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Improving Your Memory: Part 1

Adapted from a handout by Jane L. McGrath

The Thinker sculpture

"I just can't concentrate!"

Does this sound familiar? While there are times when this is true, usually we can overcome the distractions that get in our way so we can focus on the task we must accomplish.

"I just can't remember!"

This is another common message we tell ourselves. Often the real issue is that we must “get” something before we can “forget” it! Sometimes we say“I forgot” when what we mean is “I did not pay attention or understand it.”



We can concentrate, understand and remember. Here are some strategies to use to make your memory work for you!

Concentration means to find ways to overcome internal and external distractions that interfere with study. To do this we must identify the distraction and apply a technique to overcome it.

How to Cope with Internal Distractions

Discouraged studentInternal distractions include daydreams and thoughts like “I have to remember to call the plumber” and “This is boring.” Some ways of coping with these internal distractions include the following strategies.

  • Keep a note pad on your study table and write down a brief reminder of the idea or problem. Then let it go from your mind.

  • Turn the distraction, especially hunger or sleep, into a reward—once you master this idea, reward yourself.

  • To counteract boredom or lack of interest, try to identify the cause and then do something about it (see next section of this handout):

    lack of background knowledge?

    lack of purpose for the assignment?

    difficult reading material?

    personal problems?

    textbook problems?

  • If you can’t concentrate, take a break, deal with the distraction, and come back later.

  • Set a goal for your study time. How many pages do you want to cover? How many problems to you need to solve? How much do you need to write?

  • Start with smaller goals and increase them as you find you are able to concentrate for a longer time.

How to Eliminate External Distractions

External Distractions are related to the physical environment of your study area. They are easier to deal with once you identify them.

  • The best way to combat most external distractions, whether it’s the TV, the telephone, family members demanding attention, or the smell of dinner cooking, is to get away from them.

  • Form the habit of studying in the same place at the same time every day. Make this place, whether at home or school, just for study. Pay your bills and read your magazines somewhere else—don’t mix personal work, schoolwork, and leisure activities. This is especially important for online classes.

  • Select a study area with good lighting, adequate ventilation and quiet surroundings.

  • When it is time to study, apply yourself totally with your full attention. If you feel you are not getting as much as you should from your study and you cannot get rid of the distraction, take a short break and try again. The bottom line: you must learn to concentrate if you are to succeed



Student thinking


How well you learn something, not how fast you learn it, is a critical factor in understanding and remembering.

Five basic principles of good concentration include the following strategies:

  1. Something that does not make sense to you is hard to learn. The more meaningful you make it, the easier it is to learn.

  2. The more you know about a subject, the easier it is to understand new information about it. Connect new material to related information you already know.

  3. The more interested you are in a subject, the easier it is to comprehend. Find ways to stimulate your interest in the subject matter.

  4. Your ability to distinguish main points from details and tell the difference between significant details and unimportant details is a most important skill.

  5. Learning—understanding ideas—means you must fit each new piece of information into the subject’s “big picture,” not just memorize bits of details.



Remembering is a skill. Improving your memory, like improving any other skills, is hard work.

  • Being able to remember something usually depends on how thoroughly you learned it in the first place. “I have a poor memory" is often a convenient excuse to use when you haven’t had time to truly learn something.

  • You remember only what you intend to remember. Do you forget your best friend’s name or phone number? Do you forget how to drive?

  • Realize you cannot and do not need to remember everything. Trying to remember every detail you read and hear is probably impossible. Therefore, your ability to identify important ideas and details in the study/learning process is critical to effective recall of information.

Man with head like a file drawerHow you put information into memory affects how easily and efficiently you can access it.

In many ways your memory is like an office filing system.

  • Your sensory memory (momentary and very limited) is like a pink “While You Were Out” message that you deal with and forget, for example, the phone number to call to order a pizza.

  • Your short-term memory (30-60 seconds with limited capacity) is like the “in basket” where you sort out important from non-important information.

  • Your long-term memory (relatively permanent and unlimited in capacity) is like large file cabinets for storing important information

Everything in long-term storage must first be identified through sensory and/or short-term memory as important, then organized by some system and filed in the cabinet so it can be found easily.

The same principles apply to your memory. You must identify meaningful or important information, organize it, and then study it (file it) so you can retrieve it from your memory.


Go to Improving Your Memory: Part 2

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Adapted from a handout entitled "Improving Your Memory: Concentrate, Comprehend, Remember" © J. L. McGrath

This site was created and is maintained by Barbara J. Speidel, SWC Academic Success Center Coordinator. @ Barbara J. Speidel

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