Memory Manipulation Strategies
The goal of memory manipulations is to improve memory ability. Memory manipulations attempt to indirectly optimize attention by addressing the basic components of memory tasks (see Background Information on Memory for a discussion of Memory Tasks).
There are four types of memory manipulations, each targeting a different component of memory tasks: memory condition manipulations, social context manipulations, external aids manipulations, and mental manipulations. The descriptions below are from Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman (1993).
Each type of manipulation has several general and specific manipulations, the latter of which are more effective in improving memory performance. The learner's choice of general and specific manipulations depends on the type of memory task, personal preference and interest, and intentionality of the memory task. The many memory manipulation strategies described in this page are taken from Herrman, Raybeck and Gutman (1993).
It is important to note that one learner usually needs a variety of different manipulations or strategies in order to address different memory tasks. In other words, no one manipulation will suffice for all learning situations. Students should attempt to master a variety of strategies, to develop a "repertoire" of memory strategies.
Memory manipulations are implemented in four steps: select the appropriate manipulation, modify it to the specific task at hand, apply the manipulation, and assess the effects of using the manipulation (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993).
Memory condition depends on the physical and mental state of the learner (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 33-63). Though it is rarely considered as such, the mental and physical condition of a student is the "single most important factor" in the performance of unintentional memory tasks and one of the major factors in the performance of intentional memory tasks.
Depending on past history, manipulations for improving memory condition may affect the student minimally, or they may require major lifestyle changes. Memory condition manipulations are a good first-step to improving memory, but they may not completely solve memory failure problems.
Poor physical and mental health affect the memory process in a number of ways. First, it inhibits the body's sensory organs from detecting information. Second, poor health reduces the ability of the brain's central processor to attend to information in working memory. In turn, that information is unlikely to be stored clearly in long-term memory or to be effectively used as a trigger for recalling information from long-term memory. Finally, poor health inhibits the physiology of long-term memory such that information absorption and emergence are negatively impacted.
More information on physical condition is given under Basic Health Needs in the Attention and Listening page.
Fitness and Exercise
Exercise is important for stimulating the senses, releasing stress, improving sleep, enhancing digestion, and maintaining strength, all of which positively impact memory ability. Some evidence suggests that exercise is particularly effective for short-term memory. In terms of time and energy commitments, a daily 20-minute walk may be all it takes to improve memory performance.
Most people experience peaks and valleys in energy levels on a daily and weekly basis. One common daily peak is between 11:00 am and 4:00 pm. In terms of weekly peaks, Friday's and Saturday's tend to be peak days for memory performance.
To determine one's own energy cycle pattern, pay attention to levels of alertness throughout the day and week. "Morning people" may have peaks earlier in the day, while "evening people" often have peaks later in the day. One's schedule of eating and exercising may also affect energy cycles.
Interruptions in one's schedule may greatly affect memory performance. Once energy cycles have been evaluated, students should plan to complete their most important memory tasks during peak times.
Sleep and Sleep Learning
Adequate and scheduled rest is vital to good memory performance. Good sleep habits include going to bed at the same time every night, arranging for a minimal number of hours of sleep each night, avoiding the use of sleeping aids, avoiding eating or drinking before going to bed, and avoiding stressful situations prior to going to bed.
Sleep learning is a myth. There is no evidence to support the contention that listening to tapes while sleeping leads to learning. Once one is completely asleep, no learning occurs. However, there is evidence that going to sleep immediately after studying, rather than engaging in other activities, does improve remembering.
Poor eyesight or hearing affect memory by inhibiting sensory registration of information. Students who suspect such difficulties should immediately seek the assistance of a physician and should avoid making sensory-deficit excuses for poor memory abilities.
Diet and Nutrition
A regular and balanced diet aids in memory performance. Good dietary habits include avoiding large amounts of food prior to memory tasks, eating balanced meals, eating meals on a schedule, and avoiding excessive amounts of junk food.
Some nutrition experts argue that vitamins enhance memory performance, although there are few clinical studies to support the contention. The vitamins include choline, B-complex, iodine, manganese, folic acid, and L-tyrosine. If these vitamins are not supplied by foods, they may be obtained through vitamin supplements.
Foods hailed as memory enhancing include beef, pork, kidneys, liver, fish, shellfish, milk, eggs, cheese, vegetables, kelp, and onions. Foods high in sugar, like lemonade, are said to aid in recall. Again, there is little evidence to support these claims.
Taking preventive steps to avoid illness is perhaps the best way to prevent memory deficits due to sickness. Preventive steps include sound exercise, dietary, and sleep habits. However, most people get sick from time to time. During short-term illnesses, try to arrange your study schedule so that memory tasks are performed when you feel the best. Perhaps assignments can be rescheduled until you feel better. For long-term illnesses, make sure that medications do not have side effects that impair memory performance.
Memory illnesses include Alzheimer's disease, Korsakoff's syndrome, strokes, and low blood pressure. Excluding the latter, these illnesses rarely affect younger students. A physician should be consulted if one suspects that any of these illnesses is affecting memory performance.
Alcohol and other drugs can severely impair memory performance. Alcohol is particularly problematic because it is relatively easy to obtain, it impairs brain chemistry, it provides an excuse for forgetting one's actions, and it may permanently damage the memory system. Marijuana also has been shown to impair memory. Stimulants and hallucinogens may also affect memory performance.
