-Paulson cmf

Why don’t we use our memory to its fullest potential?

For some odd reason, we tag certain information and remember it well. On the other hand, we poorly tag information that must be remembered and are never able to recall it. The “GIGO” syndrome does not work well for students at Texas A&M. Students who poorly tag or attempt to put “Garbage In” will most certainly not be able to remember and will get “Garbage Out” at test time.

If you have habits of losing things like eye glasses and car keys, or forget everything you study for tests, you probably are passively tagging these mental images. Things that are done and remembered as everyday ordinary occurrences have not been tagged in your memory as important. Memory that has not been tagged as important will in most cases be stored as FYI and your mind does not see the need to remember it with any authority.

Tagging input information in different way to make it memorable is not a new concept. “Mnemonics,” or memory enhancement techniques have been studied since the time of ancient Greeks and Romans. In the following pages, we will discuss several simple techniques that scholars and memory tricksters use to improve their memory abilities.

In the previous section, we have discussed memory processes and introduced you to some basic concepts of memory. What we have presented, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. If you review research on memory and learning, you will find that there exist a vast amount of information on the subject. But in learning to become more personally and academically effective, you are probably most interested in seeing how this knowledge can be put into practice. In other words, how can it help you improve your memory. Thus, we focus on memory techniques and strategies.

1. PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER. Organizing and ordering information can significantly improve memory. Imagine, for example, how difficult it would be to remember a random list of 62 letters. On the other hand, it would not be difficult to memorize the first sentence in this paragraph (consisting of 62 letters). Similarly, learning a large amount of unconnected and unorganized information from various classes can be very challenging. By organizing and adding meaning to the material prior to learning it, you can facilitate both storage and retrieval. In other words, you can learn it better and recall it easier. The following concepts can help you pull various information together in order to increase understanding and organization. This can mean organizing material on paper, such as when you make an outline or idea web, or simply organizing material in your memory, such as learning it in a particular order or making intentional associations between ideas.

2. THE FUNNEL APPROACH. This means learning general concepts before moving on to specific details. When you study in this manner, you focus on getting a general framework, or overview, before filling in the details. When you understand the general concepts first, the details make more sense. Rather than disconnected bits of information to memorize, such as history dates, the material fits together within the overall framework. Seeing how the smaller details relate to one another, you process the information more deeply (which helps you store, and later retrieve, it from memory). This idea is probably familiar–there are many learning strategies based on the funnel approach. For example, the approach is used in previewing a chapter for the major ideas as a way to enhance your comprehension of details contained in the chapter. You may also notice that many textbook chapters are organized in a “general to specific” format. Finally, you probably use this type of approach when studying from an outline, matrix, or concept map. Because of their organization, these tools are particularly well-suited for learning general to specific.

3. ORGANIZING THROUGH MEANING AND ASSOCIATION. Earlier, we discussed the concept of making intentional associations in order to improve learning retention. What do we mean by “intentional associations”? When learning, a person continually makes associations. We make associations between what we are learning and the environment we are in, between the information and our mental states, and between the information and our stream of thoughts. When things are associated in memory, thinking of one helps bring the other to mind. Have you ever actually retraced your path when you have forgotten where you put an object such as your keys? Often, as you approach the place where you put them, you are suddenly able to remember the act of laying them down on the table or putting them in your gym bag. This is association. The memory of putting the keys down was associated with your memory of things in the environment. You can make associations work for you by making them intentional. When you are having difficulty recalling new material, you can help bring it to mind by thinking about what you have associated it with. In other words–retrace your mental path. We will return to this idea later when we discuss specific strategies.

a) Deep processing–relating the material to yourself. One way to process information more deeply, and also to create meaningful associations, is to think about how the information can be personally meaningful. You might think about how the new material relates to your life, your experience, or your goals. If you can link new information to memories already stored (“mental hooks”), you’ll have more cues to recall the new material.

b) Grouping. This idea is probably best explained with an example. Before reading ahead, take a moment to complete the following exercise.


