Memory Building Graphic

How to learn memory skills

by Matthew Leitch, 30 July 2003

‘A new focus for memory improvement’

On 25th October 2001 I published ‘A new focus for memory improvement’ on the Internet. Since then many people have written to say how helpful they found it, how intuitive, how true to life, easy to read, inspiring, and so on. Many have written asking for advice, often on how to improve memory skills. That's something New Focus didn't mention at all.

Learning better memory skills is not easy. I've searched for research on it and found little that is convincing. Most early studies showed disappointing results. Current research tends to assume that teaching cognitive skills is effective, but does not prove it or demonstrate the effectiveness of particular methods. My personal experience with memory skills has been decidedly mixed.

It is easy to teach people to get better at remembering lists of unconnected words (a typical psychologist's test) but for the memory skills we really need in life it is much more difficult.

Getting a better memory is like getting fit or eating healthy foods – something many people resolve to do and only a few achieve for very long, if at all.

But don't stop reading! It's difficult because we don't know how, not because a great deal of pain or strain is involved. In this paper I'll remind you why efforts to change memory skills often fizzle out, and explain what kind of learning you need to go through. I'll discuss how to plan and sustain a campaign of memory improvement over a long period, including ideas for accelerating the benefits of changing.

How good intentions are defeated

If you've ever tried to improve your life by learning new thinking skills, getting more exercise, eating better, studying harder, keeping your home tidy, improving your posture, and so on then you've probably experienced failure. That's normal. Perhaps you also know people who seem to have succeeded? ‘You can always make time to go to the gym’ they may say. These people are in the minority – and will they still be making time next year? Health clubs depend on most members paying their subscriptions without actually turning up to use the facilities.

How many of these do your recognize?

What is striking about most of these is how rational they are. These are not just weak willed excuses. They are rational, powerful forces that any self improvement initiative needs to deal with or fail. Later I'll suggest ways to manage these forces during memory improvement.

What kind of learning is required?

Think of a mental skill you have succeeded in learning. Perhaps playing a card game, playing chess, reading music, programming a computer, doing algebra problems, or just reading, writing, and arithmetic. All these have something in common with memory skills: they are complex skills made up of many very specific skills. You acquired them over many practice sessions, each time consolidating a few old skills and building some new ones.

Building a better memory is not a matter of finding one magic technique or key that suddenly gives you a better memory for all types of material. You cannot learn it overnight, or even in a week or a month.

Unfortunately, this means you will need to sustain your learning programme for months at least and survive the obstacles listed in the previous section.

On the plus side it means you will acquire some improved memory skills almost immediately, though they will be very narrow. What you will acquire will be specific, identifiable skills, not elusive feelings or states.

An overview of an efficient memory skill building process

Your programme for learning memory skills will involve gradually acquiring, and heavily practising, a large number (think 100+) of narrow memory skills, specific to particular types of material (i.e. specific memory structures within topics). Each skill should be one that is worthwhile acquiring on its own. To get the best value from this programme it makes sense to tackle first the types of material that are most useful to you. Over time your ideas about what is most useful are bound to change as your life changes and your understanding of your skills improves with experience and observation.

To help maintain motivation you will need to stay aware of the work you are doing and what you have achieved so far, put physical reminders in places where you will keep seeing them, and integrate the programme with your work or studies so that it takes the minimum of extra time – ideally the net effect will be beneficial straight away.

Selecting the first skills to master

There's no need to identify all the skills in your programme at the outset. That would be impossible. Consider the things you spend most of your life doing and look for the memory involved. Consider when in your life memory is important. Those are the areas where you are likely to benefit most from upgrading your skills.

Now break those memory needs into small pieces. The tasks most likely to be good candidates for inclusion in your programme early on are those that:

Think small. Not ‘algebra’. Not ‘solving quadratic equations’. More like ‘recognizing equation forms – polynomials’ with solutions of them coming later. Think small and in terms of memory structures rather than conventional topics.

Make a hit list in some way that will allow you to easily reorder the items e.g. on a PDA or a proper computer, or using a deck of record cards.

Put the items in descending order of value to you. Don't worry too much about getting this perfect as long as the first few items are suitable. As soon as you get some experience of doing this you will want to change your list!

The idea of having the items on a list in descending order of value is to help you decide which practice opportunities to take and which to ignore. There are opportunities all the time but you can only take a few of them. As opportunities to practise arise, take them if they are high on your list, otherwise don't bother.

