How to improve your memory: tips for information retention

Alex Booth
10 min readApr 3, 2021

Never find yourself searching for a fact or figure again!

Photo by Fredy Jacob on Unsplash

I do like a pub quiz. This is perhaps a strange(ish) way to start a post about how to improve your memory.

It’s true that in most cases the pub quiz readers seemingly lose the ability to read (either that, or they’re too sloshed on complimentary beer to care). In these instances, the challenge becomes less about the actual question and more about trying to decipher their pronunciation of anything remotely foreign.

Then there’s the half time interval- where you give your brain a rest by stuffing your face with oven chips and/or nondescript sandwiches you think might be ham but haven’t got the stomach to check for sure.

Despite all this, though (or maybe because of all this) there’s something immensely satisfying about pitting your wits against an unseen quiz setter. Particularly when there’s beer involved.

Yes, on the whole quizzes are pretty fun.

It doesn’t hurt that I’m not too bad at them. Not fabulous — let’s not get carried away, now. But probably better than average. Good enough to know that — with a very fair wind and a dash of luck — I could be challenging for the £20 prize pot.

It also helps that, at their core, a pub quiz is reassuringly, dare I say comfortingly stable. You know what you’re getting. A picture round, a couple of generic Q+A’s and then a couple of ‘let’s spice things up’ rounds (you know- wipeout, what’s the connection etc.).

They are also a very specific expression of your learning.

They test your ability to retain and recall information. Like a reflexive response following someone hitting your knee in a particular place, quizzes stimulate a similar response. Only, instead of a medical hammer, you are hit with questions like which was Henry VIII’s first Anne- Cleaves or Boleyn?

Learning as retention

As far back as the 19th century, learning and retention have gone hand-in-hand. Indeed, Ebbinghaus in 1880 conducted some research on this very topic.

His ‘forgetting curve’ has gone on to inform an awful lot of research and planning. If you want to have a look at it- maybe out of interest, or because you have a certain fondness for curved graphs.

Essentially, Ebbinghaus found that, on average, after the first day of learning/looking at something, you’ve probably forgotten about 50% of what you tried to remember.

By the end of the first month, that will have dropped to 90%. All of this makes it very infuriating when I see students not making notes in lessons, because they are convinced that they’ll ‘remember it for the exam’.

Scientifically speaking, you won’t.

A retention culture?

There is a lot of emphasis in school’s- and society as a whole- on ways to improve your memory.

I was recently invited to deliver a presentation to trainee teachers about the importance of retention in the classroom. It makes sense. Retention and recall of information is a massive focus in curriculum design in schools — particularly with exam culture looming over our education system.

In researching for this opportunity to corrupt the minds of trainee teachers, I saw a bewildering number of posts, pages and courses that are designed to help people to both encode what they’re exposed to (which is a fancy term for taking something from our working memory and plonking it in our long term memory) and then dredge this encoded information from the depths of our long term memory.

Like some trained seal demonstrating the ability to balance an orange on its nose.

Now, I would argue that too often we confuse the ability to remember ‘things’ with actual understanding. Just because I can remember the different colours of wires in a plug, for instance, (blue or black, brown and green/yellow stripes) it doesn’t mean that I can conduct rudimentary electrical work. A fact I learnt to my cost…

Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the fact that being able to retain and recall information is serious business. It makes sense, therefore, to try and give you some tips and tricks to improve your memory.

1. Summarise it

I often remember a triumphant moment from an English lesson.

I can’t remember the specific context — I think it had something to do with bananas (because that sounds like the sort of thing you’d talk about in an English lesson. Whatever it was, the teacher asked us which two countries bordered Costa Rica.

“Oh, that’s Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south” I said, after a second’s thought.

You can picture the scenes of euphoria that followed. Of me being hoisted on the shoulders of my peers, paraded around the school like some deity. In the streets, people abandoned their desks to dance in the streets. A public holiday was announced.

Maybe not.

True, a couple of friends seemed mildly impressed. One even gave me a thumbs up.

