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There are quite a few questions about how to quickly or effectively memorize information. I'm asking this again, because I'm not looking for an answer about how I might ideally do this, but want to know what is the best strategy under the given circumstances.

  • I have two exams. I have exactly four consecutive half days (five hours each) to prepare for the first exam, and two complete days for the second.

  • I don't have the time to learn a special memorizing technique or input the learning matter into some nifty software.

  • I cannot optimize my work-break schedule, and I won't be relaxed and well rested.

Both exams consist in

  • memorizing a couple of hundred power point slides with diagrams and lists of terms.
  • I must recall the lists and diagrams word by word. It does not help me to understand the gist of the matter.

Given these circumstances, what is the best way to memorize as much as I can in a way that allows me to reliably recall it.

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What is the exam format? Verbal, written, fill in the blanks. –  JeffO Sep 12 '13 at 20:07
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Written. There are questions like: "What are the three components of job satisfaction?" I then have to write down those three (affective, attitudinal, behavioral components). Or: "Draw a sample diagram for a matrix organisation." These are questions from a previous exam. I don't know the questions for mine. –  what Sep 12 '13 at 20:45
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7 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Unfortunately, a lot of the answer depends on how you best learn.

If it were me, I would write down and summarize the salient points on each slide, over and over, trying to do it more and more by memory. But for someone else, it might work better to speak the information out loud, somehow move your body in a certain way as you study each set of data, be quizzed by a friend, or a combination of that or other methods. Hear it, see it, say it, write it, do it -- all of those are ways that some people learn, and what works best for you may not work at all for someone else. I don't think there is a best way that works for everyone.

You also say you won't be rested, but it is important to get adequate sleep, especially in the night before the exam. The sleep that allows you to recall what you have learned will more than offset anything you will learn while cramming when you would normally be sleeping.

Stress also will adversely affect how you learn. You'll pass or you won't pass, but worrying about it will take away from your study time and make your studying less effective. Learning to not worry can be difficult: it's easy to say to quit worrying, but few people are capable of letting it go. But if you can, that will also help your learning efficiency.

Finally, cut out as many of the electronic interruptions as you can. If you can ignore the phone, FB, and this site, you'll have better uninterrupted study time. It helps to be able to concentrate on learning, without interruptions.

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Actually, writing down what I have to learn helps me, too. The last exam, I did exactly what you would do. But I had one week more plus all the afternoons, and still only managed a mid range result. At the moment I'm afraid of not passing at all. Problem is, it's so much. –  what Sep 12 '13 at 21:00
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To quickly memorize long lists with terms, there's an effective method which has been used with remarkable results:

Take the first letter of each term and arrange them so that they form a pronouncable pseudo word, for instance "ABA" for your own example above. Then memorize these pseudo words.

When at the exam, begin by recalling the pseudo words. You now have the first letter of each term. It is now much, much easier to recall the sought terms given this information.

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Identify Your Learning Style

Everyone has a favorite way of recollecting information. These are identified as "Learning Styles", and some of them relate to or are described as methods of "Neuro-Linguistic Programming" (NLP). And even though NLP is the subject of activate debate with regards to its scientific validity, some of the tools and techniques it references are popular amongst learners and teachers.

For instance, Representational Systems are often mentioned:

  • Some people are visual (you have a mental image of the information in the way you first saw it, or in a form that makes sense to you),
  • some are auditive (you have an auditory image of the information you heard, or hear a voice read out loud an information you may have read),
  • etc...

In my case, I'm a visual learner. I've noticed early on in middle-school that it worked best for me, so the most efficient way to learn and remember something was for me to write it down and then to visualize my hand-writing and to use visual guides. Just like your eyes will notice things out of the ordinary or large objects, it's easier to try to remember big titles in an outline first and to then try to focus on the next items.

Note: Some theories surmise that there are "eye accessing cues" which can help to identify a person's favored representational approach: we look a specific way when we resort to one of the representational system.

Eye-Accessing Cues to Representational Systems

I've also noticed that there's a "hierarchy" in my learning. I'll resort to visual thoughts first to gather the grand lines, and then if I struggle I can summon the details with the help of auditory thoughts. It may vary from an individual to another.

Of course it depends greatly on the subject matter as well: obviously, trying to learn something visually when it's an auditory skill won't be so great - e.g. pronunciation in a foreign language.

Memory is a strange thing: it's often easier and more effective to jump through various hoops to reach the right information than to obsessively attempt to fetch the right data directly. Your brain isn't like a bank, you don't just go to the ATM and ask to get your account status. You

Optimize Your Learning

Maximize Your Retention

While this information has now been often debated and considered overly wrong, there is some level of truth to it, especially when combined with the representational systems I mentioned above. There are methods of learning that are more efficient than others, and the general wisdom (or here, misconception) for a while was that you remember:

  • 10% of what you read,
  • 20% of what you see,
  • 30% of what you hear,
  • 50% of what you hear AND see,
  • 70% of what you take part in,
  • 90% of what you do yourself.