The effects of stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine, on memory performance vary according to the individual's health, rested ness, and tasks. Surprisingly, few studies have been conducted to examine the relationship between nonprescription stimulants and memory.
Well-rested students should avoid stimulants, as they cause jitteriness and inability to concentrate. Poorly-rested students working under a deadline may benefit from mild stimulants taken responsibly, but the desired effects may be short-lived. Taking such substances should never become a habit; instead, change your lifestyle. Nicotine has been shown to impair memory. Strong stimulants like amphetamines are highly addictive and should be avoided at all costs.
The student's state of mind can affect the structure of the brain, reducing the efficiency of the absorption and emergence abilities of long-term memory. In addition, mental states profoundly affect the student's ability to concentrate. See the Attention page for more information and strategies.
Diminished concentration may result from an extreme lifestyle, whether it be confused and hectic or structured and predictable, or from extreme environmental conditions, such as noise, comfort, and temperature. To help maximize concentration, then, one should attempt to achieve "middle of the road" lifestyles and study conditions.
Tips for improving concentration are covered in the Attention and Listening page.
Again, too little and too much stress can be detrimental to memory. Too much makes a person vulnerable to illness, and too little makes a person lax. The goal, then, is to control stress, not eliminate it.
See the Test Anxiety page for more information about controlling stress.
An extremely positive mood may inhibit remembering because it makes it difficult to focus on the memory task at hand. Depending on its intensity, a negative mood hinders memory in a number of ways, by decreasing attentiveness, altering brain chemistry, or over-energizing the person.
Relaxation enhances memory by reducing stress and distractibility. Different people have different ways of relaxing, like exercising, talking, and listening to music. The form of relaxation most commonly associated with improving memory performance is yoga. Sets of body positions targeting the spine or placing the head lower than the body are claimed to enhance memory, as are muscle relaxation techniques. Other relaxation systems are Transcendental Meditation, positive imaging, sensory deprivation, Alpha wave control, neurolinguistic programming, and Biofeedback. Relaxation techniques should be chosen carefully in consultation with experienced people since some techniques have been known to cause negative effects.
More information about relaxation techniques is located in the Test Anxiety page of the General-Purpose Learning Strategies main stack.
Attention training techniques differ from other attending strategies because they allegedly produce permanent increases in memory capacity. Research with normal adults, however, indicates that the techniques are more effective for specific tasks rather than attention in general. Among brain-damaged patients, results are more encouraging but, again, it is likely that confidence and task-specific skills are affected rather than general attention capacity.
One attention training method involves practicing listening for faint sounds or looking for dim lights. This method targets one's ability to sustain attention. Another technique entails practicing doing two things at once in order to increase one's ability to divide attention. A third method involves picking out details in visual images or sounds in music in order to hone one's ability to detect details. Another technique involves practicing concentrating in distractive environments in order to increase one's ability to resist distractions. An alternative to the attention training methods is simple practice; select a situation in which you want attention to improve and then place yourself in that situation repeatedly and practice paying attention.
Attitudes about the content or type of memory task can either impair or enhance remembering because attitudes affect motivation and attention. Since attitudes are often deeply rooted in the individual, it may be difficult to change them. But attitudes aren't static either, and there are ways to change them. There are three components of attitudes that may be altered: belief, strength, and sign (positive or negative). Refer to the Attention and Listening page and the Motivation page for more information.
Attitudes about memory task content that lead to memory failures are lack of interest, moderately negative information, and personally upsetting information. Increasing interest in subject matter is covered elsewhere in the Attention and Listening page and the Motivation page. Moderately negative information is likely to be forgotten or suppressed, so try to view such information in a more positive light or force yourself to actively think about such information. Personally negative information may be repressed and only triggered by associated memories. Professionals are best suited to deal with such situations. Personally negative information may also be distorted; one must be open to intervention from others.
Attitudes about types of memory tasks are influenced by one's level of awareness about his/her memory skills. Unfortunately, most people have inaccurate perceptions of their skills in different memory tasks. First, one must assess his/her memory skills (see Memory Evaluation in the Background Information section of this page). Secondly, one must realize that negative task attitudes have negative repercussions for memory but that positive task attitudes usually enhance remembering. An effort should be made to replace negative attitudes with positive ones. Again, refer to the Attention and Listening page and the Motivation page for more information.
Social context is the social milieu of the learner. It involves information flow in social contexts and how memory performance is affected and perceived in social situations.
Memory failures that cause an individual to forget names, appointments, exams, and other vital pieces of information can seriously strain interpersonal relationships. It is more likely that an individual will experience a memory failure in a social context than when he/she is alone.
In social settings, memory failures may occur because of three things: lack of communication of memory task intentions, distractions, or lack of communication of memory task results. These are discussed in more detail below.
Recognizing Expected Memory Tasks and Intentions
One reason memory fails in social situations is a lack of communication of memory task intentions (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 65-77). Sometimes people have trouble recognizing expected memory tasks and intentions.
Interpersonal conflicts may develop if people have different expectations about what constitutes good memory performance. Others' perceptions of an individual's memory are often based on his/her past memory performance, memory stereotypes, and feedback. An individual with a good memory reputation may be admired for that trait, but also may be burdened with extra duties owing to that trait. An individual with a poor memory reputation may not be admired, but he/she probably won't be saddled with extra responsibilities.
Stereotypes about memory ability expectations are often based on age, occupation, gender, and marital roles. Memory stereotypes affect how we judge others, how we are judged by others, the expectations we have of others, and the expectation others have about us. Because it is usually difficult to change the stereotypes held by others, it is better for an individual to focus on changing his/her own memory performance in order to alter the judgements of others. If others view your memory performance as unrealistically high, you are doing ok so just try to relax. If others view your memory performance as unrealistically low, take extra steps to prepare for a task and make use of the strategies in this page.
Feedback provided by others about your memory performance should be viewed cautiously. Depending on their ulterior motives, they may falsely embellish or criticize. There are six common "memory contrivances." Memory insults involve intentionally calling attention to memory failures. Memory praise involves excessive praise for relatively small memory successes. Memory alibis occur when others make excuses for your memory failure. Memory responsibility charges involve claiming that a memory task was your responsibility and not another's. Memory non-cooperation is when others refuse to help in a memory task. Memory fraud is when your memory is called in error even though both parties know it is correct.
We may be tempted at times to use friends and acquaintances as "memory aids" to answer questions for us, to remind us of things, or to store information in memory for some time. This behavior should be avoided because the "aid" may not be able to perform the memory task any better than you, he/she may provide inaccurate information intentionally or incidentally, or he/she may expect to be paid back at a later time.
Social distractions are a second reason for social memory failures because they usually have negative impacts on memory performance (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 65-77). Distractions can result from social pressure to perform in a certain manner or from the influence of groups with which one is affiliated.
Social pressures can derive from critical judgments made by others about one's memory abilities. Or, social pressures can develop when an individual holds a view about a memory task that differs from the viewpoint of the rest of the group. Either situation leads to lack of confidence in one's memory performance. Countering such pressure is difficult, but one should try to defend his/her view without becoming overly defensive. Avoid revising recollections just to avoid social pressures. Seek out corroborating evidence to support disparate memories.
Affiliation with certain groups may bias the accuracy and content of one's recollections. Research shows that we are more likely to remember information that is in line with our political, religious and social beliefs. To avoid biased memories, obtain information from a variety of sources and pay special attention to viewpoints contrary to your own.
Communicating Memory Results
The third reason memory fails in social situations is lack of communication of memory task results (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 65-77). Convincing others that your memories are accurate can be more effective if you carefully choose the language with which recollections are expressed. Be mindful of the expression, content, and language of memory communications.
Credibility is often damaged by over expressing or under expressing a memory. Nonverbal signals aid in presenting an air of confidence when expressing recollections.
Memories whose content is internally consistent and logical are more likely to be believed than those with obvious inconsistencies and contradictions. Corroborating evidence may help in this respect.
Certain words affect memory credibility because they signal different memory states. Words like "think" or "believe" present an air of uncertainty which may lead others to reject your memories. On the other hand, words such as "guarantee" or "swear" may lead others to suspect that you are covering up for memory failures.
The manner by which memories are judged by you or others depends in part on interpersonal relationships. Inaccurate judgments and/or undiplomatic expression of them can color future interactions between people. "What goes around comes around."
To avoid being on the receiving end of unwarranted criticism about memory performance, use the following rules of etiquette to guide your judgment of others' memories (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993).
External aids manipulations deal with the physical environment of the learner (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 121-147). Physical stimuli, rather than mental processes, are used to enhance memory performance. External aids are often more efficient than mental manipulations because physical stimuli register more vivid memory traces and because physical stimuli are powerful and trigger faster memory reactions.
External aids are widely used to aid memory. Some commercial memory products make use of physical stimuli manipulations, and people commonly use informal external aids unknowingly. In fact, research indicates that unconscious use of external aids is much more common than such use of mental manipulations.
Some critics argue that heavy reliance on external aids may decrease one's overall memory abilities. However, evidence suggests that such consequences are task-specific. In other words, use of external aids for one task may indeed decrease mental memory abilities for that task, but other memory tasks will not be affected. For example, using "speed-dial" on the telephone may diminish one's abilities to remember phone numbers, but it will not affect one's ability to remember other forms of information.
If certain memory abilities are highly valued by a student, he/she may be well advised to avoid external aids targeting those tasks. On the other hand, using memory aids for memory abilities deemed inconsequential by the student may relieve some mental burden of performing those tasks. Therefore, the student should decide which memory tasks he/she wishes to address using external aids.
Three guidelines may be used in choosing and using external aids manipulations. The first, and probably most important, consideration is the purpose of the aid. Some manipulations affect registration of information into memory, some influence retrieval, and others affect retention. External aids are task-specific. External aids are also context-specific, being most effective for certain situations. The second factor to consider is the effectiveness of the external aid. In order to be effective, physical stimuli should be meaningfully related to the desired memory task. For example, despite being a symbol for memory, a string tied around one's finger is so general, and unrelated to a specific task, that it is not an effective external aid. Thirdly, personal experience and preferences should be considered when choosing an external aid. Factors to be taken into account include the time input required for learning or using the aid and the type of physical stimulus employed.
