Making the Most of Your Memory for Exams

It's that time for Year 12. There's just a couple more assessments for English and then it's not too long to go until the Trial HSC Examinations. It's easy to think you'll leave preparation until the July holidays, especially when term time is so busy. But STOP! You can start now. Just 5 minutes a day will go a long way. Let me explain.

In exam time, your working memory is operating at overload. You may be trying to remember quotations for three different essays while also trying to think flexibly in responding to unseen questions. You also write as fast as you can for 120 minutes straight. This is hard stuff! It's exhausting. So what can we do to make it easier?

One way is to start now with 5 MINUTES A DAY memorising your key quotes. Start with the text you are going to be assessed on next. Arm yourself with a good supply of coloured sticky notes. Colours are good because sometimes your mind will recall which colour the quote was written on. Write 3-5 of your key quotations on these: one quote per sticky note.

What do you write? The quotations that you choose should relate to the keywords of the syllabus for that Module. Your teacher should have given you these already but if you have misplaced them then these can be found on the Board of Studies website. I have extracted some of these keywords for you below.

For example, for the HSC English course examined in 2017 and 2018, Paper 2:

Module A, Comparative Study of Texts and Contexts: the quotations and examples that you choose need to show your knowledge and understanding of: "contexts" (social, cultural and historical), "language forms and features", "ideas, values and attitudes". 

Module B, Critical Study of Texts: you need to choose quotations or examples that demonstrate your analysis and evaluation of the "language, content and construction of the text" ("textual integrity") and its "context". You also need to show evidence of your "own informed personal understanding" both of the text and of "how the text has been received and valued".

Module C, Representation and Text: you will be studying one of the following two electives. "Representing People and Politics" focuses on "the ways in which texts represent individual, shared or competing political perspectives, ideas, events or situations". You need to provide evidence of your understanding and analysis of "representations of people's political motivations, actions and of the impact political events may have on individual lives or society more broadly". You also need to show that you understand how the "relationship between textual form, media of production and language shape meaning" (quotes or specific scenes and techniques!).

The other option in Module C, "Representing People and Landscapes", examines "the ways in which texts represent the relationship between the lives of individuals or groups and real, remembered or imagined landscapes." You need to provide examples that show your understanding and analysis of "representations of people's experiences of particular landscapes and their significance for the individual or society more broadly." You also need to show that you understand how the "relationship between textual form, media of production and language shape meaning" (as above).

Now that you have your quotations on those coloured sticky notes, how to go about remembering them? Well, the best way is to make it a habit. And how do you do that? By linking it to an existing habit, something that you do every day, rain, hail or shine; like brushing your teeth or hair. Stick the coloured quotations around your mirror. For a couple of weeks just learn those 3-5 key quotes. Recite or sing them while you brush your hair, bore your parents with them over dinner, mutter them under your breath while you kick the footy or shoot a few baskets or swim. If you are into sport, try to integrate them into whatever is your way of being active. 

Once you have mastered these 3-5 quotations, change your memory task. Next, you might try memorising mathematical formula or chemistry equations. Perhaps you might switch to the Area of Study essay. It's up to you. The important thing is to make the seemingly insurmountable memory work that is involved in the HSC into something that is small and manageable, something that you will do EVERY DAY, from now until the Trial and final HSC Examinations.

Then, by the time you are sitting in that examination room and trying to respond to an unseen essay question, you won't also be struggling to keep reciting your quotations over and over in your mind at the same time. The quotations will be ingrained. Your mind will have more space to think and focus on the task at hand. You will discover that YOU CAN WRITE, even in exams!

Good luck!

Dr Kristin Hammett-Stevens BAHons, PhD, PGCE