Try These Strategies to Help Improve Your Learning and Memory Skills

Paying closer attention, reinforcing new information, and organizing your things and your schedule all help with recall.

Concentrating better as you learn new information is critical to locking in new memories. But what you do after that can be just as helpful.

Clinical neuropsychologist Yakeel T. Quiroz, PhD, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Multicultural Alzheimer’s Prevention Program, and Clara Vila-Castelar, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in neuropsychology at MGH, offer some proven strategies to help improve concentration and learning, as well as some tips to make it easier to remember everything from doctor appointments to where you left your keys.

Internal Memory Strategies

As you learn information, such as the name of a new neighbor, take a few moments to lock in that memory with steps such as:

  • Rehearsal: Repeat information over and over.
  • Visualization: Make a mental picture of information.
  • Association: Mentally associate new information with something familiar to you.
  • Categorize: Organize lists of information by category or similarity (e.g., by color, shape, type).
  • First letter cueing: When trying to recall a word/name, mentally recite the alphabet to prompt recognition.
  • Summarize: List who, what, when, where, why, how, what’s next.
  • Chunking: Group digits of numbers into chunks (e.g., 210-200-9999).
  • Chaining: Recall three to four words by linking them together in a sentence. (e.g., if trying to remember the words apple, pencil, ocean, you think of an apple with a pencil going through it floating in the ocean).

External Memory Strategies

Keeping information and items organized can be challenging for everyone. To help keep your life and home orderly, try:

  • Checklists: Create lists for grocery shopping or when needing to follow steps in a correct sequence.
  • Calendar: Record appointments, chores, events, and birthdays.
  • Planner/notebook: This is good for keeping track of daily information such as names of people recently met, phone numbers, and financial expenditures.
  • Memory place: Find a place in the home that will be used to store important items, such as keys, wallet, and cellphone.
  • Cellphone: Use for electronic reminders, alarms, record phone numbers, medication times, voice reminders.
  • Pillbox: organize medications by day and time.
  • Post-it notes: for taking quick notes, often good to have near the phone in case you need to write down information.
  • Remove distractions: a quiet environment will help increase focus for remembering information.

Learning Strategies

Making sure you cement new information in your memory banks, you may benefit from the following concentration helpers:

  • Best time: Find the best time of the day to study or carry out complicated tasks. This will be when you are most energized.
  • Summarize information: After reading, studying, or listening to new information, try to summarize the information by highlighting the important points you would like to remember. It can be useful to pretend to explain the information you have just learned to someone else.
  • Take notes: Use a notebook to record important information during lessons or lectures. If taking notes is too distracting, it may be helpful to instead audio record and listen again later.
  • Interactive reading: Take notes while reading, write down questions about the chapter you are reading, and answer them as you go along. It can be helpful to skim a chapter to see what you will be learning prior to carefully reading through it.
  • Break down study/tasks time: Taking breaks can help restore energy and focus.
  • Reinforce: Set yourself rewards for meeting goals (such as completing a task)
  • Prioritize: More important tasks should be done first. Set deadlines for everything, even if they are self-imposed.

Putting It All Together

Improving your concentration isn’t something that is done with a one-time fix. It requires an ongoing effort to reduce distractors and make lifestyle changes conducive to paying closer attention.

Just being aware of these factors is a good start toward better learning, improved memory recall, and keeping track of daily information such as names of people recently met, phone numbers, and financial expenditures.

But if paying attention continues to be a struggle, talk with your doctor. You may have a condition such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that can be treated with medications or coaching.

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