Lesson 4: Exam preparation (using exclusivity)

So far we’ve learned how to memorize pretty much anything by (1) making it memorable and (2) storing it in a location you can access in your memory.

But now how do you apply all these skills to an actual academic subject?

When you start a class out, a class that involves all kinds of input (lectures, a textbook, videos, additional research)… it can be a bit overwhelming. Not only are you being fed huge heaps of information, you also don’t have it neatly categorized to put it in an organized memory palace.

For a breath of fresh air, consider:

(1) Not all information is created equal. In most cases, not only are you not going to memorize the whole textbook, you’re also actually probably going to use just about 15-25% of the information in the book on your exams and in your real life.

(2) If you focus on learning essential information first, you’ll actually make the entire study process easier. When you read, instead of being confused, you’ll be able to make sense of everything, and you’ll see the sorts of connections and insights that topic experts are able to see.

A quick warning: This tactic does require what seems like a little extra work. But it’s kind of like taking a deep breath before diving into a swimming pool. Is that deep breath extra work? Hardly. It takes just a few seconds, and it’s very much worth it.

For example, before taking my third music history class in college, I was smart and did a little preparation ahead of time. During the summer before my class, I spent a few hours memorizing the most important facts such as important names, dates, and their relationships to particular artistic movements. It didn’t take too much work, but then when the semester started, the class itself was a breeze.

Now, there are a few situations where you could argue that this “exclusivity” tactic doesn’t apply. Maybe you’re studying medical knowledge, and absolutely everything in your reference book is important. Or maybe you have a personal goal of memorizing an entire book, such as a book of the Bible.

We’ll cover those special cases in lesson 7. But even if you find yourself in a situation like that, you’re still going to start with exclusivity as described in this lesson (lesson 4). But then you’ll continue on and go further after learning the essentials.

For now, let’s focus on how to get down to those essentials as quickly as possible.

The search for essential information

Unfortunately, most teachers and textbooks are not very good at telling you what the essentials actually are.

It’s a crime, but too many professors are (usually unconsciously) a bit egotistical and somewhat blind to the mindsets of their students. They present information in an overwhelming way, not realizing that the students don’t really have the fundamentals down and therefore don’t have a way to absorb it effectively.

So what do the students do? They make furious notes on everything the professor says, not realizing that if they only focused on grasping a few basic concepts first, everything would fall into place.

The best teachers are the ones who can make things the simplest.

Consider this quote from Albert Einstein (the most misquoted person in the world, although this quote seems to be genuine): “All physical theories, their mathematical expressions apart, ought to lend themselves to so simple a description that even a child could understand them.”

With that in mind, one of the most effective ways to get the essentials of a subject is simply to go and find a children’s book about it!

Objection: “But wait. Isn’t it enough that I already have three textbooks, twenty-two YouTube videos, and a rambling professor? I don’t need any more information.”

This objection is exactly why we’re looking for a simpler resource. More information does NOT equal better learning. What we need is better, simpler information. That way we can make sense of everything else as well.

A children’s book is likely to give you the essentials of a topic without the rambling jargon of a college textbook or a formal essay. As long as it’s high-quality, with good information, it’s a great place to start.

One issue, of course, is that not every subject has a good children’s book on the market. Besides, even if you do find a children’s book, you’ll have to move beyond that once you have the big picture in mind.

So I’m going to describe a more universally applicable tactic, one that everyone can apply no matter what the subject is.

Step 1: “Most frequent terms”

Find the 20-30 most frequent “terms” that you don’t yet understand, and get as familiar with them as possible.

Depending on the subject, a “term” could be the name of a historical figure, the definition of a biology term, or the title of a specific legal case.

Whatever it is, your first task is to figure out which of these terms is referenced the most in your subject. This is your first assignment for finding the most essential information.

How do you find these terms? There are a couple of very practical ways.

Method A: If you have a textbook, go to the index in the back. Scan it from beginning to end, and make note of which terms are used on the most pages. Those terms must be pretty important.

Method B: If you’re doing online research, look through a few pages (such as Wikipedia pages) for the terms you’re not familiar with, and then search the pages for those terms (on a Mac, you can do this by using command-F in any standard web browser). Count the number of times those terms are used, and make note of which terms are used the most.

Once you have your list of about 25 terms, start doing research on those terms.

From that point, things may begin to develop unexpectedly. It may be fairly simple: You might memorize some dictionary definitions or a few basic facts about historical figures, and you’re done. But in many cases, you’ll find that you have to learn other information in order to understand these terms.

That’s perfectly fine. Because now you have a reason to learn what you’re learning; you have an objective. You’re trying to understand these terms. Maintain that objective, and you’re good to go.

Once you’re through with that, your reading is likely to make much more sense. Because you’re going to see these terms everywhere! Remember all those page numbers in the index? Or all the places you found those words on those Wikipedia pages? Now you can read straight through without having to stop and scratch your head that many times. Sure there will still be terms you don’t know, but you’ve learned the most-used terms.

