The Method of Places – The Most Powerful Memory Tool


toilet paperlettuce


Find a familiar place to store each thing you want to recall, look in that place, and there it is.



If you want to recall nine or ten grocery items, say

lettuce            toilet paper            butter          cereal          hamburger

                 milk                sugar          potatoes           tea

put them in rooms in your home.

“In the first place” put the lettuce in the entrance hall and picture it there, in the middle of the floor where you’ll step on it.  Get a good visual impression.

“In the second place ”  – whatever’s the next room, the kitchen maybe – put the toilet paper, maybe in the refrigerator with the door open.

“In the third place – maybe in the living room across the hall –  put the butter, unwrapped on the seat of your expensive upholstered chair.

Let’s see how this is going.  Shut your eyes.  What did you put in your entrance hall?  Can you see it there?  What’s in the kitchen?  What’s in the living room?

You get the point.  You’re connecting — also called linking —  each new item with a place already  firmly placed in your memory bank (in this case the rooms of your home).  You make a good bond between them.  You exaggerate.  You visualize.  You associate.  And any other memory device you already know about.  I’ll bet the potatoes end up in the toilet.

That’s it, in a nutshell.


All the  techniques you already use or know about  are likely to be involved in  of the method of places – which goes back at least as far as ancient Greek orators who didn’t have teleprompters and pictured  each main  point of their speeches,  odes or whatever, sequentially in the rooms of their houses and then retrieved them, safe and sound, as they went along.  It was a fine art by the 1600s when Matteo Ricci developed a memory palace of more than a thousand places — and was part of the education of the young Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising.


Variations of the Method of Places

      The Grid method

GRIDUse a nine-square grid instead of your home.

It’s neater and portable.  You can make links between the items, too, as you go along, if you feel like it. Always start in the same square.  I suggest the upper left square, then snake to the right, then down one and to the left, then down again and to the right.  If you have more items, use a second grid.

I’ll post a couple of more variations of the Method of Places next time


Intelligent Memorizing Strategies in the Realms of Gold


pick-up sticks

imagesGetting Curious

Usually when you become absorbed in something — or fall in love with it; it’s the same thing – remembering happens without conscious effort.  All of a sudden it’s been “memorized.”  For example, scores of poems are stored in my memory, but I didn’t “try” to memorize or learn any of them.  They were fascinating. My nonconscious mind did the rest.  If you’re not interested to begin with, use the Mess-Around Method I’ve described in some of my other posts; that is, browse, be playful, have some fun with the stuff.  More often than not, you’ll find yourself becoming curious.  You’ll begin to notice patterns, and you’re on your way.  Your body takes rubbings, your senses envelope the rose, the lover’s eyes – whatever your body  “looks upon.”

Taking Charge

Here are some of the techniques involved that you may not be conscious of.   If a test or some work requirement is urgent, you can use them on purpose.  You’re already using most of them – perhaps not consciously  –  so this is just a reminder.


Rhythm and Rhyme
Coined Words/ Acronyms
Humor, Exaggeration, Irreverence

                                        The Enabling Mode: Relaxed playfulness


All memory techniques boil down to making connections, to association,.  Making connections is involved in all deliberate, conscious memory work. The more links you create the more ways you will have to find the information later. If you want to store things on purpose, make associations, the more the better.

●  Analogy

Students learning the relationship of current, resistance, and voltage,sometimes use this analogy. “The flow of electricity through wires is like the flow of water through pipes.”

That doesn’t mean they are the same. Current, resistance, and voltage are like the flow of water, the pipe’s diameter, and the pressure pushing it. If you can see the similarity, you can  do things with wiring and so forth until it all becomes “second nature”, sort of like training wheels – another analogy.  We’re just plain naturally “wired” to notice likeness – and difference.


See it.

Kids use visualization to remember how to spell troublesome words.

Make it bigger: Parallel?  paraLLel. (Notice the parallel letters in para ll el.)
       There, their, they’re?: THEre, THEir, THEy’re

To spell piece correctly, notice the piece of pie in piece.  And so on.

If a word won’t stick, do something visual to it. Kids know dozens of memory tricks for spelling.

After you use the word a few times, you won’t need the memory device.  I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words over the years.  They flow off my finger tips without thought. I still have a copyeditor go over my manuscripts, though.

                         When it’s time to edit, pretend you’re a rotten speller.

