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Need To Know: Memory Workshop For Exam Preparation

Mastering Memory: Mnemonic Aids For Exam Preparation

“Strengthening your memory is like going to the gym - you can build your memory like you build your muscles. You just have to have the right technique, and put in the work.”

That’s how memory champion David Thomas sees it, as he explained at a highly interactive and fun workshop hosted by the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Centre for Student Support Services (CSSS), in collaboration with Toshiba.

With exams on the way, memory is naturally a big concern for students - cramming as much information into it as possible, trying to recall that exact fact you need to make your point at the crucial time. It’s all quite stressful - but with the right techniques, anything is possible.

‘’You may be a student who is getting good grades, so you’re not bothered with learning more techniques, but memory training is always beneficial,” says Thomas, who holds a Guinness World Record for his memory feats (including memorizing Pi to thousands of digits) and has used them to power a successful career as a famed motivational speaker. “To be successful at learning new memory techniques, gradual integration is key.”

But a good memory can be valuable for more than just writing exams.

“There are always benefits - whether you’re a full-time student or worker in formal employment. One can apply this in your business, memorizing speeches and presentations, and you’re able to stand up and speak without any notes, product or client details. Or you can apply it in your personal life - and never miss another important birthday or anniversary.”

*WATCHES: The Mnemonic For Memory Enhancement

Acronyms make for great memory-aiding mnemonics, Thomas explains - and when it comes to looking at (and remembering) information, he thinks of WATCHES.

“WATCHES is a list used when creating images from information - human brains struggle with abstract information, but we can remember images more vividly. When creating images, we apply as many of the seven principles below as possible. You don’t need to apply all seven, just as many as you can - every little bit helps.”

Here’s what WATCHES is all about:

  • Weird: Picture weird (and wacky, and wonderful) circumstances. The odder the situation, the more it sticks in your mind.

  • Animate: Animate a word or concept - bring it to life, make it move, make it memorable.

  • Three(3)-D: See things in 3D. That’s how you live your life - shouldn’t that be how you remember it, too?

  • Colour: The brain identifies a large number of colours. Use them - and don’t be afraid to use the wilder ones.

  • Humour - Apply humour to help you remember images or concepts - laughter lingers longer. Remember when your friend said that funny thing, that one time? Exactly.

  • Exaggerate - Exaggerating circumstances is an effective method for memorizing them.

  • Senses - Use interesting sounds, tastes and smells, and take a sensory approach to learning.

Say you have to memorize and recall a list of about 25 items, including the words blackboard, bag, table, chair, glue, doorframe, King Kong, Mickey Mouse and car (this was something the students at the workshop actually had to do).

Begin by imagining a lecture room you know well.

“Let the blackboard be your starting point and imagine a massive bag in a vibrant colour on the floor,” he says. “See that as the first group of things before moving to the table and chair and glue to this group. Picture the chair on the table and the glue dripping down the chair making a big mess on the floor. Here you’ve applied the exaggerated technique.”

Or say you want to learn some foreign vocabulary.

“The French word for ‘book’ is ‘livre’. To remember this, just imagine opening up a book - and all the pages are made of ‘liver’ (Weird). Imagine how that looks, smells and feels (Senses). See it in 3D in your mind’s eye to bring it to life.”

The workshop was made possible by Debbie Lamson from UWC’s International Relations Office, and Dr Laetitia Permall, Director of CSSS.

“Students are on the cusp of writing their final examinations,” says Permall, “and one of the most reported challenges for students when accessing student support is memory and concentration, which can severely compromise academic performance.”

Did You Know? The Centre for Student Support Services (CSSS) is working to develop an exciting, stimulating and supportive campus environment, helping students to achieve their personal and academic goals, and to develop responsible and responsive citizens of the future. Find out more at