Read the following list of sports one time. When you are done, write down as many of the sports as you can without looking back at the list.

Snow Skiing Basketball Tennis

Long Jump Bobsledding 100-Meter Dash

Hockey Baseball Ice Skate

Discus Golf High Jump

Volleyball Javelin Soccer

Luge Curling Cricket

Decathlon Hurdles

Note the number of sports you remembered correctly. We will return to this exercise later.

You can organize material by grouping similar concepts, or related ideas, together. Arranging the material into related groups helps your memory by organizing the information. For example, in the exercise you just completed, you could have grouped all of the sports into one of the following categories: a) Winter sports, b) Track and Field sports, and c)Sports using a ball. Keeping these categories in mind, try the exercise again. If your are like most people, you will be able to remember more of the sports.

Of course, in this instance, we created a list with the intention of demonstrating grouping; thus, there were 6 or 7 sports in each category. Still, with a little thought, this strategy can be used in a variety of ways. For example, can you think of other ways that these sports could be grouped? There are individual sports, team sports, sports you may enjoy, and sports you may dislike. There are sports requiring a great deal of equipment, and sports requiring little or none. When you are trying to remember lists for a test, the concepts and words may or may not have a natural organization. Therefore, you may need to be creative when making associations. Finally, the process of organizing a list into groups can often help you to understand the relationship between the concepts better.

4. VIVID ASSOCIATIONS. We have already discussed the idea of associations: aiding storage and retrieval of new information by intentionally pairing it with something familiar. When learning something new and unfamiliar, try pairing it with something you know very well, such as images, puns, music, whatever. The association does not have to make logical sense. Often times it is associations that are particularly vivid humorous, or silly that stay in your mind. Some people remember names this way. For example, they may remember the name “Robert Green” by picturing Robert playing golf (on the green), wearing green clothes, or covered in green paint. Or suppose for your anatomy course you have to recall names of the veins in the human body, and the first one on the list is “pancreatic” followed by “right gastroepipeloic” and “left gastroepipeloic” and so on. You can picture a frying pan being creative–maybe painting a picture with bright paints and bold strokes. If the frying pan is working in a studio, picture gas pipes with little padlocks on them (gastroepipeloic) in the left and right studio corners….


1. Pick names of classmates with whom you are unfamiliar.

2. For each name, brainstorm some words or ideas that you can associate with the name. For example, if one student’s name is Teresa Martinez, you might think of Mother Teresa, a Martin (a type of bird), Mars the planet, a Martini (the drink), the word “terrific,” Martinique, etc.

3. Once you have brainstormed several ideas, you can begin to think of ways that some of the associations can be combined to remember the name. In the above example, you could create a visual association by picturing Mother Teresa standing on the beach at Martinique.

4. Do this for each person, and you will have a great way to remember the names of your new classmates!

5. ACTIVE LEARNING. You will notice that the term “active learning” has come up frequently. Active learning facilitates your memory by helping you attend to and process information. All of the memory techniques we have discussed require active learning. Even if you attend every lecture and read every assignment, there is no guarantee that you will learn and remember the information. Although you may passively absorb some material, to ensure that you remember important information requires being active and involved, that is attending to and thinking about what you are learning.

6. VISUAL MEMORY. Some people remember information best when it is encoded visually; if that is the case for you, then code information in this manner. But even if you do not consider yourself specifically “a visual learner,” you may find that including visual memory can still help. After all, it is one more way of encoding and storing information–and one more way of retrieving it for a test.

There are many ways of visually encoding and retrieving information. We have already mentioned the strategy of associating concepts with visual images. But other aids to visual memory include diagrams, tables, outlines, etc. Often these are provided in texts, so take advantage of pictures, cartoons, charts, graphs, or any other visual material. You can also draw many of these things yourself. For example, try to visualize how the ideas relate to each other and draw a graph, chart, picture, or some other representation of the material. You may even want to make it a habit to convert difficult material into actual pictures or diagrams in your notes, or to convert words into mental images on the blackboard of your mind.

