Struggling to remember? Why it could be your revision technique, not your memory

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I’ve always been fascinated with my memory.  Why is it, I asked, that I can remember every lyric from some 90s RnB tune (my karaoke performance of sugar hill gang is legendary I’ll have you know..) but yet I cannot remember anything from the zoom webinar I attended three days ago?

I wonder if you feel the same.  Could you name every person who has ever appeared on your favourite reality show, but when it comes to revision struggle to even remember the theorists name?  I had a student tell me last week that she struggles with revision as she has a bad memory.  Whenever anyone tells me this I have a couple of responses.

Firstly did you know that memory is not a fixed thing?  The brain is always adapting and changing.  This is known as neuroplasticity.  I like to think of it as the brain is like plasticine – within reason it can be changed and amended, and we can rewrite how we think about certain things and improve others.  You should workout your brain just like you workout your body.  But this point is another post for another time.

The second response is tell me how you revise?  The general response that I get from this, is that they spend a lot of time reading.  They read the book, they read my revision sheets or they read my slides.  This tells me all I need to know.  Now let’s be clear, I am not against my students reading, neither do I hate reading.  It is one of my favourite activities.  What they are engaging in though is passive learning.

When I was a student I used to set myself the task of reading the book from cover to cover, and deadlines for when I had to read a particular chapter.  This was not a great idea.  Often it meant I would be reading the book in bed as I often had to work late.  Many times I woke in a fright as I had fallen asleep with the book falling on my face so I couldn’t see (well can you blame me the books aren’t always the most exciting!) I found that the next day I could barely remember what the chapter was about, let alone remember the content.

It was then I became fascinated with what I now know is called Active learning.  Now comes the sexy part.  Let’s talk about the brain.  There is not one single area in the brain that is required for us to use to pass our exams.  We need a few different areas.   Functions such as remembering and understanding are linked to the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory.  However other functions we require such as evaluating and analysing we need to use the neocortex.

Using more complex functions like evaluating and analysing are better for learning because they create more cross-talk within the brain, as they involve a greater number of neural connections.  Active learning involves techniques such as applying and analysing which creates the cross-talk.  The cross-talk in turn is what stimulates our memory.

Therefore my recommendation when studying any exams, but particularly CIPS is to engage in active learning, and because I am nice to you I am going to share three tips to individually active learn.

Tip 1: Create application cards.  When learning a new model or theory take time to write down how it can be applied to real life, in particular your organisation.  This will create a mental hook and also aid depth of understanding.  In a constructive response exam you will need that depth to score higher marks

Tip 2: Direct Paraphrasing.  When making your notes be careful not to simply copy out the text.  Instead paraphrase and make sure the notes are in your own words and make sense to you.

Tip 3: Talking someone through the information you’re learning. Use your own words to discuss it with other students, friends or your family.  When I was revising for my CIPS my family never saw me so much.  I would turn up with my notes and ask to be tested in exchange for whatever treats I had brought them.


I hope you find these tips useful and put them into practice.  Best of luck with your revision and next exam.  For more revision and exam techniques you can see our exam technique article here and our revision webinars are available to purchase here.


Level 5 Diamond Timetable

Exam Series Module No. of sessions Dates
May 2023
M3 & M8
29th Mar, 5th April, 19th April, 26th April
July 2023
25th May, 14th June, 21st June, 5th July
November 2023
M1 & M2
4th Oct, 11th Oct, 18th Oct, 1st Nov
March 2024
M5, M15 & M9
7th Feb, 21st Feb, 28th Feb, 6th March

Level 4 Diamond Timetable

Exam Series Module No. of sessions Dates
March 2023
M3, M5, M7
10th Jan, 24th Jan, 31st Jan, 7th Feb, 21st Feb, 28th Feb
May 2023
M4 & M6
28th March, 4th April, 25th April, 2nd May.
July 2023
6th June, 20th June, 4th July.
November 2023
M1 & M2
10th Oct, 17th Oct, 24th Oct, 31st Oct, 7th Nov