The remainder of the class either weren’t listening, or proceeded to whisper ‘nerd’ under their breath. I think I got a merit though, so I know who got the last laugh!

To be honest I can understand their reaction. The position of Central American countries is a strange thing to remember.

In reality, I was able to ‘wow’ my friends thanks to a book I had recently read about maps (because which 13 year old doesn’t like doing that on a Sunday afternoon?). Whilst reading, I had committed a handy (albeit very specific) phrase to memory:

Great Big Hungary Elephants Nealy Consumed Panama.

Memory by association

On its own, this strange phrase doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Until you realise that the first letter indicates the name of the Central American country from north to south:

Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama.

Cool, right?

To this day, my mind is full of seemingly useless mnemonics like this one.

The reason is, because they’re easy to remember.

Think about the colours of the rainbow, and you probably use a similar method. Having said that, if you use the song ‘I can sing a rainbow’ you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror. I don’t know what rainbow the writer was picturing when they wrote the lyrics but, when last I checked, pink is not part of the rainbow crew.

Mnemonics are such useful devices because they help summarise and reprocess information. In doing so, it makes it more memorable.

Now, technically mnenomics don’t actually summarise.

Let’s have a look at a simple example that does. Take a look at the number below. You have 5 seconds to memorise it (no cheating!)


I can imagine you found it tough. I, for one, am useless at this sort of thing.

Unless we summarise it. Let’s take the same number. Only this time, we’ll break it up:

873 694 873 643

Suddenly it becomes a lot more straightforward. Your retrieval has been aided by summarising the information.

2. Return to it periodically

To illustrate this, we need to return to the forgetful curve. In case you’ve forgotten, 50% of the information we look at tends to dribble out of our brains after 24 hours.

You can ‘stop the rot’ though by retrieving them periodically. Fancy, scientific writing (take Karpicke et al., 2011 for example) call this phenomena ‘retrieval spacing’. Interestingly, this same study found repeatedly returning to information with an interval between each retrieval led to a 200% increase in retention.

The message is pretty clear. Don’t just assume that once you’ve learnt it that’s it.

Going round and round?

So, how can you encourage yourself to return to information? Well I’m not saying that you should lead the life of the goldfish and constantly revisit the same 4 or 5 bits of information

(As an aside, though, according to the University of Melbourne goldfish are estimated to have memories of up to 6 months- the 3 second notion is just an urban myth. If you want some ‘memory bashing’ Chimps, apparently, have short term memories of just 20 seconds).

There’s no two ways about it. Regular, semi-frequent retrieval is an important way to improve your memory and boost longer term retention.

So what can be done about it?

Well, according to a post in Medium, learning should be the 50/50 rule. That’s 50% learning, 50% sharing.

Now, although I take objection to this rule for some instances — if you’ve been learning about new knitting patterns, for instance, I would recommend that you find another audience (preferably in another country) — there is logic to this method.

As I’ve written before, the best way to learn something is to teach it.

If you find yourself devoid of willing (or unwilling) subjects, however, there are several other ways of encouraging yourself to return to information:

  • Write a summary paragraph or, even better, a mind map a few days after learning about something;
  • Talk to yourself in the mirror — something that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend within earshot of anyone else.
  • Or, probably the most useful, read something similar….

3. Look for connections with what you already know

We’ll explore this ‘read something similar’ in a little more depth.

I’ve written before about the importance of ‘hanging’ information off your existing understanding when trying to better explain concepts.

If you can’t make an idea relatable to the experiences of your listener, you’re going to find it more difficult to get that listener to — well — listen.

The same principle follows when trying to remember things, too.

Imagine you’re reading a book/watching a documentary. Maybe one on bees? Or goats.

If you find yourself constantly asking yourself ‘so what?’, the information you’re being exposed to — however interesting it may be — is unlikely to stick around in your brain.

There is a learning principle adopted by Bill Gates. Being one of the wealthiest people alive, I’m inclined to listen to his words of wisdom.

