Lots of people emphasize the utility of advanced memory techniques like the memory palace, also known as the method of loci, or even simple mnemonics. But how do you utilize them to your advantage, or put them into use as a student? We’ll explain in this blog just how you might go about it.
What Kind of Information Are You Learning?
First, take a moment and answer this simple question. Apart from medical school pre-requisites, the information you’re learning in college varies a great deal based on your major. I explore how to approach studying material from different subjects in my “Finals Week – 6 Tips and Tricks” post.
However, when you get to medical school, all the complex math concepts, physics, and organic chemistry goes out the window. If there was one way to explain medical school, it was rote memorization. But regardless of whether your trajectory and goals are medically related, or involve law, business, etc. – you can always benefit from the method of loci and mnemonics for certain types of information.
If you know me well, you’ll know that memorization is not my strength. Therein, I like to approach the sometimes daunting task of memorization through three methods:
- Spaced repetition using Anki. If you check out the YouTube channel, I go over how to use Anki to your benefit in a few videos.
- The memory palace, otherwise called the method of loci
As you guys already know from the channel, I’m a big-time proponent of Anki. I have no financial incentive in recommending the Anki program. The reason I’m such a fan of Anki is that it increases efficiency. In fact, I stick most of the information that I try to memorize into Anki. It’s quick to make, quick to review, and works best for simple concepts. This was my primary method of memorizing information, and something you should consider to be high on your list too.
Mnemonics are the next step up in the effort-efficiency-results game. They usually require a bit more effort to create, but offer better retention and recall for things like anatomy or lists. For example, if you are memorizing the branches of the external carotid, mnemonics can be your best friend. Similarly, if you need to memorize a group of drugs under a certain class type, mnemonics will once again serve you well.
Now, with that said, you of course want mnemonics that are memorable and therefore effective for you. This often means making up your own mnemonics that you find memorable and that make sense to you. These can be funny inappropriate sexual innuendos (these were great for anatomy), obnoxious mental images, or really anything memorable/interesting/entertaining to you.
Memory Palace/Method of Loci
For those who are not familiar, the method of loci or memory palace is where you combine the information you’re trying to learn with visualizations of familiar places; thus taking advantage of spatial memory. Generally, moving through the familiar place on a route you often take is most effective.
For example, imagine waking up and walking downstairs and visualize multiple events happening as you do so. Each of these events is tied to a certain concept or element you are trying to memorize. By having this vivid memory, you’re better able to recall the information later. Again, this works best when the images really stand out in your mind – grotesque, obnoxious, ridiculous, etc.
This is what professionals use in memory competitions. Not being one myself, I would use the memory palace only for concepts that didn’t fit well into either regular flashcards or mnemonics. If a concept was particularly difficult for me the memorize, I would go with the memory palace. The reason for this was that the memory palace takes the greatest amount of time to create, but it is the most robust way to memorize information.
On a side note, an intermediate method that became one of my favorites was creating brief stories that either did or did not have a physical spatial setting involved. For example, to memorize the adverse effects of Tamoxifen, an antineoplastic drug, I imagined my friend’s sister Tammy. I thought up ridiculous things either about her or happening to her, each of which represented one of the adverse effects of the drug.
For the medical students out there, a great resource that takes advantage of this concept of loci and memory palace is SketchyMedical. I used it when studying micro and I found it very useful.
Lastly, it’s important to regularly review your Anki/flash cards, mnemonics and memory palaces. If you create them once, you will not remember them on the test. You must repeatedly review them, just like anything else you’re trying to memorize.
There are two methods I recommend in reviewing your material:
First, I created a “master mnemonic and memory palace list” note in my Evernote. This note had all the mnemonics and memory palaces I used divided up by subject. I could then go and review this whenever I needed a refresher. I would also occasionally teach my friends my mnemonics during group study sessions. Sometimes they would use them, sometimes they would create their own. However, the most important part about the process was that I was reinforcing my own grasp of the information, which only helped me learn further. It’s was an win-win this way.
Second, Anki. Again, I have no affiliation with the program, but it just worked that well and I hope that it does the same for you. I would take my mnemonics and stories and actually put them in my Anki decks. This way, I was reviewing my mnemonics along with all my other information and forgetting them was never a problem. A note on this – if you do decide to use Anki for these methods, I recommend you make tags to indicate which cards are either mnemonics or use the method of loci. My two tags were “mnemonics” and “story”. This makes it easier to find these cards in case you need to edit them or want to do a custom study session just reviewing your mnemonics and stories.