However, though this has been generally debunked and contradicts my personal experience (as I'm a visual learner), it's generally agreed upon that combining several of these techniques will indeed maximize your retention.

So, take the time to:

  • rewrite your slides,
  • summarize them as notes,
  • read the notes out loud,
  • re-draw diagrams and figures,
  • etc...

Anything that maps to a representation that your mind will be able to recall is good.

Hack Your Retention

Of course, you won't recall everything you've ever done, seen, or read just once. Or at least not the details. You won't read "War and Peace" and be able to recite it in 10 years, yet alone the next day.

Some things will stick to your short-term memory be easy to recall, others will be saved to a long-term memory and be harder to recall (schematizing here, as the short-term/long-term hypotheses have also been the source of fierce debates lately).

So, you want to make sure that you commit things to memory effectively. Sometimes that means you want something to be learned and remembered for a life-time, and other times you want to cram and get these facts and figures into your head just to pass an exam. (Which is also a reason why fixed examinations mostly suck... but I digress...)

Spaced Repetition

An apparently effective technique that's become very popular lately is that of Spaced Repetition:

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect. - From Wikipedia's article on Spaced Repetition

The principle of repetition itself has been known for a long time, and is the basis for many basic learning methods in school systems (writing lines, repeating poems 7+ times to remember them, etc...), but it's only later that attention was given to the intervals to be observed between the repetition to maximize their effectiveness.

Nowadays, spaced-repetition is used by many learning software solution, from language teaching software to flash-cards system (e.g. Anki and AnkiDroid). They rely on the spacing effect and empirical studies on the forgetting curve to fine-graine your repition based on your feedback: depending on how well your remember an element of data, the next repetition will be timed sooner or later.

The Forgetting Curve

Reuse Other People's Efforts

As for many things, sometimes the best effort you can make is to piggy-back on someone else's effort. As you mentioned, you don't really have that much time to spend to fill-in information to learning software, or maybe to re-write your slides N times. So you may want to look for people who passed the same examinations and who are your best assets as they:

  • know what are the questions likely to be asked,
  • know what their own mistakes were in learning and in passing previous exams.

It's Not One-Size-Fits-All / Additional Reading

As mentioned above, some learning techniques apply best to some people and some problems only. Make sure to identify what's best for your case.

For more details, I recommend these articles:


Notes On Your Particular Case

As you point out that comprehension is not a priority in your situation and that it's more the amount and the fidelity of the information retention that matters, my recommendations would be to:

  • use a flashcard software to memorize bullet points (or simply your slide reader, but a flashcard software with spaced repetition support would probably help you more),
  • re-write slides down one by one at least once,
  • read the slides out loud,
  • if possible, record yourself reading the slides out loud and listen to them while doing something else (watching TV, eating breakfast, running, etc...),
  • summarize the slides (even if you feel this won't help to remember the exact wording of a slide, it's a shortcut for your memory),
  • run through practice and test sessions with partners,
  • SLEEP and do some SPORTS (it's very important for your brain's relief and oxygenation),
  • do take some time off for menial tasks or idle chit-chat and relaxation with friends.

Quizzing yourself and having someone else quizz you will help a great deal. Also, considering this is likely to be an automated or computer-assisted test, maybe you could find a way to have a program automatically quiz you.

Being rested and giving your brain enough time to wind-down will also be important to optimize your learning. Sometimes it's better to learn something well than to cram too many confused thoughts into the box.

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As you commit the facts to memory, review them at increasingly longer intervals. "Increasingly longer" might mean "a couple of hours from now" and then "tomorrow."

The purpose is to reinforce the connections so that the memory decay isn't as fast. Running through the cards three or four times this way will be more time-effective than running through a set of cards ten times one right after the other.

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For study purposes, you have to be able to look at the amount of prompts you will be provided in a typical question and separate that from the answer. I find using index cards works best. You also have the added benefit of the act of writing it down which help with the memorization.

Example:
Side A - three components of job satisfaction Side B - component 1, component 2, component 3

You probably don't have time to refine the prompt to something like "job satisfaction" where you also need to remember there are three of them.

Another benefit of index cards, is you can reverse the prompting. This is very helpful if you feel some quesions are in the form of: What do these 3 components make up?

Also, have someone read the questions to you. This will help just in case you're relying too much on the written prompt. Every modality helps. And obviously, change the order in which you study the cards.

EDIT: You may be able to increase the amount of study time by having the information in something as mobile as index cards. Just being able to review a couple while waiting in line can add up.