Typically, listing topics and structures is easier if you are a student because the memory content of what you do is more obvious and the topics are laid out for you. If you are not a student you may find it is hard to see the memory content in what you do. Here are some examples to show the sort of topics and structures that arise, and the analysis you should be doing:

E.g. Writing software: ‘But I'm creating, not memorizing!’ Programming is one of the most memory intensive jobs I've ever done. Deep in some code I was always scared to stop work in case it all went out of my head. As with other occupations, there is memory work to learn your job, and more memory work to do it. The memory content of learning to create software in a particular development environment is obvious: object models, syntax rules, function libraries, methods, and so on. These have become very complicated now and a realistic objective is to learn the most common and learn your way around a comprehensive set of reference books for the rest. However, on top of that each project brings a lot of new memory work. Even if it is you that is writing a program there is still a lot to remember. Names for objects, methods, functions, files, etc, and facts about them. Abstract data structures. Invariants about the system. Outside the program there will be jargon for the area where the software will be used, and that jargon will be added to by the software development effort. There will be requirements, business rules, deadlines, people, ... Here's what the top of your hit list might look like. In this example a new programming language has to be learned for a project starting next week so the practice opportunities read like a normal study plan.

(This list is formatted as: Topic and Structure, Value to me, Likely opportunities to practise.)

Objects in the object model & their names. (High value, urgent) Right now.

The hierarchy of objects in the object model. (High, urgent!) This afternoon.

Formats for writing object names. (High, urgent!) This afternoon.

Key word syntax rules. (High, urgent!) Project starts next week so get swatting..

Key word breakdown by function.. (High, urgent!) Project starts next week so must cover file words, strings, flow of control, etc. Get swatting. .

Key words main options.. (High, urgent!) For each of the main groups of key word..


E.g. Book keeping: As usual there is a lot to learn to master the job, and more to learn to do it. Procedures, the monthly routine, authorization rules, general ledger coding rules, VAT/sales tax classification rules, how to use computer systems, how to use various spreadsheets (including design, locations, naming rules and names, rules for amendments, filing, and backups), people to go to for queries of different kinds, legal entities and structures, new customers and suppliers and their terms, billing requirements, addresses/contacts, and progress with reconciliations, the details of reconciliation puzzles, ... Here's an imaginary hit list for someone who has being doing the job for some time and works as a payroll clerk:

Condition-action pairs for dealing with new types of query. (Need to sort this out urgently – I'm getting confused too often.) Have to prepare for meeting on queries on Thursday.

Definitions in tax rules. (Helpful for explaining to employees. I'd like to be better at this.) Make some time next week? Have a look at PAYE basics.

Tax rules involving classification. (Helpful for explaining to employees. I'd like to be better at this.) Make some time next week? PAYE basics again.

Tax rules involving calculation. (Helpful for explaining to employees. I'd like to be better at this.) Make some time next week? PAYE

New procedures. (Procedures not changed often.) Next month when the new procedures for adding employees are circulated.


E.g. Searching the Internet: More and more of us do this. As we go we have to keep track of what we're looking for, leads used, leads still to try, what we've found so far, and what we've learned so far.

URL formats (Would make remembering them easier and reduce strain.) Any time. I've got a book with a useful chapter.

Search engine query options (Useful to know them for Google, and might be handy getting better at learning them on other search engines.) Any time I have a few minutes.

Search engine query formats (As above.) Next week.

Condition-action pairs linking requirements to likely search engine query options (Crucial to using the knowledge well) Next time I have some peace and quiet.

Search strategies (Will reduce strain of holding them in mind while working.) Later

Content descriptions for interesting pages found (Will reduce strain of holding them in mind while working.) Next time I'm searching and not in too much of a hurry.

Sets of potential search words (Will reduce strain of holding them in mind while working.) Ditto

etc (etc) etc

E.g. Writing a story: J K Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, has described how she keeps written notes on characters (their histories and characteristics), places and things, plots, clues, and so on. As with many things, relying entirely on memory is not a good idea. However, having this kind of material in memory is very important to her productivity as an author. How could she have invented the stories if she was continually having to refer to her notes? Here are some memory skills someone just starting out as a writer might want to acquire.