Test-Taking Tip
Students who first take time to visualize the place where they prepared for the tests score higher than those who don’t.  My guess is that the setting contains lots of nonconscious rubbings (connections) with what you’re working on, all sorts of associations we’re unaware of.  Seeing the setting makes the connections available to the conscious mind.
During a test visualize the place where you studied.

The Role of Music

                        The universe is a musical composition.

The music of the spheres is vibrating in throughout our  nervous systems, and the first thing we must do when we get up in the morning  is take down a musical instrument, as the 13th century poet Rumi wrote.  That is, we have to get tuned up, in tune with, the melody that’s playing around us.  That puts us in harmony with whatever’s on our plate.  If it’s getting ready for a test, we’ve taken a major step already.

The Music of the Spheres

The Music of the Spheres


There are plenty of studies that show that when we are relaxed and awake, we do much better at learning and remembering. Once I realized that, there would be calming music playing when students arrived at my classroom.  It became more and more a part of whatever we were doing.  Foreign language classes that have students singing are more successful than those that don’t.  A young man from Peru I know thought himself English watching Sesame Street and learning English-language songs. We all know that when we’re not attuned, we don’t ride our bikes as well.  And we certainly don’t enjoy the ride. 


Any batch of random information can be grouped one way or another.  When you play around with a pile of facts, they will fall into a pattern on their own, like yarrow sticks – if we don’t interfere.

All we have to do is be quiet and listen.

The mind insists on making connections.  It is very old and very wise.  Trust it.  John Phillip Sousa, the March King, said he took dictation from the inner chambers of his mind.  His compositions “came to him” complete.  It’s the same for everyone.   No doubt the nonconscious mind sees connections from the what the conscious mind passes over to it and puts it all together.

Here are a few of scores of  ways to use music in your long-term memory work. You may remember some of these simple examples from when you were a kid.  The concepts work just as well for adults.  They are perfectly respectable.   Whenever the material seems to call for it, see if a poem or a song would help.

Rhythm, Rhythm, Melody

I before e
except after c
or when sounded as a
as in neighbor and weigh

C is for cookie.
That’s good enough for me
Oh! Cookie, cookie, cookie
Starts with C.

Remember the Alphabet Song?  Kids know what works.  It’s a natural.

Coined Words

Once you’ve gotten the feel of the colors of the visual spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet), they can be retrieved in order.  You don’t have to remember nine things, just remember

                                                 ROY G. BIV.

One student examined the key vocabulary of his geology class and with some messing around coined SAM GALOPAGUS.  Maybe.  I’m taking his word for it.

The Great Lakes?


Their location on the map?

S       H       O

    M      E

Know these acronyms?



Planets out from the Sun?

     Mother Very Energetically Made a Jelly Sandwich Under No Protest.


Students in every field from surgery to mathematics have created memory devices such as acronyms, coined words, and sentences for storing essential facts.  With use, the device drops away and the desired material remains.

For longer lists, you can make up stories.

The twelve cranial nerves (olfactory, optic, oculomotor, troclear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, audiitory, glossophryngeal, vagus, accessory, and hypoglossal) could be stored into a sentence. A rhyming sentence would be even better.

On Old Olympus’s Towering Top
A Fat-Assed Giant Vaults and Hops

A story would require more involvement and even better retention:

At the oil factory (olfactory) the optician (optic) looked for the occupant (oculomotor) of the truck (troclear).  And so on.  You can’t help but form a mental picture as the story unfolds.

●  Humor, Exaggeration, Irreverence

        Make it funny, make it big, make it little, make it disreputable.

The mind delights in far-out, irrational connections.  If you have some fun thinking up socially unacceptable or humorous connections, you’ll remember.  Don’t be too serious.

This ought to get you started taking charge of the process.

In my next post, I’ll give you an overview of one of the most effective memory techniques of all: The Method of Places

The Zen of Remembering

As Good as Necessary

        Get Your A Book                                       Keys at Door

To remember well enough to get through your classes with high grades or to remember what you need at the store or to turn out the lights when you get ready for bed, you don’t have to be a memory whiz.  You don’t have to be a Matteo Ricci (1552 – 1610) – who developed mnemonics into a fine art and was fantastic at it – to get as good at remembering as you need to.