Finally, using your visual memory can be as simple as writing out vocabulary words, theories, or algebraic formulas. This allows you to not only practice (repeat) the information but also to see the way it looks on the page (developing a visual memory that you may be able to retrieve later). Another advantage is that it helps you take an active role in learning the material. When you draw your ideas on paper or write down things you are trying to remember, you have the opportunity to think about the information more deeply.


When trying to memorize something, it can help to actually recite the information aloud. You might repeat ideas verbatim (when you need to do rote memorization), or you can repeat ideas in your own words (and thus ensure that you have a true understanding of the information). Repeating information aloud can help you encode the information (auditory encoding) and identify how well you have learned it. Some students have told us that they know the test information and are surprised when they “freeze” and cannot give adequate responses. For some students, this “freezing” may be a result of test anxiety. For others, however, it may be a result of overestimating how well they know the material. If you recite the information aloud from memory (answering questions, defining words, or using flash cards), it is often quite clear how well you know it. If you stumble in your responses, have to look up answers, or can only give a vague response, then you know that you need to study more.

Although reciting aloud can be a helpful memory technique, some people avoid it out of fear of appearing foolish (“what if someone sees me talking to myself?”). If this applies to you, work with a friend or study group. Another advantage of working with someone else is that they can inform you when you are missing important concepts or misunderstanding an idea. Keep in mind, however, that studying with others does not work for everyone. For example, some students may become anxious or intimidated in study groups and would be more comfortable studying alone.


An effective way to enhance recall and understanding of dense material is to teach it to an imaginary audience. By doing so, you are forced to organize the material in a way that makes sense to you and to anticipate potential questions that may be asked by your students. Moreover, by articulating your lecture aloud, you will uncover gaps in your comprehension (and recall) of the material. (Far better to discover those “weak” areas before a test than during it.) After you have mastered a particular section from your textbook, try delivering an organized lecture on any topic from that section. Then check for accuracy. Don’t forget to anticipate questions that students might ask about the material as a way of anticipating potential test questions.

9.The Link System

The link system is the quickest and most simple to learn. It creates a memory foundation that makes learning advanced systems easier. The link system is best used to positively tag information like shopping lists or class test lists. By using principles like imagination, symbolism, sight and touch we incorporate both left and right brain memory strengths. The key to connecting any series in a list is to tag each entry with as much information as possible. Making any list something unusual or bizarre keeps it from being routinely stored and easily forgotten.

Example: Pick any list of items you wish to remember. It could be a shopping list or a listing of answers for a particular test. For my example, we will use a short shopping list. In most cases we forget to make or bring our shopping list. We then get home and remember exactly what we forgot to buy. Here’s our list.

Hair comb
2 Glass tea pitchers
1 Bar of hand-soap
Clothes detergent
Dental floss

The Link System: Now imagine yourself walking out the front door with a large metal comb in your mouth. Feel the smoothness of the metal and then the point of each tooth on the comb. Balanced on that comb are two large tea pitchers that glimmer in the afternoon sun. Hear the tinkling of the glass as each of your steps makes the pitchers bump together. You now hear a smushing sound and you stop. From under your shoe you see a river of grape juice and seeds flowing. The cuff of your jeans is now stained deep red. This alarms you and your first reaction is to step back. As you step back, you find your self on a foaming bar of soap in the shape of a surf-board. Now see yourself surfing on a sea of grape juice leaving a trail of suds from your soap surf-board. Feel the soap as it squishes up from between your toes. Smell the contrast of grape mist and clean soap aromas. Suddenly you take a big spill and now your clothes are all stained with grape juice. You’re now so nasty that you have to return home.

Now you’re really tired. It took you 8 hours and 12 boxes of detergent to get that grape stain out of your favorite jeans. Tired, hungry, and out of detergent, you forge out to go shopping again. You’re really getting good at balancing the tea pitchers on that comb. So good that you will jump rope and balance the pitchers all the way to the mall. Can you guess what the jump rope is made of? If you guessed it was made of thousands of strands of dental floss, you were correct. See and feel the rope in your own mind.