External aids strategies may be grouped according to the targeted memory task. Although there are many memory tasks for which external aids have not yet been developed, there are strategies available for the following categories: studying, physical memory, obligations and responsibilities, and personal memory. Each is described in subsequent sections of this page, and specific manipulations are discussed under each category. Two other categories of mental manipulations are discussed elsewhere in the database; attention manipulations are covered in the Attention and Listening page and rehearsal strategies are outlined in a later section of this page.
While they are usually associated with school, studying actions are also performed at work and home. Therefore, the following strategies are potentially widely applicable to a variety of memory tasks. According to Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, "[e]xternal aids help studying in two ways: by facilitating learning and by providing external sources should one fail to remember something learned previously" (1993, p. 126). The following strategy descriptions are from Herrman, Raybeck and Gutman (1993).
Taking notes during class or in a meeting focuses one's attention on the new information, enhancing registration of important material. Study guides also aid registration of information for exams. Notes and study guides help to manipulate and organize the right information, but they must be supplemented by mental manipulations for effective memory performance. Notes may also act as memory triggers for visual learners.
Teaching Machines and Software
Computer software packages that facilitate and/or accelerate learning for a variety of topics can be purchased at most computer stores.
Prepackaged paintings, drawings, maps and sketches that aid in memory performance are available. Although it is an uncommon strategy, memory art can enhance the efficiency of the Loci mental manipulation discussed elsewhere in this page.
Superstitious Memory Aids
Superstitious memory aids include objects, like articles of clothing, believed to bring good luck in memory tasks. The belief is usually based on past memory successes. Although they don't affect memory directly, superstitious memory aids may provide the confidence needed for good memory performance.
Because few people can remember every detail about a subject, it is often helpful to consult knowledge sources to document information that is likely to be forgotten. Knowledge sources can be developed by the individual (e.g. notes), or they can be purchased in the form of books or manuals, dictionaries, encyclopedias, or spelling devices.
Physical memory refers to remembering certain actions like riding a bike, fixing a flat tire, or playing rugby. "Successful remembering of an action entails remembering the parts of the action and the precise sequence in which the parts are put together" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 125). For actions that are performed regularly, simple practice often improves memory. Infrequently performed actions, on the other hand, are not amenable to practice; external aids are most effective in this case. The following strategy descriptions are from Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman (1993).
This manipulation involves breaking an action into discrete steps and documenting each step, usually in writing. Written documentation may take the form of notes, flow charts, or check lists. Oral documentation may be accomplished using tape recorders. Illustrations or diagrams of each step enhance the documentation. The growing popularity of video recorders makes visual documentation feasible as well.
Instruction manuals provide prerecorded documentation of the steps needed to accomplish a physical action.
To remember athletic actions, make sketches of the movements using field markers (e.g. out-of-bounds lines, nets, etc.) as reference points. The field markers act as external stimuli to trigger memory when comforted by the actual action.
Obligations to attend events and meet deadlines arise in school, at work, and at home. Success at school or on the job may hinge on remembering and completing various responsibilities. The following strategies may enhance remembering the stream of memory tasks the student or employee encounters on a daily basis (Herrman, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993).
Most obligations require one to remember details and to complete tasks by a certain date. One must be in constant touch with his/her obligations every day and into the future in order to effectively plan to complete the tasks in a timely manner.
"One valuable way to deal with memory burdens imposed by obligations is to use a record system that will manage those details for you. For many people, the primary record system is an appointment book or some form of notes, such as a to do list" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 128-129). Calendars are also effective external aids for remembering obligations and their deadlines. Make a note when the thought of an upcoming obligation hits you at an odd moment. Then use the note as a reminder or recopy it onto your appointment book, calendar, or to-do list. Keep memo pads handy at home, school and work; accessibility is critical to success. Make record-keeping of obligations an everyday habit.
Recollections of upcoming obligations and responsibilities often arise late at night as we prepare to go to sleep. In fact, such recollections may prevent us from falling asleep as we worry about forgetting or completing the task. Keep a note pad, pen, and light source next to your bed for recording obligations and intentions. Pens with a light-up tips are also available. The external aid will enhance remembering and, as an added bonus, reduce stress so you can sleep more soundly.
For obligations and responsibilities that occur on a set pattern, time management aids may help to establish and maintain a personal schedule. Being on a routine provides the repetition needed to remember things. See the Time Management page for specific strategies.
Electronic Memo Pad
Portable electronic memo pads include desk-top computers and smaller, pocket-sized computers. Both are equipped to store data, perform calculations, and give reminders of obligations. Larger models also have phone terminals.
Although it is not common, forgetting appointments does happen. And when it happens, it can have a profoundly negative impact on the way we are viewed by others. Because of this, a variety of external aids have been developed to avoid forgetting appointments.
These devices are capable of memorizing coded messages, sounding an alarm at the correct time, and displaying messages. Some memory watches are equipped with hardware for communicating with microcomputers.
Timers and Timing Devices
Timing devices are programmed to store information about obligations and to signal the user at the appropriate times with lights or sounds.