Most the tips I offered in the 1996 edition of Get Your  A Out of College I’ve used sometime or other, but I apply them only when I must.  I got pretty good at it when I was offering a college skills class and didn’t want to embarrass myself.  Generally, I try to fix it so that I don’t have to.

But for several years I memorized the first and last names of the students in my classes during one one-hour session.  And all the students did, too!  I did it as an experiment, and I was the last person to name everyone.  After a couple of times my hands quit sweating.  That was great for the semester, maybe even six months or so afterwards, but of my 20,000 students I remember the names of only a handful – who found their way into my long-term memory because their imprint was stronger –  and without conscious effort on my part.

I hope it’s becoming clear that you can remember as much as you want to or need to.

Generally,  I find ways to avoid all that effort.  So I add and item  to the grocery list on the refrigerator at the time I think of it.  If I don’t, short-term memory will erase it the minute I think of something else.  That’s just how the brain is designed.  So I go along with how our brains work.  If I’m out somewhere and don’t have some way to write down something important, then I’ll probably use a memory device – then and there – otherwise, poof!, it will be gone.  If I’ve been forgetting my cap or my reading glasses or my folder all over Alameda, I put my name and phone number on them–in BIG print. You can lay the car keys at the door you go out or  attach them to an over-sized key ring that’s impossible to miss.  And so on.

Assume your memory is rotten.  Then you can apply strategies to compensate.

Keys on LeashGo Along With How Your Brain Works

I tell my wife that I don’t have a good memory.  I do know lots of memory strategies, though.  I do know those.  Even without thinking of them for a long time, I can retrieve them. And I never even tried.  Working with them and getting the feel of them took care of it. (Taking rubbings.  See my 3/2/13 post.)  If you grew up with siblings, you don’t have to memorize them. You absorbed them, Bud and Sis and Joe; they are all over your organism.  You don’t have to memorize how to ride a bike. Whatever you do becomes part of you.  “There was a child went forth . . .”

The Zen way of remembering: Fall IN it, like falling IN love.

Oh, yes, and you can throw in the lines from Yeats’ “Memory .” (See my 3/2/13 post):



. . .  the mountain grass [you]
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.

Natural Aids to Memory

[The posts in this website are sequential, like the chapters of a book.  I put the earliest at the top.  If you want to go to the most recent, they’re listed on the left of this page.]

pick-up sticks

Get Your A Book





The Element of Love
 When you love something,  you don’t have to memorize.

For trivia storage, fake it.

In my previous post, before I fell in love, sort of,  with those peaks, what was the process I used to store all those mountain elevations in my mind where I could get at them later?

No one’s really sure how that works.  But we do know some of the things I consciously did.  You’ve probably used them and lots of others yourself from time to time.  Here, I’m just bringing them to your awareness.  Then, if you like, you can use them on purpose.

● Coincidence

● Visualization

● Comparison and Contrast

● Rhythm and Grouping

● Luck

● When I saw that Fuji’s elevation is the same as the number of months and days of the year (12 and 365), ah! the gift of coincidence!  In these realms of gold we live in, coincidence is all over the place, and the more you notice, the fewer things you’ll have to memorize.  It’s done for you.

● When I imagined myself on Adams looking north, “up”, to Rainier and south, “down” to Hood, I was visualizing.

When you’re sitting in a classroom trying to recall these elevations, picture yourself on Adams and your nonconscious will supply all sorts of data you didn’t even realize you were absorbing.  Visualizing is a powerful mnemonic (memorizing) tool.

● While I was messing around, I started associating the mountains with each other.  I even started making a meaningful sketch. Fuji and Adams are about the same. Rainier is about 2,000 feet higher.  Hood is about 1,000 feet lower.  Diablo is about a third.  Everest is two times higher than the highest of the American group

(By the way, using a pencil to trace, to draw, to copy, to connect, gets your motor neurons into the process, too.)

● Meanwhile, I was noticing similarities and differences among these mountain elevations.  That was going on all by itself.  It’s just natural, isn’t it?

Your body is a musical instrument. (You knew that, didn’t you?)

You can feel it acutely sometimes while listening to a concert or while dancing.  For the height of Diablo (3,849), I used rhythm and grouping.  Saying “three thousand eight hundred forty-nine” doesn’t have much going for it. Calling out the digits – “three, eight, four, nine”–  isn’t much better.  But put it in the poetic, musical, mode – “thirty-eight, forty-nine” – and your nonconscious sort of likes that.  Or if you say, “three-eight, four-nine” there’s an nice progression of  digits to notice, and it feels good on the tongue. Melodious.