Now that you see how the Link System works, finish this story so that you can incorporate the last two items on our shopping list—bread and eggs

10. The Number-Shape System

Most of us are fairly familiar with the numbers 1 through 10. For each number, all of us can come up with an image or shape that (maps) reminds us of that number. For example, I can see a curved swan’s head and neck matching the curved top section of the number 2. Some people use a boat or sailboat for the number 4 because it looks like a boat’s sail. The key point is to associate a word that represents a specific number for you and only you.

1. = Paintbrush
2. = Swan
3. = Heart
4. = Boat
5. = Hook
6. = Elephant’s Trunk
7. = Cliff
8. = Hourglass/Time
9. = Stick & Balloon
10. = Bat & Ball

The Number-Shape System: Let’s say you wanted to memorize this short list of items. This might be a grocery list or a list of possible answers for a major test.

  1. 1.Symphony
  2. 2.Prayer
  3. 3.Watermelon
  4. 4.Volcano
  5. 5.Motorcycle
  6. 6.Sunshine
  7. 7.Apple Pie
  8. 8.Blossoms
  9. 9.Spaceship
  10. 10.Field of Wheat

We would then construct this Number-Shape System:

1. (Paintbrush) The Symphony painted a good melody.
2. (Swan) He bowed his head in prayer like a swan.
3. (Heart) He loved Watermelon.
4. (Sailboat) We sailed away from the harbor as the Volcano erupted.
5. (Hook) He became hooked on Motorcycles.
6. (Elephant’s Trunk) Dumbo lifted his trunk towards the Sunshine.
7. (Cliff) I’d jump off a cliff for Mom’s Apple Pie.
8. (Hourglass) It took time for the Blossoms to bloom.
9. (Stick & Balloon) The Spaceship floated like a child’s balloon.
10.(Ball & Bat) Our old baseball field has been converted into a Field Of Wheat.

These are, of course, the examples I would use. You must personalize your Number-Shape System to fit your own style. Your own system and images will tag the information you wish to remember in a much more efficient manner.

11.The Number-Rhyme System

The Number-Rhyme System works much like the Number-Shape System except we substitute sounds for images associated with the numbers 1 through 10.

1. = sounds like bun or sun.
2. = sounds like shoe or pew.
3. = sounds like tree or flea.
4. = sounds like door or poor.
5. = sounds like dive or drive.
6. = sounds like sticks or bricks.
7. = sounds like heaven or eleven (7-Eleven).
8. = sounds like skate or gate.
9. = sounds like line or wine.
10. = sounds like pen or men.

The Number-Rhyme System: Lets say you wanted to memorize this short list of items. Again, this could be anything from a shopping list to a list of possible answers for a test.

1. Atom
2. Tree
3. Stethoscope
4. Sofa
5. Alley
6. Tile
7. Windscreen
8. Honey
9. Brush
10. Toothpaste

We would then construct this Number-Rhyme System:

1. (Sun) The Atom blast glared brighter than the sun.
2. (Shoe) Not everyone owns a shoe Tree.
3. (Tree) The tree-doctor put a Stethoscope around the trunk.
4. (Door) We moved the Sofa near the door.
5. (Drive) We had to drive in the Alley.
6. (Bricks) The western house had bricks arranged like Tile on the floor.
7. (Eleven) The car drove through the Windscreen at the 7-Eleven.
8. (Bait) We used Honey as bait for the flies.
9. (Line) The artist used a fine Brush to paint the line.
10. (Men) The shipwrecked men had not used Toothpaste in 2 years.

This is again, an example I would use. The more vivid and/or ridiculous the rhymes are made will have a greater impact on how well your memory attempts to tag this information. Remember to personalize this system so that it fits your imagination and learning style.

