7. Use pictures
Pay attention to diagrams and graphs in your class materials, says Nebel. “Those pictures can really boost your memory of this material. And if there aren’t pictures, creating them can be really, really useful.”
“I think these visual representations help you create more complete mental models,” McDaniel says. He and Dung Bui, then also at Washington University, had students listen to a lecture on car brakes and pumps. One group got diagrams and was told to add notes as needed to the diagrams. Another group got an outline for writing notes. The third group just took notes. The outlines helped students if they were otherwise good at building mental models of what they were reading. But in these tests, they found, visual aids helped students across the board.
Even goofy pictures might help. Nikol Rummel is a psychologist at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany. In one study back in 2003, she and others gave cartoon drawings to college students along with information about five scientists who studied intelligence. For example, the text about Alfred Binet came with a drawing of a race car driver. The driver wore a bonnet to protect his brain. Students who saw the drawings did better on a test than did those who got only the text information.
8. Find examples
Abstract concepts can be hard to understand. It tends to be far easier to form a mental image if you have a concrete example of something, Nebel says.
For instance, sour foods usually taste that way because they contain an acid. On its own, that concept might be hard to remember. But if you think about a lemon or vinegar, it’s easier to understand and remember that acids and sour go together. And the examples might help you to identify other foods’ taste as being due to acids.
Indeed, it helps to have at least two examples if you want to apply information to new situations. Nebel and others reviewed studies on this in July 2019. Their Journal of Food Science Education report describes how students can improve their study skills.