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Train your Brain: Memory Tips and Tricks

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“I knew this last week! Why can’t I remember this?” – Every law student, ever

Even at the best of times our memory can fail, leaving us hopelessly fumbling for that case name or trying to remember who had the onus of proof.

Fear not though, as studying for my secondary degree in Psychology has given me great insight into the best ways to remember things and how to avoid forgetting. Here are just a few tips on how to prepare for exams based on what psychology tells us about memory...

Forget listening to your lecturer!

Well, not completely.

According to the “Deep Processing” theory, just listening to a lecturer without engaging in the material is one of the weakest ways of storing something to your long term memory. By only just repeating the analyses others have done, you are not thoroughly understanding and thus not processing the material with any amount of depth. To allow for deeper processing:

  • Stop reading your friends’ notes on the subject. Instead, make your own and put them in your own words.

  • Try and explain the concepts to a friend.

  • Do more practice questions.

If you learnt the information drunk, go to the exam drunk!

No, I’m not joking.

If you’re the boozy soon-to-be lawyer who stumbles home at 2 am and does their readings half plastered, you will better remember the content you have learnt if you try and recall it when drunk (that’s not to say that alcohol won’t have other negative effects on performance).

This is all based on “Context-Dependant learning” or “State-dependant learning”. Essentially, information recall is significantly better if you are in very similar circumstances to what you learnt it in.

So if you have to take exams at your university, in silent room, sitting alone, you will probably be better off studying at your university, without noise (sorry guys, no music), completely alone.

If you drink coffee right before studying for Criminal Law, drink it right before your Criminal exam. If you don’t have any particular precursor to study, introduce one (such as chewing gum or wearing a particular fragrance) and use it right before your exam.

Flashcards don’t help you memorise content!

At least not in the way you are probably using them.

Typically, students stare at each card for as long as it takes to remember the information on it and then move on to the next, but for flashcards to be useful they must follow the “Say All Fast Minute Each Day Shuffle” (SAFMEDS) method. All or as many cards as possible should be looked at as fast as possible for a minute. The cards you cannot remember instantly should be taken from the pile and then reviewed. This needs to be repeated each day, having been shuffled into a new order.

This method is effective because:

  • The rate at which you complete this forces you to think quickly while under pressure – a crucial skill for exams.

  • Repetition is important in memorising anything.

  • In shuffling them, you are not learning the information in a particular order that can be pre-empted or act as cues to the correct answer.

Note: Flashcards should have no more than a few words on it otherwise they become ineffective.

Relate everything back to your established knowledge!

Psychology tells us that instead of trying to just memorise information, students should utilise the technique of mnemonics to increase the amount they can remember and their recall accuracy. This is done by coupling new piece of information, such as the elements to a contract, with something you are quite familiar with, like how to get to university. So if you visualise a man offering you a deal on shoes on your street, you should be able to recall that an offer is the first element to a contract by calling forth this imagery.

Building on this technique, attaching things you need to remember to things you are already familiar with, you could:

  • Visualise your friends in the legal situations you are learning about

  • Relate the case names back to things or people you know. For example I remember the case of Holland v Hodgson better than all other fixture cases because one of my close friends came from Holland to Australia.

These little known facts are just teasers to the great expanse of things we know about memory, so take a look at some psych textbooks and see how you can develop your memory even more. What are your tips for memorising law content?

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