Luck is a highly underrated participant in each moment of our lives.

It’s there all the time, and we can deliberately make it our ally.  It’s just luck – I guess – that some of the elevations make interesting patterns.  Hood: one, one, two, four, five (11, 245).  Rainier: One, four, four, four, four (14,444).  If we’re alert for such lucky accidents, they seem to pop up everywhere.

Relaxed and Comfortable

You may have noticed other natural mnemonic (memorizing) devices involved in  fooling around with the numbers.  If initial study of the material is treated as play, these natural memory aids will crop up automatically.

The hidden school subject that no one teaches is the art of memorizing, but how much you can remember for some quiz or test is what’s being graded.

In my next post, I’ll pass on some age-old mnemonic tricks.

Memorizing Raw Data

Get Your A Bookimages





The Mind Is a Connecting Organ.

Storing masses of unrelated data is impossible.

If the nonconscious mind doesn’t see relationships, bits of data float  loosely around and can’t be summoned for trivia tests.  The mind doesn’t know where to look.  The bits and pieces probably are in there somewhere, but there’s no way to find all those isolated pieces.

Normally, in our real life – the life outside of school –

We learn the things we love.


Here’s a way to get  all the senses into the mix .  It’s  from a reflection a student of mine from Puerto Rico wrote after she had spent a day on Mt. Diablo near our college. You can do this with raw data, too.  Just let yourself get the feel of the facts.

Dear McKowen:  I have spent a Sunday up on the mountain of Diablo: Motorcycling up and down, looking at the scenic view. . . .  I brought back all the world on my face — cheeks set aglow by sunset sky, planes, hawks, people, woods, horses, spring flowers and wind.

It could be pinball machines, bluegrass, auto mechanics, the internet, ballet, oceanography.  After sailing around awhile in that sea , we realize we’ve amassed hundreds of terms – without even trying.  They’ve become interwoven in a pattern our nonconscious mind has generously created for us.

Terminology follows interest.  It doesn’t  precede it.

Unfortunately, in way too many school courses, you  are expected to memorize the vocabulary first. That’s backwards.  If students had a chance to fiddle around with a new subject first, they would absorb the language and ideas automatically.

An Example of Natural Memorizing

A colleague of mine, Karl Staubach, had been a forester on Mt. Adams in Washington.  When I was working on the first edition of my college skills book, I decided to give Karl a little memory quiz.

Karl, what’s the height of Mt. Adams?406

Oh, it’s 12,326 feet.

What about Rainier?  (Which you can see from the west side of Mt. Adams)

That’s 14,444

And Mt. Hood?  (visible to the south)


OK.  How about Fujiyama?


All right.  Everest, the highest mountain in the world?

It’s 29,002.  It’s really 29,000, but that doesn’t look scientific, so they added 2 feet.

One more.  Mt. Diablo (That’s a mountain near the college where we taught.)

The biggest mud pile in the United States: 3,849

The point is Karl never tried to memorize those elevations.  Knowing them is a by-product of his interest in nature.  No doubt he could tell the elevation of just about every other major mountain in the world.  He knows all sorts of things about trees, too, and spiders and rocks and snakes. But he did not study these things; he would consider such behavior undignified.

This encyclopedic knowledge is the result of fascination, absorption and love.

Fall in love with something, and you won’t need to memorize it.

Before bar codes, the checkers at my supermarket learned hundreds of new prices every week.  A student of mine who served cocktails in a bar could remember the drinks of a dozen people at a table and automatically bring a second round, getting each person’s drink mixed exactly as ordered.  When I was a division chairman, I knew the office numbers of all 37 division members, most of their phone extensions, their schedules, all course numbers and titles. I never tried to memorize any of that information.  Some nonconscious ally of the cocktail server, the checker, and the division chairman knew how to store the data and make it accessible for retrieval.

An Example of Making Raw Data Meaningful

But then you could find yourself in a required course and a teacher who demands that everyone memorize the elevations of six mountains – or 12 or a 100 – without your ever setting foot on any of them, or smelling the air or swimming in an icy mountain lake or seeing paw prints of a cougar on the trail.  That situation is fairly typical of schooling, isn’t it, and it happened to me.