If you prefer and electronic solution (they have a free mobile app as well), Evernote has an add-on for study and note taking called StudyBlue.

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By now I have learned about one third of my pensum, and my exam is tomorrow afternoon. I'll learn some more tomorrow morning, and then I'll see how it goes.

Thank you all for your great help! I have taken something valuable from all your answers. I award the bounty to Gruber's idea to create pseudowords (acronyms) from the first letters of the lists of terms I have to learn. I have consciously done this for the first time now, and it has been most effective.

I'm actually making up a pantheon of an imaginary Egypt as I go along: IGEPTAS is the country Egypt in the "egyptian language", the letters signifying the objective factors of an organizational culture, ASHKI is the goddess of reducing complexity in work environments, etc.

I was torn about choosing haylem's or thursdaysgeek's ideas as the accepted answer, because they both describe aspects of what is at the core of my personal learning style: I'm a visual as well as a "motoric and tactile" person. I learn best from my own learning cards on which I organize the learning matter in a visually memorable way. And I memorize it best if I write it down again and again. The visual learning style is well-known, but what I call the motoric memorization might be new to some of you:

I find that after the first clearly written version that will be the "original" that I learn from, I don't have to write clearly anymore. I often don't even look at where I write, but just feel how my arm and hand form the letters. The more I memorize the words, the more I stop writing them in full but abbreviate them to their first letters, e.g.

s.
d.
a.-o.
p.

for "supportive, directive, achievment-oriented, and participative leadership styles". This is unrelated to Gruber's acronyms, because what I memorize is the movement of my hand, and the first letter here is like a short cue to the writing of the full word. I think that when we store a concept in long term memory, we store the sound, the visual representation of the written word, and the motor memory of writing it along with all the other aspects of it (like meaning, related concepts, etc.).

I choose thursdaysgeek's answer, because the repeated writing is closer to the motoric aspect of my learning style, and because I have just recently accepted haylem's answer to another of my questions. Still, it is the most comprehensive of all the answers, and I appreciate it greatly.

Kirk Hammett's idea of recording my learning matter and listening to it might be helpful, but I find it hard to implement. I would have to buy some small mobile recording device (since I don't want to use a computer, because I would end up surfing the internet), and I would not be able to work at the place where I work best, the public library. It is probably an efficient technique, but not very practical to me.

But I write this answer not only to thank you and comment on your answers, but because I want to add something of my own. Maybe it will be useful for others in a similar situation.

When I was learning I found it demotivating to know that I would be unable to learn everything. I felt like giving up.

And leaving all distraction at home and planning to keep learning for all the few hours that I had made me tired and my mind "close up" after an hour or so.

Since yesterday I have begun to visualize my task in a different way and have applied a variation of the so-called "pomodoro technique" (that I read about a few months ago somewhere on this site).

Instead of thinking of the volume that I have to learn, I now think of the time span that I want to work. This instantly made me relax. Usually, when I do a job, I dislike the attitude of "marking time" (and filling it with drinking coffee), and my goal is to make my customers happy. But under these circumstances, where it is impossible for me to achieve this goal, I find it helpful and more effective to imagine myself as some bricklayer getting paid for his time and dropping the brick as soon as the bell rings. Since the outcome of my work no longer interests me, I am no longer afraid of failure and the depressive tiredness and the mind block are gone.

And instead of trying to work all the time and do "as much as possible" in a panicked state of mind, I stop learning as soon as I feel that I'm no longer focussed and can no longer keep anything in my mind. I don't have a kitchen timer and don't take a break every 25 minutes for 5 minutes, as in the pomodoro technique, instead I pay attention to how I feel and then take a break for as long as I need to replenish. Usually this means learning for 10 to 45 minutes, and taking a break for 10 to 20 minutes. Since I'm in a library, I use my breaks to get up, walk around (movement, blood circulation) and browse the books on the shelves, not reading anything much, but leafing through them or just looking around.

Just today I have learned as much as during the three preceding days! I hope to make another significant dent in that heap of %&$§ tomorrow!

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+1: "and because I have just recently accepted haylem's answer to another of my questions. " That part is strange, but I support the rest ;) I did mention repeated writing but I guess as it was in the spaced repetition section of my answer it didn't stick out. And I really like that you take the time to give details on how you award points, come back to give insight on your original questions and provide your own alternatives, as I've seen you do in other threads. If only everybody did, SE would be that much more awesome. –  haylem Sep 19 '13 at 22:13
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What I feel you should do is audio create the text context and describe in your own words or ways how the diagram looks.

Listen to it over and over again. Probably you will remember all of it and much more in a relaxed way.

To make it even more fun, dramatize your recording :)

This has worked for me over the years.

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