I can’t forget, but I don’t remember what… The psychology of Memory Retention

memory retention in hsc english In your final year of High School you’ll come up against more than just your fellow students’ ambitions, parental pressure, the expectations of bureaucrats (your princi-“pal”) and the cryptic code of the Board of Studies syllabus. You’ll come up against yourself. Like Jay Z, archduke of rap, proclaims in “Welcome to the Jungle”– “I look in the mirror, my only opponent”. Delve beyond the bravado and marketing vainglory, and you’ll see the wisdom of J’s words, a man who knows the ins and outs of the “hustle” and knows the fine line between success, the realisation of your dreams, and that which we all dread: failure to meet our potential. That fine line, is, of course: you.   And the tool that will either make or break you in HSC English is your memory retention and learning. In your exams you’ll have to remember, at the very least, your quotes to back up your arguments. This might involve remembering the difficult diction and syntax of a master romantic poet like Keats. If you’re more ambitious, you’ll remember the skeletons to essay structures. And if you want to minimise all the contingent factors and stressors that could impact your performance, you might just even attempt to memorise a whole essay. The performance of your faculty of memory will be your lifeline.   There is a whole body of research in cognitive psychology devoted to understanding how memory works, and importantly, how best to optimise it, that is, to improve your “retention” of data and your “recall” memory.  We’ll give you the gist of it right here and now. Some of it might appear obvious, but humans haven’t always been great at doing the obvious.


We’re hounded day-in, day-out by our teachers to “Pay Attention!” That’s cause they know what they’re on about. The more you pay attention to something, the higher the chance that your brain will encode the data and transfer it from short-term memory to long-term memory. This is why studying in a calm, silent place like this guy:     voltaire memory retention …is advisable: being free of the numerous distractions of the modern world will increase your attention and improve your retention of data. Text your girlfriend or boyfriend later! They’ll still be around if they’re worth keeping.

Cramming is a no-no!

HSC English Cramming We’ve all done it. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. Sometimes it seems like you have a choice between going to Splendour to jive to Outkast or a weekend of studying. But you’re WRONG! Setting up a routine and good, regular study habits will reduce the stress of cramming and will ensure you have the time to enjoy the (other) good things of life guilt-free. But importantly, it’ll also improve your memory. The more regularly you come across and learn something, the deeper you’ll encode the data, the better you’ll remember it. How come you remember the words to Nicki Minaj’s rap in Monster? That’s cause you’ve played it ad nauseum on your generic listening device. Imagine having to recall the rap at a party after having only listened to it once! Scary. So don’t do it with your exams!


HSC English Essay Organised   Structure and organise your notes, and lump all the information under headings and other key-words. You will prove to yourself that you’ve really understood, and therefore encoded, the data at a deeper level.

Memory Tricks

Use “mnemonics” where you can. Mnemonics is just a fancy word for all those tricks we use to remember things. “Never Eat Soggy Wheat-bix” is a mnemonic to remember the points on a compass in a clock-wise manner. Come up with your own, to remember paragraph structures, or that exact, elusive metaphor Shakespeare might be using. Tying in data, with even completely random things like songs or jokes is a great, and fun, way to improve retention.

Link New Information With What You Already Know

Link information with what you don't know Tie it in to everyday life. Literature doesn’t exist out there in the aether! You’ll realise that the themes it grapples with are part of what it is to be human. There’ll be something you’ve already learned, directly or indirectly, that the new info can be added on to.

Teach a friend

You’ll know you really know something if you can speak it out loud, synthesise it in speech by yourself to a friend or relative. Get interested and talk about your texts with your friends in study groups. Debate it. Is Animal Farm only an allegory of the Soviet Union? Or are the warnings within it applicable to all kinds of societies? Make your own topics. This will improve your understanding and confidence to explain it in your own words.

Eat, sleep, and exercise

It’s easier said than done, and your odd all-nighter might be unavoidable, but remaining sane and healthy in the HSC is paramount to helping you get through it. It’ll drastically help your memory as well. There is irrefutable evidence that good, regular exercise and nutrition strengthen synaptic links in your brain, and reduce stress. Sleep is crucial to your brain’s attempt to properly process and store all that you’ve learned during the day. And we’ve all directly experienced how hard it is to perform with little or no sleep: our cognitive faculties to think, remember and argue well are severely impacted if we don’t sleep.   Apply these important tips to your study regime and you’ll see the results that follow. The more effort you put in, the easier your life in the HSC will be. Good luck remembering all that data! I suggest you read it over a couple of times, and write a song about it.