Techniques to Remember Vast Amounts of Stuff!

Everyone loves Pirates and Cows right?!

Everyone loves Pirates and Cows right?!

A short while back I finished the UK Actuarial exams and more recently I have been mentoring other Actuarial students.  One of the key exams they have problems with is CA1.  Partly this is due to the change in exam technique from earlier exams but another big reason why it’s so difficult is the sheer size of the course (it’s frickin huge!).  To get through it successfully you need a combination of good exam technique, practise and the ability to memorise vast amounts of info.

While remembering all of the lists and core reading in the course is never enough to pass on it’s own it certainly makes a huge difference in your chances.  In this post I’m going to share the techniques I used to commit the various lists and core reading from that course to memory in the hope that I can help other students to get through this exam and other similar exams.

Key Memory Principles – Using Your Imagination

The key ingredient to memory and recall is how you use your imagination.  Your imagination is how we are going to glue together the information we want to remember to what we call memory hooks.  In simple terms, memory hooks are things we use to group and remember other things.

There are a number of ways you can use your imagination to it’s fullest.  Below is a list of how I do this myself.  To really explain each I’m going to use an example: remembering a list which contains an elephant, an Amazon kindle, lip balm, a chair and Lex Luthor1This is a completely random list of unrelated objects I came up with while sitting here..  To remember these I’m going to use a memory hook of the name “Bert”2Again a random thing I chose..

  • Use the first image that comes to your mind: if a given image comes to your mind immediately when you think of an object then use it.  Since it’s the first thing to come to mind now it’s also the most likely thing that comes to your mind during an exam.  Instead of trying to break existing associations we should build on them and make them stronger.  In my example above, when I think “Bert” I immediately think of evil Bert (type this into Google and you will see what I mean).  When I think “Elephant” I immediately think Dumbo … so these are the images I use for those terms;
  • Make it personal: if something has a personal meaning to you or is based on your own experience then you are much more likely to recall it later.  In the example above, when I think Lex Luthor I think of myself dressed as Lex Luthor.  Why is this personal? Since I shave my head some family members have given me the nickname “Lex”.  This is also the first thing that comes to mind so we get a really strong image here;3Of course I take this as a compliment – after all Lex Luthor was something of an evil genius ;p
  • Make it active and absurd: so we have evil Bert, Dumbo the elephant and myself as Lex Luthor.  How do we get lip balm and an Amazon kindle in there and how can we glue them all together? One way is to do something active and absurd with all of the individual things.  In this case we can imagine evil Bert riding Dumbo the elephant (like a knight with a lance).  I can then image myself (as Lex) fighting them with a shield made out of a huge Amazon kindle and a sword.  Instead of being a normal sword though this has a huge stick of lip balm as the blade.  I imagine the kindle is the same as the one I own (making it personal) and since it is a kindle fire I imagine it is actually on fire.  Completely absurd … but easy to remember;
  • Use bold or different colours: how might we get our chair into this picture as well?  We know Bert has to sit on Dumbo and usually you might use a saddle for this sort of thing.  Let’s imagine the saddle is made out of a chair – the first chair that comes to mind is the throne made out of swords from Games of Thrones.  Let’s use this and imagine Bert sitting on this atop of Dumbo and to make it even more memorable lets make the chair a bright green neon colour – maybe the swords on the chair are made out of kryptonite!;
  • Make things bigger or smaller: we have already used this one a couple of times – when we made our amazon kindle a huge shield and when we made our lip balm into a huge sword blade.  We could go further and make Dumbo so tiny that Bert can barely sit on him and make his ears to big he trips up on them.  Each change just makes the image stronger;
  • Add sound, smells, tastes and feelings: so far we have really only used our visual imagination but we can make the images even stronger by adding sounds, smells, tastes and feelings.  Here we can imagine Bert shouting abuse at me, we can remember how an elephant might smell of elephant shite and we can feel the adrenaline rush from the fight;

The above should demonstrate a few key issues and the main one is your imagination is an amazing thing and with a little practise you can really use it to make things much easier to remember.  It can also make the job of remembering things much more entertaining!

Everyone loves Dumbo

Everyone loves Dumbo!

The Memory Journey and Roman Rooms

Many people have heard of the Roman Room memory technique.  The basic principle is that you can use a given room (real or fictional) to remember stuff by placing objects in specific locations.  The technique works because of how our brains have evolved from cave men4I read this somewhere but can’t remember where. and is very powerful.