Timers are less sophisticated than timing devices because they do not store messages and they operate on a limited time frame. Timers can be mechanical, like the wind-up timers used for cooking, or they may be electronic, like pocket-sized digital timers. Alarm clocks may also be used as reminders of short-term tasks.
Create a file box for storing "memory" index cards. Use an open-ended file box or cut the front out of a file box. On the cards, record the date and what is to be done on that day. Arrange the cards in chronological order and put them in the file box with the first day showing. Remove the cards each day as a reminder of obligations.
Portable Memory Spots
Designate a part of your clothing (shirt pocket, wallet fold, purse section) as a portable memory spot. Store all portable items you do not wish to forget, like a calculator, plane tickets, checks, in that spot and check it often.
Designate a spot in your room, office, or house for storing things that must be taken when you leave. The "take-away spot" should be conveniently located near an exit. Get into the habit of checking it whenever leaving. If the object is too large to be placed in the take-away spot, put a note there as a reminder.
If certain supplies, such as tape, note pads, highlighters, and paper, are commonly used in daily activities, make up a portable supply kit and keep the package in your take-away spot.
Several types of phone number storage devices are available commercially. Most store frequently used numbers and associated information. Automatic dialing services help to relieve the burden of remembering phone numbers. To remember the content of phone conversations, take notes or record the call. If you choose the latter, it is advised that the other party be informed. Annotate conversation documentation with the date and time of the call.
Create a "memory friendly" work area by organizing your work space. A variety of desk-top and drawer organizers are available commercially; these include pen and pencil holders, folder holders, and file boxes. When things are stored in regular places, it is easier to remember where to find them. The organization need not be neat, just predictable.
For more information and strategies on Spatial Organization, consult the Organization page.
Translation dictionaries or electronic translators may aid in remembering foreign words and phrases. Or, words and phrases from foreign languages may be used to trigger one's memory.
Mark personal possessions clearly and conspicuously. Use luggage tags, colored camera straps or musical instrument case straps, and passport protectors.
Changing the immediate physical environment acts a quick and easy stimulus for remembering things. "The unusual placement of an object increases the likelihood that a person will remember an [obligation] because the sight of the object 'out of place' provides an obvious symbol to remind you" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 131).
This strategy is especially useful when there is no time to document an obligation or when documentation is inefficient. It can also be used as a backup strategy for alarm clocks, appointment books, or other external aids. The effectiveness of symbolic reminding can be enhanced when the environmental modification is meaningful, or related in some way to the information to be remembered.
Examples of symbolic reminding are:
For more information, see the Breaking the Normal Pattern section of this page.
Personal memory tasks include remembering to do things related to personal finances, health, possessions, chores, and personal history. Obviously, it is important for persons in the work force or those with families to attend to such things. However, students are often confronted with these important memory tasks as well, especially college students who are living on their own for the first time in their lives.
The are many important memory tasks required for keeping up with personal finances. One of the most important of these is remembering to pay bills in a timely manner. For students living on their own for the first time, the college years may mark the beginning of their credit histories; getting off to a good start is critical, and remembering to pay bills on time should be a high priority. Try using a calendar to clearly mark the due dates of bills, or make up an index card every month with the due dates and amounts of each bill. Conspicuous labeling of bills also helps. For those who still find it difficult to remember to pay bills, check into direct deposit and payroll deduction services at your bank. Resist the temptation to put off balancing your checkbook; if this is a problem, invest in special calculators and other devices that do checkbook and credit card account balancing.
Health and Fitness
Success in school and other endeavors requires good health and fitness. Develop a regular routine of eating, sleeping and exercising (see the Time Management page for ideas). Work out a "buddy system" to remember and get motivated for daily or weekly exercise sessions.
Remember to take medications by posting reminder notes, purchasing pill holders marked with the days of the week or month, or setting out all the pills for the day in a dish and checking the number left at each medication time. There are also devices that emit sounds or lights at medication times.
Keeping Track of Possessions
Keeping track of personal possessions may be a particular challenge when living in college dormitories. One of the simplest ways to do so it to be organized (see the Organization page for ideas). Organizing does not necessitate that one be neat, just that one develop a consistent and predictable pattern of placing items.
Develop a "memory book" for recording descriptions and locations of valuable possessions like insurance policies, wills, passports, jewelry, etc. For frequently used items, like purses or umbrellas, mark them conspicuously or dramatically change their appearance to avoid forgetting them. Have a special place for storing keys, buy a large colorful key chain, or buy a key chain with a beeper. Keep a notebook for recording to whom books or notes are loaned and their addresses and phone numbers.
Develop a regular routine or schedule for completing daily or weekly chores (see the Time Management page for ideas). Put reminders on light switches to remember to turn them off when not in use, or buy timing devices for automatically turning on and off lights and appliances. Display shopping lists (for groceries, toiletries, gifts, etc.) in a prominent place for recording things that need to be purchased. Buy staple items in bulk to avoid having to remember them often.
Keep a notebook for recording the dates and details of illnesses, medications, shots, check-ups, physicals, and doctor appointments. Use a calendar to record the dates of special events like birthdays, weddings, and family get-togethers, and get in the habit of checking the calendar regularly. Record events of significance with diaries, photographs, mementos, video recordings, or scrap books.