One thing that Mr Gates is good at is learning.

When asked about how what learning tips he’d give himself at 15, his main message was this:

Question why you’re learning anything.

Sounds pretty simple

Essentially, what Bill Gates was getting at was that, to learn effectively, you need to embed information into the existing framework of your mind.

Either information will be added to the existing structure of what you know about a topic, or else it will be accommodated elsewhere. Elon Musk uses something similar — he imagines knowledge as a tree. It makes an interesting read.

Anyway, both gents agree that learning can’t happen unless you’re constantly questioning your learning. Passively absorbing information won’t get you anywhere.

If you want to improve your retention constantly ask yourself how what you’re reading contributes to, or develops, what you already know about the world. Read something with a healthy dose of cynicism- ‘why am I learning about [bees/goats/Central American countries]’?

If you want some more in-depth information on how to read effectively, have a look at this Medium article.

Believe me, reading like this is harder on your brain. The upshot is it will massively help your knowledge retention.

4. Don’t cram too much in

Shall we do an experiment?

Pick a word (I immediately thought ‘potato’). Now, say it again and again.

How long did it take for the word to lose meaning? Probably not too long.

Our memory is very much the same. We can only put so much stuff into it before we reach saturation — if you want to read more about this, have a look at this post.

You’re probably familiar with the feeling of having crammed your brain with too much ‘stuff’. Your head starts to feel like someone’s shoved cotton wool down your ears; you find yourself repeatedly reading the same sentence again and again.

Words like ‘comply’ and ‘eloquence’ — once easy terms at the beginning of the day — now resemble something from the Da Vinci Code.

In short, you need a rest.

Learning — and knowledge retention — is about discipline. It’s counter-productive to push it. All you’ll do is find it harder and harder to add the information to the internal framework of your mind. You will forget it.

You want to improve your memory? Try taking a break. Sleep on it. You’ll amaze yourself at how well you retain in whilst you sleep.

5. Try to find some interest in it

You’ll find it tricky to remember something if you aren’t interested in it.

I see this phenomenon quite regularly in the classroom.

Ask ‘Student U’ to tell me what we studied last week and I will more often than not be greeted with a blank face and a protracted ‘urmmmmm’.

Ask that same student to rattle off the most effective guns in Fortnite, or best the stats for armour in Minecraft, and I can say goodbye to the rest of the lesson. Before your very eyes, they transform from ‘mumbling incoherent’ to ‘preeminent expert’.

As Tyng et al., (2017) conclude, there is a perfectly good reason why this is the case: people associate emotions with learning.

Although Tyng et al., found that, ultimately, it’s tricky to determine whether positive or negative emotions affect retention more, take it from me; if your topic gets labelled with the ‘boring’ tag, you’re facing an uphill battle to get people to remember anything.

If you find something interesting, though, it’s going to stick into your head a lot more easily.

When you associate information with certain emotions it makes it stick in your memory more.

Music memory?

The likelihood is, you will have seen the effects of emotion heightening recall without even realising it.

To illustrate, think back 10 years ago.

Try to remember, word for word if possible, a conversation you had with a friend/family member.

I would imagine that it’s quite tricky.

Now, think of a popular song from 10 years ago.

The chances are, you can still sing the lyrics.

It’s proposed that this is due to two main factors:

  1. The emotions you attach to songs give them that extra memory ‘kick’
  2. They will get played periodically on the radio (whether you like them or not) time and time again. This gives that forgetting curve a nudge back to remembering.

Combine these two factors and you have a recipe for retention.

What lessons can we learn?

So, take piece of information you’re trying to learn. Try to assign some emotion (preferably interest, happiness, excitement) to the piece of information you’re trying to learn.

Then, get it announced to you on the radio every other day.


Final thoughts

There we go. Five tips that can help you improve you memory like a pro.

Armed with this knowledge, I expect you to go forth and dominate that pub quiz. As long as it’s not the one that I go to…



Alex Booth

Using educational insight and bad jokes to promote personal and professional development. Find out more at