What we are going to do here is take this a step further – any place you have every visited is a potential “Roman Room” and we can use a journey to glue together multiple such rooms.  When memorising CA1 I used the whole town where I was living at the time.  I imaged a journey around the town in a big clockwise circle.  Along the way there were a number of locations.  Each location was it’s own “Roman Room” and within each Roman Room I stored my Acronyms and Mnemonics (see next section).  A given Roman Room also corresponded to a given chapter or section of the CA1 course.

In this way, if I knew a given exam question was referring to a given part or chapter of the course I could immediately go to it’s Roman Room and ask myself: which of the objects in this room is the most relevant?  Straight away I knew which bits of core reading and lists I had to select from.  Taking this a step further we can imagine a journey around each “Room” in a given direction (say clockwise).  The objects you encounter earlier in the journey around the room can be those that appear in the examiners reports most frequently.  This way when choosing between two lists in an exam situation you can maximise your chances of listing points which are on the marking scheme by choosing the one that comes up first in the room journey!

Acronyms, Mnemonics and Symbols

In the Actuarial exams acronyms are a big favourite.  There are a lot of lists to remember and acronyms make these much easier.  An example of one I created myself is BEEF BRIGS (hence the image for this post).  This was used for “who we advise”.

  • B = Benefit schemes
  • E = Employers
  • E = Employees
  • F = Fund Managers
  • B = Banks
  • R = Regulators
  • I = Insurance Companies
  • G = Government
  • S =  Sponsors of Capital Projects

So how did I put this together with my memory journey and Roman Rooms?  I knew the section for this along my journey was at a smaller train station within the town where I lived.  I imagine Doctor Who standing on the station platform giving some advice to a Dalek on how to clean their eye-stalks with Windex (“who we advise” … absurd but memorable).  While they are standing there, instead of a train pulling up at the platform a pirate ship on wheels pulls up.

The pirate ship (a Brig) is made out of beef (a Beef Brig) and is run by a crew of cows.  The ship and train platform are then my Roman Room.  For each of the Acronym items I create an object/thing etc and put it in a certain place either in the ship or on the platform.  You could also add other Acronyms to the same train station quite easily.


Exterminate … Exterminate!

An important point here is that some things we have to remember don’t easily lend themselves to physical things we can imagine.  In these cases I use what I call a “Symbol”.  An example is Tax – I always associate this with a Red suitcase (then one the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK delivers the budget in).  The association comes from when I was younger5I had a friend who worked for HMRC who said Gordon Brown (Chancellor of Exchequer at the time) was his boss – hence the red suitcase..  For each abstract concept or idea see if you can come up with something similar.

With all of the above we use the memory principles from the first section and use our imagination to glue them together.  This way we are doing more than just learning lists of acronyms: we are making strong connections in our brains that we can recall at lightning speed when needed.

Use Flashcards for Rapid Recall

Creating a fantastic set of acronyms, a memory journey and Roman Rooms to glue them all together is all good and well.  These are all pointless however if we can’t recall them quickly.  Think of recall like a track though a field.  The first time you walk over it you can barely see the track.  However, after a few hundred people have walked over it the track becomes much more visible and easier to follow.  Recall is similar to this and the more you practise the faster and more accurate you will get.

I have found the best way to improve recall with all of the above is to create flashcards for each of my memory objects.  As an example “who we advise” would be on the front of a given flashcard and BEEF BRIGS along with the expansion of each term would be on the back.  The most important part of this is: each time I answer the flashcard I use my imagination to picture everything in detail.  All the images, sounds, smells, actions – everything.  After just 2 or three times answering the flashcard you will find you can recall at lighting speed.

To make the most efficient use of flashcards I go for spaced repetition.  This makes sure you review a given flashcard at the optimum frequency to improve recall and focuses time and energy on those you find hardest.  The best program I have found for this is Anki flashcards.  The software is completely free of charge and they have apps for both Android and iPhone.

Final Words

This was a long post but I hope it will help a lot of people really improve their exam performance.  As mentioned in the start – just remembering the material is not enough and the only way to pass is by practising past exam papers to death.  If you can remember the core reading and lists then it makes the job of passing massively easier!

Footnotes   [ + ]

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