Mental manipulations involve the mental contents of consciousness as they affect registration, retention, and remembering (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 79-118). They define a mental manipulation as "a mental pattern, outline, or key to help ... memorize information" (Herrman, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 79).
Herrman, Raybeck and Gutman (1993) note that the best approach to memory improvement is to master a number of these mental manipulations since no one strategy is adequate for all situations. In addition, they caution that the individual seeking to improve memory performance must pay attention to physical condition, social context, and physical environment as well.
"[M]ental manipulations are relevant only to intentional memory tasks, in which you are conscious of the information you must learn or retrieve. ... Incidental tasks, in which information is automatically encoded into or emerges from long-term memory, cannot be handled with mental manipulations. ... [M]ental manipulations work by intensifying your attention to information during the learning, retention, and retrieval phases of the memory process. A manipulation causes you to process - in some way - that information, and your increased attention leads to either or both of two mental processes that affect the memory traces in your long-term memory. In one process, new information can be absorbed from working memory into long-term memory. In the other process, your attention can activate existing traces in long-term memory that have similar informational content" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 81-82).
Because it takes time and energy to use mental manipulations, they will not always be the most efficient strategies for a particular memory task. Some of the strategies do not suit a particular learning style, in which case they will be ineffective. The memory manipulations outlined here are generalized; to make them more effective it is necessary to modify them to a particular memory task. Knowledge of several manipulations helps to prepare students for a variety of memory situations.
Many of the mental manipulation strategies outlined in subsequent sections of this page are cross-referenced elsewhere in the Memory page as well as in other pages of the General-Purpose Learning Strategies main stack. The following topics are covered: attribute manipulations, association manipulations, retrieval manipulations, and retention manipulations.
Attribute manipulations refer to strategies that focus on the characteristics or properties of the information to be memorized. "Attribute manipulations are designed to foster your registration of more attributes than you would otherwise register. The more attributes you include in a memory trace, the better. Each additional attribute provides one more way to retrieve the trace" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 93). The more properties stored in memory, the stronger the memory trace and the better your comprehension of the material. Attribute manipulations "are useful for learning information that is initially difficult or uninteresting, or that must be remembered in particular detail" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 93).
Descriptions of the following attribute manipulation strategies are from Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman (1993), with some added examples.
Focus on feelings of happiness, anger, etc. when memorizing information. Dredge up those emotions when rehearsing and recalling information.
"Make judgments related to the nature of the items. For example, judge how 'rich' each name to be learned sounds (as 'Abercrombie' sounds more affluent than, say 'Smith')" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 93).
Use sensory-stimulating words to verbally describe what you plan to learn. Study your description repeatedly. For example, the rock is very dense and heavy, it has black, white, and pink minerals, and it is coarse grained.
Meaning Analysis (Semantics)
"Consider the meaning of the information and subtle variations of that meaning. For example, to remember that Bill is a mechanic, analyze the meaning of the word 'mechanic:' one who repairs mechanisms, usually automotive, but also other machines" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 93).
Repeat the sounds of the information or repeat the sounds of related words. For example, to remember that granite is an igneous rock, sound out the syllables "ig-ne-es" and repeat them.
Consider the relative importance of information to be remembered. For example, remain aware that remembering an appointment with a professor is more important than remembering a club meeting.
Use the 5 W's and other questions to embed the information. For example, to remember that your professor's research focus is on brain physiology, ask him/her a lot of questions about it.
Relate the new information to you as a person: your feelings, your beliefs, or your past experiences. For example, to remember details about World War II, relate them to your feelings about war or members of your family who may have served in the war.
Consider the amount of time that took place between exposure to different pieces of information. For example, there were five minutes between meeting Dave and Cassie, and ten minutes between meeting Cassie and Marge.
Understanding from Multiple Sources
Approach the information from several perspectives to enhance understanding. For example, to remember information for a speech, learn that information from several sources.
Focus on the visual characteristics of the information to be learned, linking the letters of the information to a visual image of the information or some related information. For example, to remember that basalt is an igneous rock, picture the "i" as an erupting volcano, the "eou" as a series of volcanic islands like Hawaii, etc.
Association manipulations link together different memory traces, aiding in registration and recall. They are useful for remembering related information or information that is difficult to understand (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993).
Association manipulations are divided into two categories. Simple associative manipulations work best for restricted pieces of information and make use of just two traces that are linked together. Simple associative manipulations include verbal association, past and present events, meaningful relations, phonetic relations, and visual relations. "Organization manipulations increase the strength of items in a trace and the associations between these items. They are used when the information you must learn conforms to a specific structure" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 96). Four organizational manipulations are clustering, diagramming, sequencing, and spatial arrangement. Descriptions of these strategies are from Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman (1993), with examples added.
For additional association techniques, see the Association Strategies section of this page.
Verbal associations can directly or indirectly link items in a list based on the words themselves. For example, to remember milk, cheese, bread and butter items on a shopping list, recall that milk and cheese are related because they are dairy products, cheese and bread are related as grilled cheese sandwiches, and bread and butter are related.
Present and Past Events
Link present (new) and past (old) events. For example, relate a lecture on marketing to experiences you had during a summer internship last year.
