Academic Skills Blog - Memory skills for revision

screen shot from Osmosis video on Spaced repetition - see URL below for video

Let us shine a light on tips and tools to support your research process.This week: memory skills for revision.

screen shot from Osmosis video on Spaced repetition - see URL below for video

The right conditions

As with reading, it is important to create the right conditions to enable you to retain information. Make sure that you have time to give the task your due attention, that you aren't going to be distracted, that you are sufficiently motivated and have the intention to remember. It isn't possible to improve the the hardware underlying our memory. Neural systems can’t be enhanced (yet we can easily damage them). Likewise, any improvement in our attention with agents such as caffeine, usually only work when our memory is impaired, say, owing to lack of sleep. There are tips and techniques that will help make your memory more efficient but ultimately you need application, initiative and persistence to commit things to memory.

Think too about your environment: you need sufficient light, the right temperature, enough space, not to feel hungry, not to be too tired, and the ability to make yourself comfortable.


When structuring your revision timetable the are several things that may help your memory work to best effect:

  • While we all know (thanks to Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) and the total time hypothesis) that the more time that is spent on learning, the more that will be learned, there are different types of memory encoding that will have more beneficial impact on our ability to recall information. It is now widely held that many short periods of revising a topic are better than fewer long sessions. Repeating topics during the day is more effective that spending a several hours on them in one go.
  • Remember that taking breaks during study is also essential to retaining information. Our ability to remember and recall information tails off over time, with a slight uptick at the end of a session because we tend to remember better things we have just done. If we take regular breaks, e.g. every hour, then we are likely to remember much more than if we had worked through for 3 or 4 hours. 
  • You should increase the gap between revisiting topics. This is called Spaced Repetition and more information is below.

Spaced Repetition

If you read books on memory (such as Foster, J. (2009). Memory a very short introduction (online). Oxford: Oxford University Press) you will come across this method of revision.

As well as the total time hypothesis, Ebbinghaus also identified that information is lost as time passes (the forgetting curve). While the shape of this curve varies for different types of events, it is possible to stop ourselves forgetting things if we revisit information and relearn it. If we successfully recall things a short while after studying them, we are more likely to recall them later on.

Spaced repetition is seen as an optimal way to revise. It builds on the idea of leaving a gaps between relearning. What is perhaps novel to some of us is that it suggests increasing the gaps of time between each session. Each time you look at the information is supposed to be at the point when you are just about to forget it. This way the brain has to work hard to retrieve the information, rather than repeating when readily available. And like a muscle, it gets stronger when it works harder.

This graph for spaced repetition (also called distribution of practice) shows how we can boost our memory over a series of revision sessions set apart by several hours, 1 day, 3 days, a week, 3 weeks and so on, should we have time.

Screen shot from Osmosis video on Spaced Repetition - URL below

Active versus Passive revision

Another way to improve what we remember is to revise actively. 

It may feel easiest to revise by rereading notes, highlighting or copying chunks of text. However, there is a lot of research which demonstrates that these passive methods, while reproducing things we need to learn, do not lend themselves to retention.

To improve your retention of material, you need to engage with it actively and creatively. This gets you to think about the material differently and make links so that you can draw on a range of information in an unseen exam setting. 

There is an argument that we remember:

  • 20% of what we read
  • 30% of what we hear
  • 40% of that we see
  • 50% of what we say
  • 60% of what we do
  • 90% of what we read, hear, see, say and do

This may not be scientific , but for most people, coding information in a multitude of ways aids retention. So next week we'll focus on active revision techniques.

Further support

  • On Wednesday 11th March, we are running a workshop for all students on Managing Stress delivered by Margaret Bailey, College Counsellor. BOOK A PLACE.
  • The University’s Counselling Service also provides some useful self-help information for dealing with academic issues and low self-esteem. Contact them if you would like to talk to someone or the college nurse, Sally Maccallum
  • There are a number of books in the library to help with study skills and videos online. In relation to memory, you may wish to try (please note that Wolfson College is not responsible for the content of external sites):

Abdaal, Ali

Buzan, T. (2010) The Speed Reading Book. Harlow: Pearson.

Cottrell, S. (2013) The Study Skills Handbook 4th Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave

Foster, J. (2009). Memory a very short introduction (online). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McMillan, Weyers, and Weyers, Jonathan D. B. (2006) The Smarter Student: Skills and Strategies for Success at University. Harlow: Pearson/Prentice Hall.


Tracy, E. (2006) The Student’s Guide to Exam Success. 2nd Edition Maidenhead: Open University Press.

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