later can help you focus on one task at a time, increasing the likelihood you’ll follow it through to co

Take strategic breaks.

If your brain needs a break, take one. Ideally, schedule these breaks ahead of time at reasonable intervals (going no more than one hour without some kind of break). Scheduling breaks can help you avoid pushing yourself too hard or taking a break just because you're bored. Once you’ve committed to a break time, allow yourself to take the break without guilt and then return to work when your scheduled break ends. Many people use the Pomodoro Technique, taking a 5 minute break for every 25 minutes they study, but feel free to experiment with different intervals to find what works best for you. When deciding what to do with your break, try to stick to activities that won’t derail your intention to return to work. For many students, that means continuing to avoid social media and email, since these activities often end up pulling them away from work for longer than intended. Instead, you might try stretching, walking around the room, getting a fresh glass of water, etc.

Here are some tips for increasing focus:

Empty common room with tables and chairs inside the Smith Campus Center

Listen to music.

Listening to music, particularly classical music or music in a language you do not speak, can increase focus for some. While there isn’t a clear scientific explanation for why some people’s attention seems to improve if music is on, you can experiment and see if it  works for you. It may be that you prefer no noise at all, in which case you might consider investing in a white noise machine or noise-canceling headphones to help you maintain focus. 

Set a goal.

Before you sit through a lecture or do your reading, decide what you want to get out of it. Is there a certain question you want answered? Are you just hoping to enjoy yourself and learn a few things? Having a goal can help you focus because it forces you to actively seek a particular outcome from an experience or activity, rather than just passively absorbing or performing it.

Take notes.

Take notes on the reading or in class. If you’re taking notes, chances are you’re also paying attention to what the professor is saying. Hand-written notes are typically better because you usually can’t write down every word your instructor says and, therefore, must actively process the material. If you’re looking for more tips on note-taking, check out the ARC Note-taking webpage

Participate in class discussions.

If you  participate in class discussions, you’ll be more likely to hear what others are saying and to think deeply about the topic at hand. It’s harder to tune out of a discussion if you’re part of it because you’re actively seeking ways to contribute and push the discussion forward. Try previewing the topic of the class the night before and writing down three possible questions and/or connections to previous material. Even if you don’t end up saying anything, you’ll learn a lot more. (Plus, you can always email your professor after class to share a comment or insight you couldn’t vocalize in class!)

Use a fidget toy.

Using a fidget toy, doodling, and knitting have all been shown to help people focus and can be done while watching a lecture or doing reading. Just be sure not to do them in settings where an instructor might interpret those activities as a sign of boredom or where they might distract others.

Chew gum.

Chewing gum can increase alertness, which may help you to pay attention. Some instructors even recommend you chew gum during tests, since doing so can channel some of your nervous energy and allow you to focus on the work at hand!

Walk around.

Movement is good for your brain because it increases blood flow and oxygen levels, both of which will increase your focus. You can try going for a walk around the block or experiment with more intense exercise before your work sessions. Intentionally making time for movement might be particularly helpful if anxiety is making you antsy when you study. 

Accordion style