Education for the higher educated
Published on: 18 October 2011
Function: Research Director
Organisatie: Ashridge Business School

Memory techniques for MBA students to improve their learning and decision making

Many people, when trying to learn and retain new information, believe that memory is like a photograph; as long as we notice a scene or event, the information will be stored as an exact replica of that scene. Unlike a traditional photograph, the memory ‘image’ may also include a variety of senses such as touch (kinaesthetic) and smell (olfactory), but the image is assumed to be accurate and persistent.

Memory techniques may help retrieve information needed to chose the right pathMany people, when trying to learn and retain new information, believe that memory is like a photograph; as long as we notice a scene or event, the information will be stored as an exact replica of that scene. Unlike a traditional photograph, the memory ‘image’ may also include a variety of senses such as touch (kinaesthetic) and smell (olfactory), but the image is assumed to be accurate and persistent. This is the basic premise that is fundamental to the use of eyewitness testimony in a courtroom situation; the belief that as a victim or witness to a crime an individual is able to give an accurate description of the event or the perpetrator and that this memory will not be contaminated by the stress of the crime, the questioning of the police at the scene or during the statement process or by the simple passage of time. Unfortunately, memory does not work like a photograph. Human beings have fallible memories; memories that can be manipulated by leading questions, memories that can be changed by stereotypical beliefs and memories that can be affected by the level of stress which the victim or witness was subjected to. Rattner (1984) estimated that 0.5% of people arrested and charged with a crime are wrongfully convicted (8,500 in the USA in a single year) and 52.3% of those are from eyewitness misidentification. Wells et al (1998) found that in 40 cases in the USA where DNA evidence later exonerated the accused, eyewitness testimony accounted for 90% of the miscarriages of justice. All of the men had served prison sentences and five were on Death Row awaiting execution.


As an MBA student, whilst it may feel like a disaster if you fail to recall a critical fact in an exam or during a key presentation in class, it will not result in miscarriages of justice. However, the importance of a good memory whilst studying should not be underestimated. Consider the impact you can create if you are able to recall a presentation in class without the use of any notes, if you are able to coherently and succinctly summarise a report during an exam, and if you are able to remember the name and pertinent information of a project sponsor after a brief first meeting.


Memory may be crudely divided into two main divisions; short-term memory and longterm memory. Many memory theorists have found both short and long term memory to have distinct characteristics and these characteristics are important to consider when you are devising strategies to improve your memory performance and subsequent learning, in the classroom, in exams and in a business environment.


Short-term memory

Short-term memory, more recently termed ‘working memory’, is known to have a duration of approximately 15-30 seconds and information is usually stored in a sound-based format. In practical terms, this means that you have approximately 15-30 seconds to ‘use the information or lose the information’. To ensure that the material in short-term memory is retained, you must engage in rehearsal. Forgetting generally occurs if the information is not rehearsed within the 15-30 second ‘window’ and is therefore, not transferred to long-term memory.


Strategies for short-term memory

Often you may be given a telephone number to recall or other piece of information that needs to be remembered long enough to write it down, include it in your notes, type it in to your computer etc. The short-term memory span of a healthy adult is approximately seven items. That is, adults can remember approximately seven digits (letters, words, concepts) in short term memory at one time. Most telephone numbers, for example, are significantly longer than this so how can memory capacity be increased? A very simple technique is to repeat the numbers (rehearse them) very quickly. As mentioned above, the duration of short-term memory is approximately 15-30 seconds. The more you can rehearse in this time, the more you will remember. There is a strong correlation between how quickly someone speaks (articulation rate) and their shortterm memory capacity, so the faster you can rehearse the information, the more you will squeeze in to the 15-30 seconds ‘loop’ that is short-term memory. A second strategy to help you improve retention of strings of digits such as phone numbers is to use a method known as grouping. By ‘grouping’ the string of digits (123456789) in to groups of three items (123 456 789) and rehearsing the items in groups of three, you can increase your memory capacity from the expected seven items to approximately 15 items; capacity which will allow full recall of even the longest telephone number.


Long-term memory

Long-term memory contrasts with short-term memory in that memories stored in long-term memory have a potentially limitless duration and the information is stored based on the meaning of the information. Forgetting in long-term memory has been debated within the academic literature for many years, but current research suggests that a combination of decay over time and interference with previously stored information results in the inability to recall memories.


Strategies for long-term memory

In long-term memory, both effective storage of the information and effective subsequent retrieval of this information are necessary for memory and learning. Memory strategies in long-term memory mainly focus on improving the storage of memories, but by drawing on forensic psychology once again, and the use of the Cognitive Interview in forensic settings, we can also consider strategies for effective retrieval.


There are four key principles to ensure effective storage in long-term memory; key principles to making your MARC in exams and in class:


  • Meaning
  • Attention
  • Repetition
  • Creativity


1. Meaning

As information in long-term memory is stored in terms of meaning, it is possible to improve your memory storage by giving meaning to any information you are trying to learn. In fact, every mnemonic and memory trick ever devised utilizes this basic premise – making meaningless material meaningful makes it memorable. The fundamental point, however, is that the meaning must be in the eye of the beholder, it must be meaningful to you. SF1 was an individual with an exceptional memory; he was able to remember strings of digits over 80 in length, and was able to do this by taking random (meaningless) lists of digits and forcing personal meaning on to them. SF was an avid runner, and he converted the strings of numbers into running times for specific distances (for example, time taken for Roger Bannister to run the 4 minute mile was 3.594 minutes, thus the number 3594 could be stored as ‘time taken Bannister’). Recall, therefore, involved remembering the distances (very low cognitive effort as this familiar information is learnt and effectively stored) rather than meaningless random numbers (new material with a high cognitive effort required). SF, however, was no different to you or me. He was not born with an exceptional memory and his brain was not ‘wired’ differently. Instead, SF trained for over two years to improve his memory and learning performance. He practiced, he created meaning out of meaningless information and he then learned. As an MBA student there is not any quick way to retain information, but there is a very effective way – create meaning, and practice (revisit the information).