Since I was not very interested in mountains at the time, I thought this would be a good chance to try out a memory strategy, to commit raw data to memory long enough to pass a test, even though I couldn’t care less about the subject.  Here’s a description of how it went – at least for the part of the process I was conscious of.

First, I jotted down the data I needed for the quiz.  Since they meant nothing to me, there was no order.

Adams  12,326

Diablo  3,849

Hood  11,245

Everest  29,002

Fuji   12,365                                Rainier  14,000

I started playing around to see what I might notice, light and easy and not really trying.  Right away I noticed Rainier: 14,444 – a 1 and all those 4s.  And look at Everest: so much higher than any of the others – 29,002, a little over twice as high as Rainier.  (And the 2 at the end seemed so odd that I doubted I would forget it.)

Wait a minute!  Look at Fuji: 12,365, a natural memory device built right into it – 12 and 365, the number and months in a year and the number of days in a year.  (I’ve never forgotten the height of Fuji since I first saw that.  How could I?)

Then I put Fuji and Adams side by side: 12,365 and 12,326 – a 39-foot difference, practically no significance at all.  Look again at Adams: the digit sequence is almost the same as Fuji, and four of the five digits are indeed the same.  Move the 6 to the right and stick in a 2; it boils down to the last two digits, and one unchanged and moved to the right.  Only the 2 is new.  So if I could retrieve Fuji (and who couldn’t?), Adams was duck soup.

Now look at Hood: 11,245, about 1,100 feet less than Adams or Fuji.  That a good look at the digits: 1, 1, and 2, then doubled to 4, plus one for a 5 – 11,245, a nice pattern of digits.

280px-View_of_Mount_Diablo_and_CA_Highway_24_from_Lafayette_HeightsAs you can see, Diablo doesn’t come up to even half the elevation of the least of the others.  It’s about one-third the height of Fuji or Adams.  And look at the digits.  Three-eight, four-nine; 3-8, 4-9.  Take the digits of the 38 and add 1 to each: 49.

Continuing to play, I remembered that I had backpacked on Adams. Looking north I could see Rainier.  Hood could be seen to the south.  You go “up north” and “down south.”  Rainier is “up” and higher.  Hood is “down” and lower.  Rainier is about 2,100 feet higher than Adams.  Hood is about 1,100 feet lower.

Get Involved

Your senses are a powerful aid to connecting up the bits and pieces. 

When you try to recall something, summon where you were, the setting, and all sorts of support you didn’t even realize becomes available.  So, draw pictures, get the feel, whatever senses you can throw into the mix.  Here’s a drawing we put into Get Your A Out of College to show how you could do this.  But there are all sorts of ways to connect up the pieces.  Be my guest.












Look what happened.  Merely by playing, messing around, I began building relationships.  Starting with Adams as the kingpin, I was able to retrieve all the other elevations or come close enough to get them all correct on a multiple-guess test.

No one has yet nailed for sure  what the process really is that stored this information for me, but we do know some of the circumstances that accompany such good storage.


Guess what happened to me while I was storing trivia?  I started getting interested in mountains, especially all those beautiful volcanic mountains that dot the drive from California to Canada. In fact, I’ve spent days and days on some of them and the theme picture for this website is Mt. Shasta. That’s education — so different from schooling!

In my next post I’ll point out some of these natural aids to memory.


Your Powerful Natural Memory

Natural Memory – on Purpose:


Get Your A Book









For the unnatural process of storing and recalling trivia – in classrooms or offices,


Why It Works

When you’re stressed out, it’s hard to learn.  Learn the way a little kid does.  It’s child’s play.

Think how you feel when you learn to do things you love.  You feel alive and well, and every bit of energy you use counts.  You’re like a cat, at ease but not passive.  All parts of your body and mind work in harmony.   Be like that when you study, and you’ll learn and remember as easily as a little kid learns language.



Play Music

When you study, play the slow movement of a symphony of  a composer like  Bach, Corelli, Handel, Teleman, Vivaldi – instrumental music preferably.  We’re not sure why this works, but the pace is  at about that of the alpha rhythms of your brain.

Take a Half-Speed Walk

One step per second (described in my 1/15/13 post) until you feel yourself quieted down.

The idea is to give your conscious mind something to do so that it can’t play distracting self-critical tapes.  Your mind and body get a chance to work together harmoniously.  Then, what you’re playfully picking up in the left hemisphere of your brain (for most people) can pass over to the non-conscious right side, which creates a meaningful network of interconnected data.

This is where understanding occurs, but it’s also  a safe, secure place for storing your data, not randomly but in a network of connections.

Tune Up Your Sensorium

A Great Alternative to the Half-Speed Walk:

Sit in a comfortable chair, play the music, shut your eyes and give your attention to your toes.

As soon as you’re aware of your toes and can actually feel them (without moving them), move your attention back along your feet, your heels, your ankles, and so on.

Once you fully sense your feet, move on, up your legs, up your torso, your arms, the back of your head, until the senses of your whole body are wakened.

Your body will feel tingly all over, and any stress will have drained away.



If you want to store up stuff for later recall, your mind has to find a framework or create one.

Beginning at the beginning is going blindly into the wilderness without a map.  Without an overview, any effort to memorize is futile.  The circuitry has to be set up.  You need a format.

Messing around is another name for formatting.

The rest is pretty much the mess-around strategy I described in my  11/11/12 post for reading, browse, focus, absorb, reinforce.

Play your music and use a relaxation exercise.  

You should feel good – comfortable and awake but not tense, no sense of pressure.  Then look over the job.  Do a pass through.  It doesn’t matter where you start.  You can move in any direction and pause anywhere, for as long as you like.  Let your curiosity guide you.  When you feel saturated, take a break.

When you’re ready, come back and do another pass through the whole thing again.

Keep messing around in this fashion until you become aware of the pattern.
Meaning will begin to emerge and take form.

Keep playing with the material. 

At some point you will become aware of a pattern taking shape.  Gradually you will flesh out your understanding.

Don’t try to memorize anything until you can say, “Yes.  I really do understand this.”

If you have no experience with the subject at all, you might feel nervous and inadequate.  (little kids would never feel like that, but you may well have suffered through lots of judgmental classrooms over the years that you haven’t got out of your system yet.) So go away for a while.  Your nonconscious will be working on it in the meantime.

Keep coming back.

Suddenly It Makes Sense

Seemingly on their own, things that appeared hopelessly vague will suddenly start making sense.  Just let it happen.  There can be a number of passes through, some long, some short, some superficial, some intense.


Sometimes you may want to interact.  Go right ahead.

Try problems, draw pictures, fool around with possibilities.

The total time spent will be no longer than that of typical, fruitless methods, but the results will be amazing.  You will have shifted the learning (and storage of data) to your brilliant nonconscious mind, which does this sort of thing effortlessly.

Your conscious and nonconscious programs will be working in harmony, and you will actually feel refreshed.

Bottom Line:

Browse.  Browse.  Browse.


When you feel thoroughly comfortable and familiar with the material and confident that you do understand, then see if there is anything left to memorize.  You will find there is hardly anything left to worry about.  Without even trying, you will have done most of the memorizing, and the material will be lodged far more permanently in your mind than it would have been with conventional study methods.

In my next post, I’ll describe a couple of ways people have figured out for storing and recalling trivia.

Memorizing: The Mess-Around Strategy

Sandbox Learning

Get Your A Book

Don’t try to memorize anything up front.  That’s not natural.  It is natural to start out by fiddling around with whatever you’re trying to figure out.

While you’re playing, things will start to click and to fall into a pattern that makes sense.


The mind uses patterns to connect bits and pieces into meaning.

Keep on playing and at some point you will say, “I see.”  And a bit later, “I really do understand this.”

Iimagesf you browse through now, you will find there is hardly anything left to memorize.  The data have been magically caught in your memory net, and the whole process will actually have been fun.

What’s left is for your boss or teacher – whatever details they may want you to recall.

Here’s the Mess-Around-Method for Memorizing in a nutshell:


Play around until you understand.

Check for leftovers.

Digest the leftovers.


Too Simple?

That’s the process you’ve been using all your life – effortlessly.


You pay attention; you are never passive.


It’s a matter of allowing your nature to guide you and trusting that it does the work.

It always has.

Use the force, Luke

Memory: What Schools Really Test

Remembering, Recalling — And Good Grades

Get Your A Book
I will describe in later  posts ways to retrieve information that are natural and effective.  But first here are some things to think about.

Do you believe intelligence, talent, hard work, and honesty are what get you good grades? Your experience tells you otherwise.  Some schools may value thinking and learning, but

What’s tested is how good you are at remembering things.