12.The Major System: How to remember Phone Numbers and Dates in History

The Major System is the ultimate memory enhancement tool. It has been used, studied, and improved upon for nearly 400 years. This versatile system will allow you to memorize limitless lists of facts, dates and series of numbers. It also enables you to organize lists in a variety of orders, so that memorization is customized to best fit your learning style. The basic structure of the Major System is to designate consonant letter codes for the numbers 0 through 9.

Example: 0 = s,z = s & z are the first sounds of the word “zero.”
1 = d,t = d & t have one pen downstroke.
2 = n = n has two pen downstrokes.
3 = m = m has three pen downstrokes.
4 = r = r is the last letter in the word “four.”
5 = l = the top of the number 5 is an “L.”
6 = j,sh = j is the mirror image of the number “6.”
7 = k,ch = k is shaped like two “7’s.”
8 = f,v = f, when handwritten, has two loops like an “8.”
9 = b,p = b & p are mirror images of the number “9.”

Examples: The Major System for Phone Numbers

Your Tennis Partner


= (7336/c,m,m,sh)

= Can Make Masterful SHots

Local Theatre


= (9521/p,l,n,t)

= Produce Laughter -N- Tears

Favorite Restaurant


= (m,l,r, – ch,m,l,s)

= My Local Restaurant CHarges Moderate Lunch Specials

Examples: The Major System for Appointments

10:00 am

– Dentist fill cavity.

= (10:00/d,s,s,s)

= Dental Surgeon Saves Smile

9:20 pm

– Movie with friend.

= (9:20/p,n,c)

= Preview New Cinema

Examples: The Major System for Historical Dates.


= Great fire of London

= (666/sh,sh,sh

= aSHes,aSHes,aSHes


= First Printing Press

= (454/r,l,r)

= RoLloR


= French Revolution

= (789,k,f,p)

= King Fights People

The more you practice the Major System, the more powerful your memory will become. This system will strengthen both the short and long term memory. Increasing any memory will help you recall more data for tests.

13. Other Tips for Memory

The best system is one you customize and create yourself.

When reading to remember, scan graphs, side-notes, margins, intro, and summary paragraphs.

When Highlighting: Highlight areas you are not comfortable with.

  • Single words or sentences that “define” headings.
  • Skip explanations and extra examples.
  • Also highlight your notes when possible.

Understanding what the concept is saying or explaining helps increase long-term memory.

When trying to remember words, it’s always helpful to see the parts or construction of the word rather than the whole word.

Memorization is as easy as teaching yourself to “cue” and “review.”

14. The Roman Room System

The Romans were great advocates of mnemonic systems. In their time, they created a system popularly called the Roman Room. Each Roman would detail a permanent vision of their own home within their mind. The home is a familiar place that each person generally visits several times a day. To this permanent vision they would attach items they wished to remember.

Try to picture your present home’s front door in your mind. See the trim and fixtures like a Roman would see the stone entry-way and marble pillars of the olden Roman home. If you can’t visualize your own home, create a vision of what you might imagine as any Romans doorway might look like. Remember to always see your door and trim like the Romans’ pillars and stone archway.

The Roman might, for example, have constructed his mental image of the entrance and front room with two gigantic pillars at either side of the front door, a carved lion’s head as the doorknob, and an exquisite Greek statue on the immediate left as he walked in. Next to the statue might be a large sofa with the fur of one of the animals the Roman had hunted.

The Roman would then start a typical day by arranging a shortened list of things he/she wished to do and remember for that day. Let’s say that the Roman wanted to remember to buy a new pair of sandals, to get his sword sharpened, to buy a new house maid, and to finish the weeding in his grape vineyard. He would simply imagine the first pillar outside his doorway arranged with thousands of sandals, the leather polished and glistening in the sun, with the smell of fresh leather filling the air. He would imagine sharpening the sword on the second pillar, hearing the scraping with each stroke, feeling the edge as it gets sharper and sharper. The Roman would then pull on the ornate doorknob, revealing the front room, and looking to see if the new house maid had arrived yet. She would be there, sitting on the lion skin sofa, which would materialize into a raging lion that gave the servant a galloping ride over to the only statue in the room. The servant would then pluck a withered, discolored grape from the dense matting of vines that encrypt the statue. The servant would then say, “Sorry I cannot offer you better fruit, but the weeds have been so bad this year that the grapes will not grow any better than this!”

Once you construct your Roman Room for each group of things you wish to remember, always mentally walk around that room a second time to familiarize yourself with the sequence, placing and positioning of all the items you place in that room.

The Roman Room System eliminates all boundaries on your imagination and allows you to remember as many items as you wish. Many people find this to be their favorite memory system, and will make lists hundreds of items long to put in their gigantic Roman Room.

15. Remembering People’s Names

One of the most important things we use our memory for is to recall people’s names. Although it’s important, most of us put ourselves in embarrassing situations where we can and do remember the face, but cannot remember the name. Our recent ancestors were lucky enough not to have this problem. It was common knowledge that people who baked bread were named “Baker.” The same is true for “Blacksmiths,” “Carpenters” and “Tailor’s.”

Today the name game is a little more complicated. In college, we meet people in large group settings and it is extremely difficult to remember just a few of the names for any real length of time. Thankfully, there are two systems that can help us remember and connect the face to the name. Used correctly, each system builds and strengthens the other. The first system derives from the early colonial rules of social etiquette, and the second is taken from the Mnemonic Methods we have learned about earlier in this handout.

The first or Social Etiquette System follows a series of steps that progress to the goal of remembering names for social interaction purposes. Whether for social or professional purposes, the steps will set an easily learned pattern that can help you start associating a particular name with the corresponding face.

  1. Don’t “know” that your memory is terrible and not attempt to really “hear” how each person’s name is pronounced.
  2. Greet people by looking them straight in the face. Look for one distinguishing feature such as hair, eyes, lips, nose, forehead, wrinkles or facial hair. Find something that makes this person unique.
  3. Listen to “how” this person’s name is pronounced.
  4. Always ask to repeat the name. “Did you say Joe Smith?”
  5. If the name still puzzles you, ask for the correct spelling. If you were panicked by introducing yourself, this is a good way to hear the name again without being totally obvious
  6. Find closure with steps #4 and #5. Make sure that you can spell or say their name.
  7. Exchange business cards if you can. You then have a hard copy for review.
  8. Repeat that person’s name in conversation as much as possible. “John, do you know Joe Smith? Joe is a business major from Houston.”
  9. During any pauses in the conversation, internally repeat that person’s name to yourself.
  10. During longer breaks, step back and recite each persons name along with the facial characteristic that helps you to remember them.
  11. When the group breaks up or you leave, use that person’s name in your farewell. “Well Mr. Smith, it was a pleasure to meet you.”
  12. After you leave the scene, write down people’s names and the facial characteristics that set them apart from others.
  13. Set your goals slowly. If you have not tried to remember names in the past, you won’t be an expert right away. Make a goal of remembering 5 people’s names each time you get into a group setting. When this becomes easy, push your goal up to 6 or 7. You will find that once you get the 5 goal down that increasing the limit is extremely easy.

The second system in “remembering people’s names,” is the Mnemonic System we have learned about in the earlier sections off this handout. By using simple association and imagination, we can mentally flag information that we choose to make interesting enough to remember. A combination of this and the Etiquette System works best for long term retention of memory.

  1. Make sure you are clear about the correct way of spelling and pronouncing that person’s name.
  2. Make sure you mentally repeat the person’s name at least twice in your mind.
  3. Look for that one obvious head or facial characteristic.
  4. Mentally reconstruct that person’s face. Use your wildest creativity to exaggerate the head or facial characteristic much like a cartoonist would.

Repeat that person’s name while imagining the intensified feature you made up. It sometimes helps to rhyme or spoof the person’s name. You might remember John Pane by thinking “John Wayne” Pane.

Enjoy the gift of memory

Cultivate and tap its potential to give Glory to God who gifted you this faculty

Use your gifts to build a better world