There are a number of ways to create personal meaning from apparently meaningless information. One of the most common techniques for remembering random words / facts is to relate them to personal circumstances (for example, ‘Income for this month is £197,200. 1972 is when I was born’). A second important strategy related to meaning is knowledge. Creating meaning relates to stored knowledge. Information that is meaningful to you is meaningful only because you have some prior knowledge of the information or what it means. A strategy to increase memory performance is to ensure that the material you are trying to remember is linked to your prior knowledge (ask yourself questions such as ‘how does this theory fit in with other similar theories’? and ‘How would this concept or tool work in my organisation’?). The benefit of this is two-fold. Firstly the material is meaningful and is thus less ambiguous (and therefore less likely to be forgotten), and secondly, relating information to your own stored knowledge increases the number of retrieval cues you have available. The greater the number of retrieval cues, the greater the likelihood that the memory will be recalled successfully.


2. Attention

The most common reason for healthy adults to fail to recall information is inattention. To retain and recall any information (i.e. to learn) you must attend to the information; you must exert effort and you must be motivated to do so. Think about information you can recall and information you struggle to recall. The likelihood is that the common factor will invariably be interest. In a business learning environment there is often little real interest in remembering every concept, tool and theory in every class. To improve your memory performance, you must exert cognitive effort into firstly attending to the material (focus), and then you must be motivated to act upon the material (by creating meaning). A very simple way of increasing motivation is to consider the following questions – ‘Why do I need to know this?’ and ‘What will I gain from remembering this?’ Just by considering these two questions you can highlight motivation for the task.


3. Repetition

The most basic method for ensuring memory storage is repetition. Repeating the information over and over again will usually (and eventually) transfer the information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. Rote rehearsal (‘parrot fashion’) ignores the importance of meaning and the role of creativity (discussed below) and is generally only an effective strategy for recalling facts and figures. Using mind maps to rehearse the information is a successful strategy for both facts and figures and for recall of deeper understanding or knowledge. Mind maps are an efficient memory tool because they tap into creativity, they repeat the information (repetition), they allow the creator of the mind map (you) to build on their own prior knowledge and their use generates meaning around the material. In addition, mind maps may utilise a different modality (vision) which allows a different set of memory cues to be created and ensures a variety of learning styles are considered.


4. Creativity

The von Restorff Effect demonstrates that any piece of information that is distinctive (and distinction may be through colour and / or meaning such as that below, or through bizarreness, humour, intonation, font size etc.) is more likely to be recalled than a similar item that is not distinctive as the below example illustrates:


  • Car
  • Lorry
  • Train
  • Shakespeare
  • Tram
  • Motorbike
  • Plane


To increase the likelihood of a key piece of information being attended to, and subsequently being stored, the information should be made distinctive.


Effective retrieval

The Cognitive Interview, originally devised by Geiselman et al (1986), was designed to enhance eyewitness recall, and consists of a variety of memory recall techniques. There are four key aspects to the interview, all of which are applicable to a business learning environment to help you COPE with memory retrieval difficulties:



If you are struggling to recall a specific piece of information (in an exam, for example), you should attempt to (in your head) reconstruct both the physical context and the personal context that existed when the information was first learnt. For example you could ask yourself questions such as ‘Where was I?’, ‘What wasI wearing?’, ‘How was I feeling?’, and ‘What day was it?’ Research on the Encoding Specificity Principle by Tulving and Thomson (1973) demonstrated that reinstating the context increases the ability to access stored information. This is one reason the crime reconstructions are considered an effective technique to gain more witness and testimonies.



This technique is particularly important if you are struggling to remember very specific aspects or details of learnt material. You need to recall the teaching session during which you learnt this information in a variety of temporal orders; from beginning to end, end to beginning and starting at a particular salient or key point. It is believed that this technique is effective because it reduces the extent to which schema, prior knowledge and stereotypical beliefs influence what is recalled.



This requires you to recall the information you are trying to remember, from a different perspective. Anderson and Pichert (1978) conducted a piece of research that demonstrated the effectiveness of perspective change. They asked individuals to read a passage that described a house. Half of the participants were required to take the perspective of a ‘house buyer’ when reading the description, and half were asked to take the perspective of a ‘house burglar’. Participants were then asked to recall information about the house, and once they were unable to recall any more details they were instructed to change perspective. The change in perspective led participants to recall further information; information pertinent to the changed perspective that previously could not be recalled.



‘Recalling everything’, no matter how relevant, central or important to the to-be-recalled item(s), enhances your likelihood of remembering the material you have forgotten, as does increasing the availability of cues (whether these cues are perceived as central to the memory or not).


Whilst it is unlikely that you will become a World Class memory expert (unlikely, but NOT impossible as all it takes is practice), the tips and memory techniques outlined above will  help you retain and recall information, whether that be in the classroom, in an exam or in a business setting. Remember the basic acronyms; make your MARC in remembering and COPE with recall.