It takes time and involvement and care to find out how well students are truly coming along, but those ways take time and involvement and care. It’s lots easier just to test for a bunch of data.  (If a teacher really wanted to know how a student was doing in chemistry, he could ask her.)

Most teachers test for facts.

And of course if you want to recall raw facts, you will need some memory strategies. When was the last time anyone bothered to show you how to get good at that?

How the Game Is Rigged

What’s tested and graded is skill in dredging up information –  remembering, recalling.

If schools actually did emphasize understanding, the facts would fall naturally into meaning networks and would be easy to recall.  That’s how you learned all the stuff you have stored in your nervous system – no sweat.  But most teachers expect you to remember facts – the vocabulary of the subject mostly – and never bother to show you how.  Of course, if all students were good at the memory game, it would spoil the ranking system; everyone would get high scores.

Dutiful students spend most of their time trying to remember and usually doing a rotten job of it.  That’s because, although ordinary brains are expert at learning and remembering, storing raw data is unnatural.  It can be done and easily, but it requires conscious awareness of how memory works.  Most students have had little or no education on memorizing – even though it’s more vital to school success than anything else.  Yet,

Even a little attention to memory processes gives you a powerful advantage.

Here’s one rotten technique you can toss out right away: Passive repetition.

Saying something over and over again numbs the mind.  The results are disappointing and depressing .  Relaxing over late-night TV would prepare you better for a test than two hours of passive repetition.

All You Really Need to Know About Memorizing

You have an excellent memory, and you use it effectively most of the time.
If you have trouble with a school subject, you are most likely trying to master it in a way that’s unnatural to you.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Natural memory works well only in a warm and friendly environment.  Fear or pride or force will shut down the process.

Remind yourself of what really works for you, use it when working on school subjects, and you will have the same success that enables you to function so well out of school.  The more conscious you are of how you actually do learn and the more you trust yourself to do the right thing, the more fun you will have with school subjects and the easier it will be to master them.

Your methods are uniquely your own, but they are a variation of the Mess-Around method that I will describe in my next post.


Memorizing School-Game Trivia


Get Your A Book











Memory Inventory

Mark only the ideas you agree with.  Then read the commentary that follows.

☐   1.  Intelligent people have better memories.
☐   2.  Memorizing requires effort and discipline.
☐   3.  Memorizing is a logical, step-by-step process.
☐   4.  Grownups have better memory techniques than children.
☐  5.  Memorizing must be conscious and purposeful.
☐   6.  Students are not graded on their memory skills.
☐   7.  The more time spent, the more remembered.
☐   8.   Remembering something requires saying it over and over.
☐   9.  Memorizing should be vigorous and aggressive, not laid back and random.
☐ 10.  Some subjects are harder to memorize than others.


If you took my little “test” on how good you are at the school game (February 6, 2013), you know the test-maker (me) thinks none of those ten ideas is true.  In the school game, you wouldn’t check any, and you would get a good grade.  That’s how the game is played. Your views are beside the point.

The truth is, though,  that acting as if those statements in the inventory above are true will only interfere with your efforts.

Once you remember how good you are at it already, memorizing can actually be fun.  Here are some reminders.

1.  A typical human brain stores billions of bits of information – effortlessly.  The bits of extra data a flashy memory entertainer can display are insignificant compared to what all your brain – any brain – contains.

Everyone’s memory bank is about the same size.

You’ve already stored tremendous masses of data – without breaking a sweat.  If you smoothed out all the wrinkles in your wetware, you would have a three-foot-square grid, infinitely better than the smartest microchip.  You are smart, far too smart to be floored by the trivia you are asked to store while in school, most of which will be useless once you leave school, most of which you will have forgotten anyway.


You are also brilliant at retrieving anything of value that you’ve stored in your nervous system.  Just think what all was involved in your reading of the previous sentence.  (Reading researchers still can’t quite figure it out.)  Think what’s involved in picking up a pencil, blinking your eye.

What doubts we might have about our retaining and recalling stuff more than likely were acquired in the unnatural learning situations commonly found in schools.  Use your natural learning skills and you will be able to learn any school subject the way you’ve learned everything else in life.

Even people who are “intelligent” don’t have better memories.  

