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Memorising your way through the A Levels: Tips, tricks & what to watch out for

By Charlie Hale on 18 April 2018UKblogStudy tips

When it comes to memorising responses we could argue about the pros and cons for hours. But with exams quickly looming, let’s save the arguing and jump straight to the tactics. If you’re going to pull this off, you’re going to have to hit it from all angles, so we suggest trying all the tips we’ve listed below and seeing what works for you.

Let’s get to it:

Get your head around the content

We’re all attracted to an easy way out – that’s why you’re here right? Memorising exam responses makes for less work. But the reality is, no matter how well you know your response, if you don’t understand what you’ve learnt by heart, you’re setting yourself up to fail.

Examinations aren’t designed for an easy way out, they’re designed to test your knowledge. Questions may well crop up that are meant to throw you and you’ve got to be ready to tackle those. So before we get to stressing about whether you opened your conclusion with ‘Ultimately’ or ‘In conclusion’ (we will get to the nitty gritty, promise), let’s concentrate on making sure you understand the content first.

If it’s just dates or equations you’re trying to memorise, this tip is pretty void, but if it’s essays and long responses you’re looking to learn, and even some lengthy quotations, you’re going to need to focus on the overall meaning of your essay/answer. Make sure you have a solid understanding of your overarching argument, evidence and idea. Practice talking about your answer as if you’re trying to explain it to someone who’s never studied the topic before. Talk through your response to your mum, your dog, your bedroom wall – out loud, no notes, in your own words.

Pressure is a funny thing. You might feel fairly confident that you’ve memorized something to heart, but under pressure, there’s a chance that confidence could manifest into one big mind-blank. If you actually understand what argument you want to make, and learn the concepts, rather than just the order of the words, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable improvising and adapting your answer in the exam (more on this later).

Bitesize your info

Whatever it is you’re trying to memorise – essay/long response/quotations/a section of your notes – breaking it down into digestible and logical chunks is going to make your life hella easier. Essays can be broken down into themed paragraphs (plus an introduction and conclusion), quotations can be grouped by theme or chapter and dates can also be arranged into logical, smallish groups. Memorising bite-sized chunks is going to be much easier than attempting the entire thing at once.

If it’s an essay or long response you’re trying to memorise, label each paragraph with a keyword. For example, if one of your English Literature paragraphs concentrates on Hamlet as a tragic hero because of his inaction then this could be labelled ‘inaction’ (rocket science hey?). Write out the named paragraphs in order and memorise them – this is your killer structure and will be a helpful jog to your memory in the exam.

Read it (scream it) out loud

This isn’t as simple as saying the words to yourself out loud. The first time you go through your essay, highlight the key words in each paragraph, there might be one or two per sentence – don’t highlight the entire page. The second time you read it out, really emphasise those highlighted words – get animated, shout them out! Repeat sentences a few times before moving on to the next one and aim to look at the paper less and less as you go on. If it helps, read it out like it’s a speech, and really concentrate on the words you are saying and what they mean, picture what those words look like in your mind as you go on – sounds weird, but memory is a bizarre thing so just roll with it. If the speech thing is helping, do as public speakers do and write out the essay onto palm cards and then practice it out loud using the cards as prompts.

Enlist the help of memory tricks

Like I said before, memory is a bizarre thing, and we all work in different ways, so not everything we’ve listed here is going to work for you 100%. That said, if you can tackle this memory thing at all angles, covering all bases, you’re in for a better shot of really pulling it off.

We’ve already spoken about breaking up your essay/long form answer into paragraphs and labelling them, but it might be helpful to break your info down even further into a few chunks per paragraph. Label these with a key word that best fits the sentence/few sentences and draw a picture to match your keyword. Now grab a piece of paper and write these keywords and their pictures in order down the page in big writing. Memorise each chunk one by one, using either the classic look-cover-write-check method, or the speaking method.

When it comes to memorising the order of the chunks, you could enlist the help of some creative mnemonics (memory tricks) to remind you which section comes next. You could also turn your keywords into a silly sentence to help you remember the structure of the paragraph or use the pictures to try and help you visualize the order.

Record yourself

Something that really helped me learn essay responses in school was recording myself reading it out on my phone. I would listen to it at the gym, before bed, in the car – whenever I could until the entirety of my friends and family were ready to disown me. If this sounds like something you’re keen to try, record yourself speaking nice and slowly, emphasising key words and in an animated voice. Once you’ve listened to yourself a few times, try speaking along and see how much you can keep up with. Even if you’re not really listening, have it on whenever you can, a lot of what you remember is taken in on a subconscious level.

Adapt, adapt, adapt

The issue with pre-prepared responses is that they leave minimal room to let you adapt, and if you’re aiming for those top marks, you’re going to need to know how to adapt your response to the needs and requirements of the question. There’s nothing that annoys markers more than a pre-prepared essay that doesn’t answer the question.

The good news is, if you take our first bit of advice on board – that is understanding the concepts of what you’re trying to learn – you’re already halfway there in your adapting abilities.

The best thing you can do in this tricky situation is write and memorise an essay that fits the common patterns of past questions and write multiple plans or brainstorms for more specific questions. When you get into the exam (and when you’re doing past papers prior to that 😉), think ‘find and replace’ – find the stuff in your pre-prepared response that isn’t relevant to the question and replace it with the appropriate stuff you’ve learnt from your plans and brainstorms.

For example, if you’ve memorized an essay on Hamlet’s inaction and the exam asks you about Hamlet and Horatio’s contrasting character traits, take the relevant bits from your memorized response, and replace any parts that are not applicable to the question with more specific points on the pair’s contrasting characterization (something you might have brainstormed, but not written out in full).

It may seem tempting to write and memorise an essay that attempts to cover every possible point, but you’re just going to end up sounding vague and won’t have a cohesive enough argument. You’re more likely to get better marks for an off-the-cuff essay that responds well to the question, than one that may use beautiful vocab but doesn’t acknowledge what the paper is asking. Don’t be afraid to make major changes to your essay and step outside the comfort zone, take some time to plan what you want to argue and what evidence you’re going to use.

Remember

Obviously memorising is a matter of personal preference, but if you’re sensitive to the pressure of exam conditions, memorising might just be your secret to success. Just make sure you hit it from all angles using our tips!

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