Personal characteristics of characters (My favourite bit but important to be disciplined.) Today

Names of characters (Top priority in my genre, sword and sorcery.) Tomorrow

Biographies of characters (Key for realism and productivity.) Next week

Plot lines (Vital) When I start having some ideas.

Clues and the places where they are revealed (Will be important for the series – perhaps a trilogy.) Next month

Names of locations (As for names of characters) Not sure

Characteristics of locations (Very important for atmosphere) Not sure


What to expect when you tackle your first new skill

‘A new focus for memory improvement’ explained how building memories was a matter of noticing the right things in the right order so that strong memories would be formed. The best sequencing of observations depends on the material and the structure of memory needed. Deciding the sequence of observation and carrying it out is the skill you have to invent and practise.

So sit down with the material you want to learn to memorize and have a go. See what there is to notice, what helps, and what makes a good sequence. Think about how you will recall and use the information as this can sometimes be crucial to deciding how to memorize it. There are extensive examples in ‘A new focus for memory improvement’. Gradually your approach will develop a pattern.

It is rare to find published examples of how to observe and memorize different types of material, but here are two.

Plane spotting: In England in 1941, when Penguin published ‘Aircraft Recognition’ by R A Saville-Sneath, recognizing aircraft was more than a hobby. The book is a deadly serious guide to identifying the friendly and hostile aircraft likely to be seen over England at that time. In addition to the information about particular machines there is a guide to observing the features of an aeroplane. This concentrates on structural characteristics because these are most relevant for identification: wings, engines, tail unit, fuselage, under-carriage, radiators etc. Alternatives types for each structural part are explained. A simple description, omitting details, of an Anson is ‘Low-wing monoplane, twin engine, simple tail unit, radial engines, under-carriage retracts.’

Seeing like an artist: In ‘Advanced drawing skills: a course in artistic excellence’ Barrington Barber gives a lot of advice to direct the attention of the learner. One of the most interesting is his suggestion of looking for triangles and other simple geometric figures in a scene you want to draw. Observing these coincidences of alignment, relative ratios of sizes, and so on is useful for drawing because they help to get objects into the correct position. This kind of observation also means that the artist has a different memory of scenes – one that allows them to draw ‘from memory’.

It may be that you realize the skill you have chosen was too broad for a single session, so narrow your scope and try again. In particular, if you can't think how your skill should work then try narrowing your scope further. This is the sort of discovery that will help you write a better hit list next time.

The first couple of items you memorize like this will stay with you for some time. They benefit from the advantage of being the first. However, be aware that as you tackle more items of a similar nature you will suffer some confusions as the items interfere with each other in your memory. Do not mistake the initial effectiveness as an indication of what you can expect in future.

(This mistake is quite common and very noticeable with visual associative mnemonics such as the number rhyme system, which I do not recommend. At first the ingenious imagery is unfamiliar and distinctive, giving strong and reliable memories. However, after you have reused a peg a few times the images start to get mixed up.)

Your memory for material of the specific type you have been practising with will improve for a number of reasons and there will be some very slight generalization. First, you will gain a better repertoire of chunks in that specific topic area. These will slightly improve memory of material in the same area but with different memory structures. Second, you will build better procedures for observing material of that type. When you come to upgrade your skills for other material with similar structure you will benefit very slightly from generalization of the ability to invent procedures for that structure.

It is not clear whether increasing your stock of chunks is a true improvement in memory skill, even though it is clear that it improves memory performance. Try to be patient and disciplined in following a systematic, conscious pattern of observations when memorizing, or you may find that the only true improvement is in your chunks.

Revising your hit list

Now you have had a go at upgrading a specific memory skill and got some first hand experience of just how small and specific they need to be, it is time to rewrite and reorder your hit list of skills. It is also time to consider some of the issues that might affect your overall plan.

You may also find that the material you normally have to learn is not ideally suited for learning memory skills. Perhaps it is almost entirely of mixed structures, with very little repetition of any one structure. Perhaps, in addition, you cannot work at your own pace or in your own sequence. Perhaps much of the material is wrong or at least controversial.

This will make it difficult to use normal learning activities to practise new memory skills and you may have to do extra homework. If you do this in the right topics then your improved repertoire of chunks will help memory performance to some extent and you will be able to ignore some information you receive (e.g. in lectures) because you have already learned it from a book. This will give you a little more time to deal with the new information being fired at you.