2.  Where would you be if you had had to “memorize” the more than 150,000 words stored up in your brain?  Did you sit down with lists, break a sweat, have nightmares about it?  You didn’t get up at 5 a. m. to study and lose valuable sleep poring over mountains of data.  Whatever you were doing, those methods were far superior to the puritan methods commonly pushed in schools.

Memorizing is a natural biological process – if not interfered with.

No one knows how you go about it, but the non-conscious part of your mind does know and does it routinely, – unless you or some well-meaning teachers gum up the works.    We do know some ways to set the stage for natural learning.

You can have a good time doing schoolwork and actually feel refreshed after a couple of hours at your desk.

3.  We have no certainty of what goes on during learning or memorizing, but whatever it is, learning and memorizing  seems to be anything but logical and systematic.  It doesn’t care if school keeps or not.

The process appears to start anywhere at all, go off on tangents, move back and forth between parts and the whole picture.  At some point, it sends a completed printout to our conscious minds so that we can describe in words or music or pictures or sculpture what we already know.

Our conscious mind performs valuable services.  It’s our automatic talking machine.  We can use it to deliberately set motion the non-conscious processes that figure things out.  We can write down the results.

4.  Kids have complete confidence in their wetware and don’t interfere with the excellent learning machinery they were born with.  Most adults, unless they’ve remembered how it’s really done, try to do it all with their conscious minds. Kids learn automatically.  What they learn is guided by their spirits, so they probably don’t know consciously how they pull it off.  They just do it, like breathing.

What grownups who have figured it out can do is set the process in motion –  and then relax and let it happen.

5.  Your non-conscious mind will let your conscious mind know what it ought to be doing.  And that is NOT a very orderly process.  There may be periods of intense scrutiny with abrupt changes of direction, crazy word games, going of on a side path, circling, resting, doing the dishes, sleeping on it.

If you trust your wetware, the way a child does, you will always do the right thing

 Believe it or not – and you will believe it once you catch on – all this messiness is the most efficient way to learn.  And learning  is a much better word for what you are up to than the word memorizing is.

6.  Oh, yes, schools do indeed reward good memory with higher grades.

 In fact, memory is the one thing that is graded. 

 Grading for most courses is based on tests.  Even short-answer tests and essays reward remembering and recalling data.  Even teachers who value understanding and growth and change don’t know how discover it.  So they resort to checking for quantities of stored data.

The greatest concern most students have is whether they will be able to remember data for a test.
The better you get at it – mostly the vocabulary of the subject –  the better your grades.  Of course, this knack has very little use off campus.  Hence, the phenomenal success of trivia games.

Remembering is the essence of the school game.  

Once you know that, it’s easy to develop the skill.  In later posts, I’ll describe some of the tricks of the trade, techniques that are easy to apply.

7.  Studying itself is no guarantee that you will remember.

 How you use your time is much more relevant. 

 If you use your study time intelligently, you can cut time spent in half – or less.  In later posts I’ll describe some ways to set up pleasant and productive study time.

Keep in mind, memory is a by-product of learning.

Understanding how we learn and remember will reduce considerably the slave labor of grinding away at books.  You will spend less and less time trying to remember, yet you will be able to recall anything you want.

8.  Rote memory, repeating something over and over,  is the poorest way to commit something to memory.

It doesn’t take long to turn what you are repeating into meaningless gibberish, and the mind simply won’t play that game.  Right?

If you are asked to store trivia, there are pleasant, intelligent ways of doing it – but not as a mantra.  

9.  We cannot bully our minds.  

If you try to brow-beat your conscious mind into doing the learning (remembering), your spirit will not allow it.   All parts of the brain must be in harmony, if you want it to work.  Sitting up straight, beating our breast and frowning will shut the whole thing down.

I remember a colleague wondered why her quiet 8:00 section scored higher on her tests than her energetic 11:00 of the same course.  It’s likely students in  the early class were closer to their natural learning state than were the more intense students.

When the mind has room to play, it in its optimum learning mode.  Not surprisingly, the setting resembles a sandbox.

10.  Getting the hang of chemistry is no different from getting the hang of driving or mixing cocktails or sorting the mail.

 There are no difficult subjects, only areas of experience more distant from our daily environment than the “easy” subjects.

If one plays around with a new subject the way a child does with new experiences, in due time the code will come into focus, and the new field will be just as easy as anything else.

The key is to know how your brain works, to relax and to allow it to do its job.