Now that you’ve greatly improved your understanding of your reading (with very little work), it’s time to get organized and prepare to learn the rest of the essential information.

Step 2: Organize your own memory palace

At this point, you should have a fairly easy time piecing together knowledge of your subject when you read about it.

But this “piecing together” process is kind of like trying to sew a shirt without a pattern, or trying to build a house one brick at a time but not even knowing what size the house is going to be. Sure, you’re making progress. But “progress” without a destination and without a plan is frustrating and can be disastrous.

We need to create a structure and a plan.

Now that you have several pieces of understanding on your subject, it’s time to figure out how those pieces are going to fit together in your mind. The purpose is to organize the information in a top-down structure, like we did with the dinosaur classification in the previous lesson.

But how do we figure out the structure? That’s tricky, and unfortunately it’s impossible to prescribe something that will work for every single subject.

Very often, the book’s table of contents will give you an idea of how to group topics into just a few basic categories. You may have about 10-20 “modules” in your book, but use your knowledge and creativity to group those into 2-4 main areas if at all possible.

As an example, if you’re studying art of the early 20th century, you might choose to organize based on artistic or philosophical movements, based on countries, or maybe based on specific wars and all their related events.

If you decide to organize based on artistic movements, you might have one branch for impressionism, one for expressionism, and one or two others for particular modernist trains of thought. But then within those branches, you’ll have to include information about countries, wars, and specific artists.

If you decide to organize based on countries instead, the artistic movements will have to be stored within that, along with wars and specific artists.

How do you figure out which is better? Try both and see which one ends up being more organized.

A great way to sketch out your organization of the information is by using a mind map. You illustrate the main subjects, then go into smaller and smaller topics branching off of those.

Once you figure out your structure, the very next thing you want to do is choose a memory palace to use. It could be your house, your parents’ house, a local library, or a park near your school.

And just like we did for the dinosaur classification, you now need to figure out how you’re going to divide the memory palace into different large areas. Then you’ll chop those areas up into smaller and smaller areas to correspond to your mind map.

Next, the most important part to make this all fall together: Take those 25 terms that we learned earlier, and store them in your memory palace. Turn those facts into funny images, figure out the most appropriate place in the palace that those facts should go, and imagine them as stored there.

Ka-bam, you should now have a brilliantly organized memory palace.

In your mind’s eye, you can see how all the information that you’re learning fits together.

You know the most important information and can access it whenever you need it.

And best of all, anything new that you learn will integrate nicely. If you run across a fact that you need to remember, just think about where it belongs in your memory palace, and store it there in your imagination.

Bonus section: More numbers

Let’s say your subject is history. That’s one area where numbers are pretty important. So let’s learn some more number images that you can easily store in a memory palace.

Today we’re actually going to learn eleven new numbers, which is more than we’ve ever learned in a single lesson before. But hopefully it won’t be too hard because you’ve already gotten some good practice with the numbers we learned in previous lessons.

Today’s new digit is 5. Look carefully at the middle of this digit: If you cut the top and bottom off, you’re left with something that looks like the letter L.

That’s what the number 5 is. So for example, 55 is a “lily”. To make sure you don’t confuse this with the “rose” (40), make sure the lily in your imagination is white, soft, and simple, while the rose is bright crimson red with thorns.

Here are all the numbers to learn today:

  • 05: “whistle” (the important sounds are “SL”)
  • 15: “doll”
  • 25: “nail”
  • 35: “mail” (an envelope)
  • 45: “rail” (a metal bar)
  • 50: “lace” (a white, lacy doily)
  • 51: “wallet”
  • 52: “halloween” (a jack-o-lantern)
  • 53: “helium” (a helium balloon)
  • 54: “lure” (a fish hook and bobber)
  • 55: “lily”

Here’s a quiz with the numbers from lessons 1, 3, and 4 (lesson 2 can rest for today):

Quiz: Lesson 4 numbers

Optional exercise: Quick. Look around the room you’re in and choose 9 locations from left to right. See how quickly you can store all of these numbers in your imagination right now, with two objects in each location (one on top of the other to make sure you get the order right).

  • 5500 (a lily on top of a saucer)
  • 0254 (a snowball on top of a lure)
  • 5150 (a wallet on a lace doily)
  • 5215 (a jack-o-lantern on a doll)
  • 1353 (a dime on a helium balloon)
  • 1145 (a tooth on a metal bar)
  • 2325 (a gnome on a nail)
  • 1435 (a tire on an envelope)
  • 0541 (a whistle on a radio)

Make sure that the images are very strong and memorable. For 5500, the lily shouldn’t just be sitting on the saucer; maybe it’s trying to grow roots through the saucer. And imagine that the jack-o-lantern is cruelly crushing the poor Ragetty-Ann doll (5215). Think about what sound a dime would make if it was rolling along the rubbery surface of a helium balloon (1353).

Done? Now see if you can write down all the numbers in order from memory.

If you can (maybe after the 2nd try), you’ve just proven that you’re ready to get into truly advanced memorization and learning.

Go to lesson 5: Memorizing passages of text