Sustaining your programme

You're looking at 3 – 6 months of near daily practice followed by a lifetime of maintenance and minor additions. Can you sustain it? Here are some suggestions.

Is it possible to teach memory skills?

In principle, of course. But in practice how many teachers have time to go into the detail needed or give each student the necessary individual attention?

There are some things a teacher can do: (1) advocate deliberate cultivation of memory skills, (2) explain good memory skills, and (3) explain material so that good memory skills are encouraged. Of these by far the most interesting is the last, in which the teacher becomes a role model.

Here are some small examples:

Plain explanation: ‘This is a picture of the human brain. This structure is called the cerebrum.’

Explanation for memory: ‘This is a picture of the human brain. Can you see that it's built from parts? Just take a look at those for a moment. You see this large part. It's the largest part of the human brain and massive as a proportion of total brain size compared with most other species. Here's a picture of a cat's brain. Do you see how different it is in this region? It's the most recently evolved part and it is responsible for most of our human thinking abilities. It's called the cerebrum. Notice the similarity to the word “cerebral” which you may know means “intellectual”. Notice the spelling of this word. C rather than S, single R, A before the L.’

Plain explanation: ‘Here's how we write the letter “a”.’ [demonstration]

Explanation for memory: ‘Here's how we write the letter “a”. Watch me now and watch where I start.’ [demonstration] ‘Where did I start? Yes, halfway between the lines, at the top of the letter. Which way did I go next? Yes, round here to make the fat tummy.’

Plain explanation: ‘A snail is a gastropod.’

Explanation for memory: ‘A snail is a type of gastropod. So is a slug. Can anyone tell me why “gastropod” is a good name for slugs and snails?’

If you are keen to advocate memory skills to students then you may be able to break down their natural cynicism using an experiment. One of the advantages of visual associative mnemonics (i.e. making up silly imagery) is that it is different from ordinary memory and creates a stir when you try it for the first time. By comparison, advising people to notice things about what they want to learn seems too simple and prosaic to make any difference. The following experiment illustrates that this deceptively simple idea is every bit as exciting as bizarre images.

Psychological experiments are hard to do convincingly, so take care to get this just right.

Give your class something interesting but unrelated to the school material of the day to read for 5 minutes. Keep it short so they have time to read it 2 or 3 times and see that they do. Then give them something of equivalent level but a different topic to read for 5 minutes and this time they must count how many specific facts or assertions they can find in the text. They write that number down at the end.

By specific facts or assertions I mean the sort of analysis shown in ‘A new focus for memory improvement’. For example if a sentence says: ‘The company launched a new brand of soap powder.’ then you can deduce that (1) the entity is a company, (2) it launched a new product, (3) that product was a soap, (4) in powder form, (5) and the brand was new even though (6) we don't know if the soap was. These are the sort of details you would need to attend to if you wanted to remember the information clearly and for a long time. ‘Specific facts or assertions’ can and should include summaries of the main argument or conclusion as well as details of the support. There is no need to write them down.

At the end of the day, have them try to remember as many specific facts and assertions as they can from both passages, and count up the facts and assertions for each piece of material they read.

When I do this test on myself I can usually remember almost all the facts I noticed earlier in the day but if I didn't try to notice anything specific then I can remember far less than half as many given the same duration of reading. Introspectively, the experience is entirely different as well.

Try it yourself first and make sure you have two pieces of material that are not confusible. To avoid the criticism that one passage was more memorable than the other simply ask half the students to count with one passage and half to count with the other, then calculate averages between the two groups.

You could consider having some students do the counting first as well but this may lead to them counting in the second condition as well. I would not expect the order of the materials to make a big difference in favour of the second exercise, whichever it is, but rather the reverse.

Some of your students will score similarly in both conditions, perhaps because they did not follow instructions or already notice things well without specific instructions to do so. However, some, probably most, will have dramatically different scores depending on whether they specifically attended to what they were learning or not.

There may still be some sceptics, but many in your class may find that this experience is a sobering lesson in listening to their teacher and in the power of experiment.


Learning better memory skills is a long term project and the obstacles are considerable. However, you can do it. Keep your plans simple and lightweight. Make sure you do things that are worthwhile. And keep going.

About the author: Matthew Leitch has been studying the applied psychology of learning and memory since about 1979 and holds a BSc in psychology from University College London.