Over the winter I have been studying to remember. I mean really remember all the details I will need in exams, and to feel confident about my knowledge of literature. The fact that our house in on one of the largest bird migration routes in North America is an interesting coincidence that helped my study plan along quite a bit this term. While visiting the Powdermill Nature Reserve in the Laurel Mountains near my home I learned that my favorite, plump little chickadees hide seeds in over 2,000 different locations for their winter stores. They have to remember every seed stash over the long months of winter. That inspires some respect from this student, who can at times feel memory challenged.
While my collie dog, Jelly Bean, and I walk around our garden filling the bird feeders I often wonder how the chickadees can remember 2,000 details while I am studying so hard to remember what is required for my four modules. Retaining details of criticism, history, texts, key terms, and genre can feel like a 2,000 piece puzzle. From the first day of this term keeping details in the front of my mind has been an important goal.
It is important to be clear about what it is I need to remember, exactly. Understanding what our examiners identify as valuable for exams is a good place to start. For example, depth of knowledge is important in the advanced units. Students are expected to read across literary periods, read several genres, and study at least three authors in detail. To accomplish this I made a timeline with key historical events juxtaposed with texts that are representative of their genre. Then I make notes under the ‘historical’ and ‘literary’ entries.
My notes include terms and vocabulary words I need to remember, summaries of how texts relate to specific historical contexts and how the historical context might have influenced authors and texts. Then I list a point from several different critical readings like New Historicism, Feminist, Structuralist, or Post Colonial. Having this data outlined in one place it is easier to remember details, relate them to a variety of texts, and refer to them repeatedly as I study and write.
Repetition is a big part of my memory exercises. Working with small bits of texts, rather than entire texts or even large section of texts, makes it much easier to remember key details. For example, remembering all the various terms for shifts in meter is challenging, but remember them I must if my intention is to discuss verse in exams. Since close reading accounts for thirty-three percent of my grade, verse is a dominant form in all four of my modules, and ‘Examiners’ Reports’ repeat the need to engage with form in a detailed way, devising a plan that commits these terms to memory is essential. I focus on specific acts or dramatic interactions in plays, a few paragraphs of prose, or a few stanzas of poetry to identify key points.
Another memory exercise that I find very helpful is first writing and revising several essay plans, outlines, and a detailed research paper before attempting to write timed essays. For me, practicing timed essays is helpful closer to exam time. When trying to commit things to memory essay plans and detailed research papers are my best resources.
The details I have committed to memory will determine the structure of my arguments. Learning to structure an argument or research paper around what the ‘Examiners’ Report’ identify as valuable helps me structure arguments about my own impressions and ideas more effectively. ‘Studying to remember’ might have come hatched out of a desperate need, like my little chickadees’ complex spatial memory strategy for recovering their winter seeds. But it turned out to be one of the smartest study choices I ever made.
Caowrites is studying the BA English by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes.