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How to memorize material for Nursing School Exams and the NCLEX

I am a nurse who has been in a lot of different roles. I have been an LVN/LPN and RN staff nurse, travel nurse, home health nurse, visiting nurse, house supervisor, unit manager, director, chief nursing officer, licensed nursing home administrator, and nursing instructor. However, if I had to be honest with you, the most difficult gig I have ever had in nursing was…being a nursing student.

Being a nursing student is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. From getting my LVN then RN license, and then an associates, bachelors and then masters in nursing, I have been a nursing student for a long time. One thing that I think was a hindrance for me was that I had a hard time remembering all of the facts and information needed for nursing school exams and the NCLEX.

I always had the will, desire, and drive to do well in school (and I did), but I always had a hard time remembering the material. I would often rely on my common sense and English language skills to do well on the tests. However, I always have wondered if I could have done better academically, or if it would have been easier for me to study if I had a better memory.

Ironically, it wasn’t until after I was done with my nursing education (unless, against my wife’s wishes, I decide to go back for a DNP or a PhD in nursing) that I searched for ways to increase my memory. In fact, I was actually studying for the California Bar Exam and was looking for ways to remember obscure and abstract laws. After discovering the effectiveness of the techniques, I thought that I might be able to apply them to help my nursing students.

As a self-diagnosed Amazon Prime addict (gotta love free shipping—and I am waiting for the day my books will be delivered by drone…), I was searching for books on improving memory when I stumbled across the book “Moonwalking with Einstein,” by Joshua Foer. Being that I wanted to improve my memory and was intrigued by the catchy title, I gave it a shot and ordered the book. It sat on the shelf for a few weeks, but one weekend when my wife and kids were doing something with my mother in law I found myself alone and decided to start reading it. I couldn’t put it down (stay with me—you will see how this relates to nursing education very shortly…).

The book is about a young journalist who is tasked to cover a story at the USA Memory Championships. In the process of covering the event, the author becomes enamored with the memory-perfecting methods used by winners of the contest that he decides to compete and wins the contest the following year.

Although I love a good underdog story, I was most interested in the methods used in the book. There are methods that are described that helped Foer learn how to memorize the order of a deck of cards in a matter of minutes and how to memorize someone’s name so that you would remember it years later if you see them again. Neither of those things, while interesting, is what I was after. I was after the method talked about in the book called the “Journey” Method, or the Method of “Loci” or perhaps most popularly referred to as the “Memory Palace” method.

Attributed to the Greek poet Simonides, the Memory Palace originates when a banquet hall collapses. Simonides had stepped outside of the banquet hall to take a message from a courier when the hall collapsed, and thus was the only survivor. Apparently, when the next of kin came to identify their family members who had perished, they were so horribly disfigured that it was impossible to determine who they were based on their remains. Simonides was able to identify which remains belonged to whom by remembering where each person was sitting in relation to him while they dined in the banquet hall. He used their location to remember.

Here is a video by USA Memory Champion Ron White on the Memory Palace method:

When I first read about it, I didn’t understand the significance of how this could be applied to learning. However, after thinking about it, I found that the Memory Palace Method could be applied not only to the legal terms I was studying, but also to nursing concepts and issues.

Basically, you pick a place that you are familiar with, like your house, school, or building where you work. You assign locations within that location called “loci” where you put outlandish pictures to remember the concepts you need to memorize.

Here’s an example:

Say your memory palace is your house. The following items might be loci in your memory palace journey:

  1. Mailbox
  2. Driveway
  3. Front porch
  4. Front door
  5. Kitchen
  6. Living room
  7. Bathroom
  8. Master bedroom
  9. Garage
  10. Backyard

And lets say that you needed to memorize the following words:

  1. Hot dog
  2. Donut
  3. Beach ball
  4. Umbrella
  5. Bow and arrow
  6. Pumpkin
  7. Headphones
  8. Tennis racket
  9. Forum
  10. Trust

So, you would imagine taking a journey stopping at the places (loci) above with vivid, colorful pictures in your mind. When you go to your mailbox, you could imagine a dog in a tanning bed, or alternatively you might even imagine a huge, larger than life hot dog. In the driveway, you might imagine a huge, sticky donut throwing sprinkles all over the place. On the front porch, you can imagine a gorgeous man or woman with a huge beach ball that shines when the sun hits it. And so on and so forth. I think you get the idea. Essentially, the idea behind the memory palace or journey method is to use location to help remember things that we might otherwise have difficulty remembering. You could use different images for remembering abstract concepts like “trust” by imagining Richard Nixon saying, “Trust me, I am notttttt a crook.” The thing about memory palaces is that the memories need to be specific to you. Images from others might not work as well because they don’t come from your imagination.

If I am not clear in my explanation, perhaps you can check out this video of Joshua Foer explaining memory techniques himself:

This works using something called the Baker-Baker paradox: if I asked you to remember that a man you saw on the street’s last name was baker, or I told you that the man you saw on the street was a baker and he was wearing a baker’s hat, which would you be more likely to remember? As humans, we are often more apt to remember imagery over words.

So here is where it gets interesting for nursing. If you are a nursing student and need to remember the signs and symptoms of heart failure, how might you apply the journey or memory palace method to your studies?

If it was me, what I would do is imagine a huge heart that was broken in half standing at the mailbox outside of my house. I would then visualize the Bill Clinton in my driveway with really bad bulging veins coming out of his neck (jugular vein distention). I think you get the idea.

As you are familiar already with your home, you can associate images with it in order to remember things ranging from laundry lists, to legal terminology to signs and symptoms associated with various diseases which may come up on an nursing school exam or on the NCLEX.

I only wish that I knew about such methods when I was studying nursing. I think my grades would have been a little bit better and I wouldn’t have stressed out as much.

In addition to the memory palace method, there are other ways to memorize facts and concepts for nursing school. One is to use stories. In his book “Your Memory: How it Works and How to Improve it,” author Dr. Kenneth Higbee says that the story system is where you “weave items into a connecting story” (p. 135). I am currently using the story method, along with the memory palace method, to remember concepts for the California Bar Exam. There is no reason that this cannot also be used to memorize nursing concepts.

One method that I am contemplating using is the “skeleton file” method popularized by USA Memory Champion Ron White. Besides being a navy veteran (as an myself, I commend his service), White has developed an enviable memory. One method he uses is called the “Skeleton File” method. I found this out when I made another Amazon Prime purchase (can’t tell you how much my wife loves my Amazon habit, I really can’t) called “How to Improve Your Memory in Just 30 days” written by Ron White. He uses ten landmarks on the human body starting with the “top” of the head and ending with the “sand” on the ground. It’s a really cool method. I am contemplating associating a particular concept with a celebrity and then having ten files on that celebrity for ten items associated with a particular concept. For example, I might imagine Bill Clinton for myocardial infarction and the ten landmarks on his body for the signs and symptoms, interventions, etc. This may turn out to be the best method yet. I will update this article once I take the exam and get the results.

Another method, popularized by memory expert Tony Buzan, is called “Mind Mapping.” Mind mapping allows the student to use visualization and connections in order to make sense of and remember concepts. Its an interesting idea and allows for visualization of ideas and processes. Not really my favorite, but everyone learns and remembers differently.

Here is a free video from Tony Buzan on Mind Mapping:

Whatever method you use to study for your exams, please find one that works for you whether is reading something over and over again, using flashcards, memory palaces, the story system, the skeleton system, or a completely different method…don’t forget to remember!


***Disclaimer/Disclosure: I am not sponsored by any of the authors of the books I mentioned.