Look for similarities, differences, or other meaningful relationships between two items to be remembered. For example, to remember that one country is in a state of war, make note of the other countries in the conflict.
Look for similarities in sounds between two items to be remembered. For example, the Spanish words for "red" and "eye" sound similar: "rojo" and "ojo."
Look for similarities in the letters comprising two words to be remembered. For example, note the similarities between two countries to be remembered, such as "Ghana" in Africa and "Guyana" in South America.
Organize items into clusters based on similar meanings or sounds. For example, to remember that Spenser, Morgan and Tyler were cultural evolutionists but Dunnell and Holland are Darwinian evolutionists in anthropology, remember that the first group have the "r" sound and the second group have the "n" sound. See Clustering Strategies for more methods.
Use flow charts, intersecting circles, and other diagrams to sketch the relationship of items to be remembered. For example, to remember that quartz, mica and feldspar are silicate minerals while hematite and limonite are oxide minerals, group them into the two categories and draw circles around each group.
Mentally arrange items in logical order or in the order in which they were encountered. For example, arrange the parts of a speech in the order in which they are to be covered: attention getting statement, thesis statement, preview, body, summary, and final statement.
Take note of the spatial arrangement of items to be remembered. For example, to remember the names of the vertebrae groups, start at the neck and move down.
According to Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman (1993), retrieval structures are best suited to information that must be remembered perfectly. It is often the case that retrieval structure manipulations register information more effectively than do attention, rehearsal, attribute, and association manipulations. There are four types of retrieval structures, each of which varies in applicability and ease of application: elaboration, reduction, transformation, and technical. Manipulations may involve a combination of methods from these categories.
Elaboration manipulations are among the easiest to use. These structures build on the information to be remembered by combining it with additional information. The additional information provides a code that enhances remembering. Because of this, the elaboration structure itself must be remembered completely in order for the manipulation to be effective. Elaboration strategies include acrostic manipulations, ad hoc manipulations, verbal mediation, image elaboration, number elaboration, principle stating, ridicule, sentence generation, and story generation. These strategies are described below (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993). Additional elaboration manipulations are described elsewhere in this page: visual imagery (visual association), rhymes. songs and poems, name associations, and mnemonics.
Reduction manipulations are based on only a portion of the original information. Reduction manipulations are shorter and usually easier to remember than elaboration manipulations. However, they may be more ambiguous than elaboration methods. Several reduction manipulations are covered below: abbreviation, bleaching, first letter coding, sentence reduction, and summary stating (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993).
Transformation manipulations are more difficult to use because they alter the form of the original information, although the transformed information is related to the original material. However, they may be less ambiguous than reduction methods and less lengthy than elaboration structures. Transformations are perhaps the best retrieval structures for understanding and comprehension, and therefore may be preferred in situations when information is to be understood, not simply registered. Five transformation manipulations are described below: synonym generation, contrast generation, class member generation, homophonic generation, and comprehensive generation (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993).
Technical manipulations, which are based on structures memorized ahead of time, are among the most difficult to use. They are called "technical" because the require prior preparation and instruction. Unlike the other forms of retrieval structures, the special encoding schemes used in technical manipulations are not related to the new material to be learned. Despite the special effort needed to use technical manipulations, they have been shown to be highly effective in improving memory performance. Links, peg words, loci (house of memory), and number-letter conversions are four technical manipulations discussed below (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993).
See the Encoding and Retrieval page for more retrieval strategies.
This type of manipulation is similar to the FIRST mnemonic strategy described elsewhere. A short poem or verse is made by using each letter in the new item to form a word that describes the item. For example, to remember Bill's name, elaborate by saying that Bill is a Big Interesting Likeable Lug.
Ad Hoc Manipulations
The ad hoc manipulation makes use of limericks or poems. There are published compilations of common ad hoc manipulations used to remember certain information (e.g. Pugh, 1970). For example, "Columbus sailed the ocean blue, In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two."
Link the item with a word that has an established association with the item. For example, to remember that Bill pitches a good curve ball, associate a baseball with round with curve.
Image elaborations may take four forms.
Use common numerical configurations (phone numbers, currency, years, zip codes, etc.) to remember numbers. For example, to remember the percentages of nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere, 78% and 22%, write them as currency $78.22.
Look for and describe a pattern or regularity in the new material. For example, after attending a play, state whether it was a comedy or a tragedy and describe the aspects of the play that lead you to that conclusion.
Make the item to be remembered as humorous or ridiculous as possible. Try turning the item into a funny name or a pun. For example, "Fred-schmed" or "Smithie-withie."
Use the new information as part of a factual or a false sentence. A true sentence is useful for associating related items. A false sentence should be made blatantly false in order to avoid confusion with facts. For example, to remember a new acquaintance, elaborate a sentence like "I just met John Gates, an electrician from Cleveland."
Make up a story that contains the new information. Again, it may be true or false. For example, "Alan Turing developed the first digital computer, the Colossus, to break Nazi codes during World War II."
Using a few letters from the word, form a smaller word. For example, remember "photo" instead of the longer "photosynthesis."
Imagine the new item in black and white. For example, to remember the seven wonders of the ancient world, picture them without color.
