Memorization Techniques for High School Students

It’s time for class. You sit down, pull out your notebook, and spend the next hour taking copious notes on everything the teachers says. Maybe you even organize your notes into a neat outline, and highlight a few key points here and there.

Congratulations–you’re doing things right! Science has shown that taking notes while you’re learning something helps you remember the material better.

But then, the bell rings. You close your notebook, head to your next class (or, click over to it, if you’re doing online learning), annnnd …never look at your notes again. That is, until a day or two before a test.

Does this sound familiar?

If so, we’re here to tell you that while you’re certainly on the right track to not just learning but learning things well, there’s still a lot more you could be doing.

It’s easy to take notes within the structure of class time, but when it comes to actually reviewing the material, on your own time, in a way that will truly commit it to memory? Well, that’s a whole other story.

3 Memorization Techniques for High School Students

Note-taking is just one step in a wide array of techniques for learning and memorizing information.

We’re talking about the techniques that competitive memory athletes — otherwise perfectly average people with average memories — use to pull off superhuman-seeming feats of memory, like quickly memorizing the order of an entire deck of cards, or a long list of random numbers. 

Chances are that you’re not planning to enter a national-level memory competition anytime soon.

However, you probably do have more immediate needs that could be served by learning how to memorize information efficiently, whether that be recalling the periodic table of contents for your next chemistry quiz, memorizing SAT vocabulary, trying to score extra credit by rattling off more digits of the number Pi than your classmates, or describing the Krebs cycle without the aid of notes.

Fortunately, how humans commit information to memory, and the most effective way to do so, is a rich area of academic study, with many decades of research devoted to the topic.

Whatever reasons you have for wishing to master this skill, there already exist a number of tried-and-true techniques for memorizing large amounts of information. We’ve boiled down the great wealth of available information into the three most useful takeaways!

1. Visualize the information — and orient it in space

Have you ever noticed that when you open your textbook, your eye automatically travels first to the photographs, charts, and other graphics on the page?

That’s because we’re naturally oriented toward the visual. Try incorporating that into your note-taking and review sessions, by creating with your own imagery to help visualize information.

For example, try to come up with a visual for especially important information and drawing it in the margins of your notebooks.

Maybe the number 6 looks to you like a nose, so you visualize a nose every time you think of a 6, and from there, remember that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 by conjuring an image of the founding fathers gathered together and sniffing the fresh ink on the document. Over time, all it will take is a quick doodle of a nose to help you remember information related to the number 6.

Another great way to engage with and process the information, and therefore commit it more strongly to memory, is to translate it into a chart or graph. Making flashcards of the information, where one side of the flashcard is a drawing of some type, is also a great way to memorize things.

Have fun with it by unleashing your inner artist and making use of markers and highlighters of various colors! Color coding is a great way to group related ideas together in your notes.  

Beyond all this, you can remember even more information if you situate it spatially, using a technique called a “memory palace.” Have you ever noticed that when you’re trying to flip back to something you read in a physical book, you often have a vague sense of where on the page the information was?

Once again, that’s because we’re wired to remember both visual and spatial information — so well, in fact, that we do it effortlessly all the time as we’re moving around in the world.

“Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers or word-for-word instructions from their bosses or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum or (because they lived in relatively small, stable groups) the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party,” writer Joshua Foer puts it in the New York Times Magazine.

“What they did need to remember was where to find food and resources and the route home and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. Those are the sorts of vital memory skills that they depended on, which probably helps explain why we are comparatively good at remembering visually and spatially.”

The memory palace technique supposedly arose from a discovery made during the fifth century B.C. The poet Simonides of Ceos was allegedly the only survivor of a deadly banquet-hall collapse, and when asked to recount who had been killed in the collapse, realized that he was able to easily remember every guest in the hall, and where they’d all been sitting.

“From that simple observation, Simonides reportedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory,” writes Foer. “He realized that if there hadn’t been guests sitting at a banquet table but, say, every great Greek dramatist seated in order of birth — or each of the words of one of his poems or every item he needed to accomplish that day — he would have remembered that instead. He reasoned that just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future.”

How would this translate to memorizing study materials?

If you’re trying to remember, say, a timeline, assign an image to each event on the timeline, and then place each image inside an architectural space of some type, along a route you know well.

For example, you might conjure your childhood home, and use the route you take from the front door to your bedroom. Picture yourself walking in the front door, and seeing the first image from the timeline hanging on the wall, the next image at the base of the stairs, and so on. You could use the same technique to memorize a long string of numbers, by assigning a visual to each digit, then placing each of those images in your childhood home, or another space you know well.

2. Replace cramming with short, frequent review sessions

News flash: We don’t remember information well when we cram all our studying into one giant session.

Monotony interferes with our ability to remember things — that’s why we tend to remember the beginning and ending of a reading passage, but not the middle. All-nighters are even worse, since studies have shown that sleep plays an important role in helping us commit information to memory.

In fact, it’s helpful to break up your studying by doing completely unrelated activities, or at least switching to studying very different subject matter, in between short sessions.

(For example, 20 minutes of trigonometry followed by 30 minutes of art history, then 30 minutes of reading for English class, then going for a walk, then studying 20 more minutes of trigonometry, will help you remember that trig material better than if you studied trigonometry for 40 minutes straight.)

Ideally, you should also review newly learned information as soon as possible after class. As you probably know instinctively, you remember more right after hearing or learning the information, and over time, forget more of it.

We recommend not only reviewing the information soon after class, but doing so actively — for example, through some of the techniques mentioned above like translating your notes into visuals and charts. Another great way to commit the information more deeply to memory is to summarize your notes soon after class. (The Cornell note-taking method, an interesting technique recommended by many educators, advises this as well.)

The review session doesn’t need to be long — maybe 25 minutes, maybe less; whatever you need to go back over everything and boil it down into as summary and/or visuals. Then from there, set short, frequent review sessions of your notes and readings — not long, about 10-15 minutes is enough. From there, space additional review sessions over time at a lower frequency.

Just how far apart all these sessions should be spaced depends on what time period you need to learn it over. If you’re learning material for an end-of-semester test several months in the future, review sessions can obviously be spaced farther apart than if you’re preparing for a quiz at the end of the week. The important thing to remember is that frequency of study and effective spacing of study sessions is more important than length of time spent studying in individual sessions.

And since novelty and variety helps with memory, try switching up your study routine.

That could mean studying in different locations, or studying at a different time of day than usual. Because of sleep’s proven role in committing information to memory, just before any nap times, or before bedtime, are especially great times for reading material that you want to commit to longer-term memory.

3. Find a study buddy

To all of this we’ll add one more tip that builds on the previous one: it’s enormously helpful to occasionally switch things up by studying with a friend.

The reasons are numerous — for one, it’s a way of changing up your environment and bringing more novelty into your study session. Your friend will bring a new and different way of thinking to your study, for example, by making comments or jokes about the material which will help you remember it even more strongly.

Moreover, having another person there enables you to engage with and process the information in a wider range of ways.

One great technique is to take turns teaching the material to each other — it will force you to summarize what are probably a large amount of notes into a more digestible summary, to read things out loud (which research has shown significantly improves your memory of the material), and, not least of all, to have more fun while studying.

We remember things better when there’s an emotion tied to the experience, so why not make the best of things by having a good time, creating positive emotions, and in the process, remembering things more vividly. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.