It can be frustrating trying to remember something you just learned only to sit there with a blank mind going, “Um what was that bit about CNS depressants.

Since we’re a nursing site, this article about memory hacks is for all those nursing students struggling through pharmacology, anatomy & physiology, standards of care, and clinical.

There’s so much to know it can be like trying to drink from a firehose. Sometimes it can feel like there’s no way anyone could remember all of those facts, figures, procedures, and body systems. And then there’s the NCLEX exam.

Yes, the nursing school has an incredible amount of information to absorb. But it’s not impossible – and we’re going to show you three hacks that will prove to you that you can not only remember it all but get a firm grasp and understanding of it.


Why You Can’t Remember Everything You Learn


In this modern Information Age, we work so much with computers, from our PCs and laptops to our cell phones, that we’re under the impression that our brains work the same way. I mean your brain is basically an organic computer, right?

Yes, the brain is an amazingly complex living computing organ with more interconnections than there are stars in our galaxy and a nearly unlimited storage capacity.

But even with this astonishing computing power, our brains don’t store information as your laptop does. It’s not just download something, saves it and the file is in there until you delete it.

The brain has to selectively store its memories. It can process up to 400 billion bits of information a second from visual, auditory, tactile, taste, and olfactory information. But do you really need to remember what the rustling of a tree sounded like on Tuesday, October 13 five years ago?

That information just unnecessarily takes up space in your grey matter, so your brain just forgets it.

So until your brain sees something over and over, it doesn’t store it long-term. It’s like trying to light a wet candle. You put the flame to it – it goes out. You put the flame to it again – it stays lit for a little while longer. You do it again, and finally, the candle stays lit.

To sort through all that information and only pick out what’s necessary for our survival and daily functioning, our brains developed a two-tier memory system: short-term and long-term memory.


Short Term Memory

Short term memory, also called active memory, is all the information that your brain is conscious of or thinking about right now in real-time – like reading this sentence.

The general length information stays in your short-term memory is 20 – 30 seconds and on average, is limited to about 5 – 9 pieces items. The classic example is trying to remember a phone number or web address.

After 30 seconds, when you’ve walked into another room and are doing something else – then try to remember the number. You probably can’t. That’s because your short-term memory is easily disrupted by outside distractions.

So your goal has to be to get the information in your short-term memory, says the lecture you just sat through for an hour, into your long-term memory.


Long-term Memory

Your long-term memory is where your true understanding lies. It’s not just facts and figures but concepts that you truly have the grasp of and can easily explain to someone.

These memories are stable and long-lasting. But even these memories are not all created equal. The information and memories you have in long-term memory need to be frequently accessed to stay strong.

The more you use them, the stronger their connections become, and the easier they are to remember. This is also the concept (as we’ll see below) of how you can move information in your short-term memory to long-term by constant repetition.

This moving of information into long-term memory is how you’re going to be able to remember more of what you’ve learned – and there are 3 hacks that make this very easy.


3 Easy Memory Hacks


1. Stop . . . and Recall

Using active recall while you’re studying has been shown in studies to dramatically increase your ability to remember information.

nursing student studying

Also known as retrieval, this hack is simple to do.

After you’ve been studying something for a while, stop, close the book and spend 30 seconds to a minute trying to remember the key points of what you were just working on.

This incorporates your active memory, making the connections stronger. If you can’t remember exactly what the main points were, go back and read it again.

After you’ve gone through it, stop and recall again.

Get into a regular habit of doing these little pauses to recall the information you’ve just learned and you can greatly improve how much you’re able to remember.

This works for any kind of studying or whenever you’re learning something new whether it’s a book, video, or lecture.


2. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Practice makes perfect – and looking over the information you’re trying to learn over and over also moves it right into your long-term memory. Remember the candle analogy from above?

Repetition is like putting the flame to the candle in your brain until the information stays lit.

Psychologists created a system based on repeating learning called spaced repetition, which basically is this:

  • You learn something new on Monday (while practicing #1 Recall)
  • Review it on Wednesday
  • Review it again on Friday

The easier it becomes and the better you understand it, the longer you can space out your repetition of the information. It takes advantage of the way our brains retain information.

If something pops up more frequently, your brain says, “Hey, here it is again. I guess this is important so I’ll make sure to remember it.”

One of the best ways to practice spaced repetition is by using flashcards. In fact, flashcards are made for this type of learning. You can pull them out anytime for a quick review.

And if you want to check out the best pharmacology flashcards deck, you can find some here.


3. Teach It

Want to test if you really understand a concept or lesson? Try to explain it to someone else. Yeah, not so easy if you don’t have a firm grasp of it.

Physicist and educator Richard Feynman was a proponent of this hack to help students not only learn new information but to fully understand it.

To teach someone else a concept, do this:

  • Write an explanation, or lesson, that you want to teach. Use simple words and simplify complex ideas.
  • Start teaching it – you don’t need another person, you can practice by yourself by just saying it out loud.
  • When you get stuck or forget something, go back and review.
  • Start over.
  • When you can make it all the way through the concept or lesson without stopping, not only are you ready to teach it to someone else, you’ve committed it to long-term memory.

This method is great for learning pharmacology. Yes, it’s super hard, but when you know why understanding pharmacology is so important for nurses, then you see why it’s a required class.


Really what you’re doing with these three hacks is just working with your brain instead of against it. Your brain isn’t a computer you can just download a file into and bam . . . it’s in there. You’ve got to learn information in a way your brain can handle, and that’s what these hacks are for.

So practice some recall at the end of this blog. Then do a little repetition by reading it again. And then, tell someone about it.

When you’re finished, you’ll have all three hacks committed to your long-term memory banks ready to supercharge your learning from here on out.

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