First Letter Coding
Arrange the first letters of each item in a list into an acronym. A well-known example is "HOMES" to remember the five Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). This strategy is covered in more detail under Mnemonics elsewhere in this page.
Form new words from the first letters of each item in a list. Put the new words into a sentence. A well-known example is "Every Good Boy Does Fine" to remember the lines of the treble clef in music. This strategy is covered in more detail under Mnemonics elsewhere in this page.
Select key words from a story or a block of text that capture the overall theme or point of the material. For example, text about the two types of cells might be summed up by two key words, "eukaryote" and "prokaryote."
Replace the item to be remembered with the most appropriate, and easiest to remember, synonym. For example, to remember that a country is a democracy, rehearse it as a "free state" also.
Replace the item to be remembered with an appropriate anonym. For example, to remember that a country is totalitarian, rehearse it as "totalitarian" and "not a free state."
Associate the item with words that are in the same class or category as the item. For example, to remember that a country is a democracy, rehearse its name with other well-known democracies like Canada and United States.
Associate the item with words that sound like it. For example, to remember that a country is a dictatorship, rehearse it as "dictate or ship."
This strategy uses combinations of the four other transformations to reflect all the possible relationships and sounds of the information to be learned.
Establish links between pairs of items in an ordered or unordered list. See Chaining (Link System) in the Association Strategies section of this page for a more complete description.
Pegs can be alphabetical, verbal or pictoral. The pegs stand for numbers in a list (e.g. 1 = sun, 2 = shoe, etc.). They are used to trigger associations with the actual items in the list. See Pegwords in the Association Strategies section of this page for a more complete description.
Loci (House of Memory )
To remember a list of items, imagine a familiar building and place one item from the list in each of the rooms. Your "house of memory" can be a home, church, office building, a town, or a landscape, as long as the locus is easy to remember and visualize. While mental images of the memory loci are often sufficient memory triggers, the student may wish to sketch the loci and associated items. For example, to remember Hindu gods one might develop the following house of memory.
Numbers and letters are converted using a predetermined scheme:
Vowels are not used. To remember a numerical item, use the coded letters to form a cue word. Add vowels to form the cue word, if necessary.
For example, to remember a numeric item like the year Columbus landed in the New World, 1492, use the code letters t, r, b, and n to form the cue word "turban." To remember a word, use the coded numbers to form a cue number. For example, to remember the name of computer software mogul Bill Gates, form the code number 955-610.
Different types of information are forgotten at different rates (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993). For example, skilled actions like driving a car are remembered indefinitely, as are some forms of knowledge obtained in school, such as reading and writing. Intentions, however, tend to be retained poorly. Events may or may not be retained well.
Retention manipulations attempt to forestall forgetting due to unavailability and inaccessibility. There are only a few retention strategies, and their applicability is general in nature. At this time there are no strategies that target the specific memory tasks described in the previous paragraph.
Periodic review, avoiding similar information, getting adequate sleep and rest, and are general retention strategies discussed below.
For more information on the causes of forgetting, refer to the Background Information on Memory section of this page.
To avoid forgetting information that is uninteresting or unfamiliar, the student must review periodically. "Retention begins anew each time a memory is fully re-registered. Review often until you recall at the level of accuracy required; subsequently, you may review less frequently as long as you continue to recall adequately. It is wise if your review involves some of your original registration manipulations, such as strength, attribute, association, and retrieval structure. - Prevents loss from decay, distortion, interference, suppression, and unlearning" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 110).
Additional information about spacing reviews is located in the Encoding and Retrieval page of the General-Purpose Learning Strategies main stack and in the reciting and spacing reviews section of this page.
Avoid Similar Information
To avoid forgetting new information that may be confused with old memory traces, avoid learning information that is similar in content. "For example, if you can avoid it, do not attempt to learn simultaneously, or in succession, two foreign languages or the details of two highly related projects at work. - Prevents loss from interference, suppression, and unlearning" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 110-111).
Sleep or Rest
To avoid forgetting new information that may be confused with old memory traces, if retention will occur over a short time period (e.g. one to two days), sleep as much as possible during the period of retention. "Sleep allows you to avoid encountering new information that could interfere with what you learned or could lead you to suppress what you have learned in order to consider the newly encountered information. - Delays decay and prevents forgetting due to interference, suppression, and unlearning" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 111).
Anticipate Remembering Situations
To avoid forgetting information because of stress and pressure or because of fear of forgetting under time constraints, anticipate remembering situations. "Try to imagine situations in which you might be called on to remember. Doing so will help to prepare you to recognize, when in the remembering task, the cues that were present during learning, and thereby stimulate the memory to emerge when it is needed. - Prevents forgetting due to not noticing retrieval cues" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 111).
Make Moderately Unpleasant Memories Salient
To avoid forgetting unpleasant information, try to make the material more salient. Unpleasant memories might include writing thank-you cards to people you dislike or information about disturbing current events. "If you have an unpleasant memory task that you do not want to forget ... take steps that will lead you to not suppress thinking about the memory. Such steps might include thinking of reasons why you want to remember the unpleasant information or consequences that will ensue if you fail to remember. ... - Prevents repression, revision, intentional forgetting, and suppression" (Herrmann, Raybeck and Gutman, 1993, p. 111).