We’ve all been there: You’re at a large party when someone starts walking over. You think, I know his name started with a P. Was it Patrick? Peter? Paul?
You try to remember, but by the time the acquaintance reaches us, you still haven’t put a name to the face.
Few situations are as frustrating as forgetting names or any important information. On the flip side, there are people who seem to have a knack for memorization. What’s their secret?
It’s not some superhuman ability or innate talent but, rather, simple strategies that allow people to easily memorize large amounts of information—strategies that you can learn, too.
Three strategies in particular are useful for organizing and committing information to memory in a way that’s easy for your brain to recall: practice retrieval, spaced repetition, and elaboration.
Here’s a quick breakdown of each strategy so you can put them to work and more effectively memorize information.
Strategy #1: Practice Retrieval
We all know the strategy of practice retrieval by its more common name: testing.
From a young age, we’ve been exposed to testing in the form of quizzes, exams, drills, and flashcards, but testing can also be as simple as going through study material and self-questioning, writing the information down from memory, or teaching it to someone else. Essentially, anything that forces us to recall from memory is a form of practice retrieval.
Testing has two key benefits. The first one is stronger memories. The effort we put into recalling what we learned before strengthens the mental pathways associated with it. For this reason, we should test straight from memory and avoid testing that provides multiple choice.
The other benefit is feedback. Testing reveals what we know, what we don’t, and what needs improvement. Even if we get answers wrong, we support our learning. On one side, by getting feedback we can make adjustments, and on the other, research shows that when we get the answers wrong, we become more receptive to learn the right ones after—a win for testing on all sides.
Strategy #2: Spaced Repetition
Repetition strengthens the memory of what we study, and though it’s not an efficient strategy for memorizing new knowledge, it’s valuable for solidifying existing knowledge. Spaced repetition means expanding or contracting the time between tests and reviews depending on how well we remember the material.
For example, imagine that we’re learning to cook and we want to memorize recipes—ingredients, steps, cooking times, and temperatures. To test and review under spaced repetition, we would begin by studying the recipes. Then, we’d test our knowledge around thirty minutes after the study session. The test would show us which recipes we remembered and which we didn’t. For the ones we remembered, we’d retest them the day after. If we still remembered them, we’d retest a few days after that (then a week later, then a few weeks later).
Spacing out testing and reviews allows our knowledge to fade enough so that it’s effortful to recall. Remember, effort spent recalling information strengthens our memories. Spaced repetition helps us with this calculated forgetting, making it ideal for solidifying knowledge.
Strategy #3: Elaboration
Multiple connections to a memory increases the quality of the encoding and later recall. Creating these connections is known as elaboration.
Recall our first example: an acquaintance walking toward us at a party. Hearing a name once is often not enough for a lasting memory—the information is not elaborate enough to stick. To make it memorable, we have to create associations between the name and the person.
One option is connecting the name to a similar-sounding visual cue. If we meet a bearded man named Marc, we could associate his name with an “arc,” which sounds similar, and then visualize Paris’s Arc de Triomphe upside down as Marc’s beard. This creates an elaborate memory that makes the name easier to remember.
Now Imagine we’re learning to speak French and we come across the word “marché” (market). Marché sounds similar to the English word “marching.” We can imagine ourselves marching toward a supermarket to buy groceries.
The same principle applies to learning skills. We can elaborate on abstract information and make it memorable by associating it with things that sound or look alike and are easy to visualize.
Find Memory Strategies That Work for Us
Memorizing is a crucial—and sometimes difficult—part of learning anything, but using practice retrieval, spaced repetition, and elaboration can make information much easier for our brains to understand and recall.
If we start putting them to use, we’ll be able to memorize facts, knowledge, and yes, even names with ease.
For more advice on improving your memory skills, you can find Learn, Improve, Master on Amazon.
Nick Velasquez is a passionate learner and devoted student of mastery. He’s the author of the popular blog UnlimitedMastery.com, where he writes about learning science, peak performance, creativity, and mastering skills. His writing has been featured in outlets such as TIME and Thought Catalogue. Nick speaks multiple languages and spends his time between Tokyo and Montréal.