How to Learn and Memorize Faster

Last updated: Jun 27, 2023

Conventional wisdom says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill. Such deliberate care in learning new things is admirable, but you’re scheduled to sit for the SAT nine Saturdays from now and, come on, you also have a life. If you need to shorten the learning curve for your weaker test subjects, simply adapt clever techniques from memory champions and adopt their brain-boosting habits so you can learn and memorize faster.

female student studying to learn and memorize faster for her exam

You’ve Never Heard of a Memory Champion?

It’s a thing. Memory championships are worldwide competitions to crown the fastest “mental athletes” who memorize names, faces, series of numbers, decks of cards, poetry, spoken words, and random facts. To give you an idea of how skilled these memorizers are, Alex Mullen set the U.S. speed card record in 2016 by memorizing a 52-card deck in 18 seconds. Rajveer Meena from India holds the record for memorizing the most digits of pi (70,000 decimal places).


Despite their freakish recall, memory competitors insist they were not born with special skills. They work at it. And the techniques they use will work for you, too. Best of all, you won’t need 10,000 hours. Mastering the methods takes just a few minutes a day and will improve your recall of facts for almost any kind of test (plus names, faces, phone numbers, where you left your keys, and your mother’s birthday).


Top 7 Memory Tricks of Champions

Memory champs spend years perfecting their instant recall, but stealing just seven of their techniques could revolutionize your test prep.


No. 7: Build Interconnections with Multiple Methods

Expand your methods of learning new material. When you commit concepts to memory in more than one way – listening to a lecture, taking notes, reading, drawing diagrams, flipping flashcards – you store the information in different areas of your brain. Recalling them becomes easier because a single cue can retrieve data via many different neural interconnections. This kind of cross-referencing improves deeper learning as well as quick memorization for test-taking.


No. 6: Use Storytelling Techniques  

Turn whatever you’re struggling to memorize into a visual storyline – the weirder, more intense the backstory of the images the better. Say your next exam is on the capitals of every country in Africa placed correctly on a map. You might tell yourself the story of a windy day when you hooked an endangered Namibian purple flounder. “Wind” and “hook” help you recall the capital, Windhoek, and the story helps you associate Namibia with the vaguely flounder-shaped outline of the country, which you have colored purple on your practice map. Matters not in the least that these facts are, um, fishy, if the linked visuals animate your memory and help you ace the test.


 male student writing on a notebook with a pen trying to learn and memorize the test material.

No. 5: Try the First-Letter Text Method

If you have to memorize a lengthy text – the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, a list of Spanish monarchs, the components in a complex laboratory experiment – write the first letter of every word in the text and then try to recall the original just from the prompts of the first letters. There are online converters that will do this for you, but the physical act of writing is also a powerful memory device (see tip No. 2) so it can reinforce the information if you forgo the digital assist.


No. 4: Sing It (or Rhyme It)

It worked in preschool to learn your ABCs, and a song will still work to help you learn material for a test. Memory champs use the technique, and researchers have found that college students remember rhyming words better than nonrhyming words. So, it’s possible if you transform operations for algebraic expressions into a Beyoncé song, you could hum your way to a higher GRE score.    


No. 3:  Chunk It into Smaller Groups

Scientist have reported that people generally remember only about seven items on the fly. Memory champs, of course, crush this limitation, and so can you. But it doesn’t hurt to learn things in groups of no more than seven. Think of phone numbers: three digits divided by a dash from four more digits. It’ll speed up your memorization if you chop the material into chunks your brain can manage.


 male concentrating on his memorization technique.

No. 2: Ditch the Digital

Students who write out their notes by hand rather than on a laptop have a stronger conceptual understanding of the material as well as better short-term recall. Longhand note-takers outperform their keyboarding classmates, scientists believe, because they use their own words for their notes rather than mindlessly transcribing the lecturer’s words. Also, the physical act of scratching pen across paper creates a stronger cognitive link to the material than tapping a keyboard, and the context of handwriting serves as memory cues for recall.


Memory champ Nelson Dellis told CNBC that going offline is one of his top memory-boosting tips: “You’ll be surprised how powerful your natural memory is if you just try and pay attention.”


No. 1: Explore the Method of Loci

Also known as the Memory Palace technique, the method of loci works like this: You create a visual map in your mind, like the layout of your own house, and then you connect memorable images in various locations along the way. It’s similar to the storytelling method, but it is more spatial in nature. You form associations between things you know and can see in your mind’s eye (say, your kitchen) with things you need to commit to memory (Linnaeus’ taxonomy ranking for a mouse, perchance). You’d give the kingdom, phylum, class, order, and family a memorable location in your kitchen (countertop, sink, microwave, etc.), then add mnemonic elements in those places to help you recall facts. The mouse’s phylum, chordata, could become a six-pack of Coors Light in the fridge; its order, rodentia, could be a roast in the oven.


Seem far-fetched? A study of 23 participants who trained 30 minutes a day found that they more than doubled their recall abilities in 40 days.


male eating a fruit bowl good for the brain to help him learn and memorize faster.

Memory-Boosting Habits Also Help

In addition to those seven memory techniques, lifestyle changes also can fast-prep your brain for victorious test-taking. Begin with the basics of adequate sleep and hydration, but take your routines to the next level with tips from memory champs:


  • Eat brain foods: Your diet really does matter, according to Jim Kwik, the “brain coach” who advised Elon Musk’s SpaceX team. If you want to learn faster, start eating avocados, eggs, blueberries, salmon, turmeric, and dark chocolate.
  • Stop multitasking: Focus solely on the new material you need to learn.
  • Meditate: Practicing mindfulness improves short-term memory and spatial working memory (so you’ll be better at method of loci).
  • Play mind games: Memory champs and researchers cite memocamp as an effective brain-training site, but there are many apps that can sharpen your memory and amuse you at the same time.


Don’t Forget to Look into USF’s Test Prep Courses

If you’re not yet a memory champion, you can turn to the experts at USF for the latest techniques and tips for standardized test prep. We can help you master the skills to hit your high score on the GMAT, GRE, LSAT, SAT, or ACT.


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