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In Part I of this article, we discussed how to prepare for an examination, some common misconceptions about memory, and the current memory model.  In this article, we will describe the various memory-enhancing strategies that you can use to study for your exams.  Some are easier to use than others, but most will require hard work.

Memory Strategies

Two of the most commonly used strategies to remember information are:  mental imagery and mnemonic devices.  Mental imagery refers to the conscious representation of information that is not presently experienced in the senses.  We are interested in the visual mental image.  These pictorial representations of information can be helpful in memorizing events and information.

Mnemonic devices are useful for studying numerical or verbal information.  Mnemonics help you to associate unfamiliar information with familiar information.  Let's discuss these strategies in some detail.

Mental Imagery

Mental imagery is one of the easiest memory strategies you can use.  It involves the ability to generate a mental image that you can associate with other material that you are having difficulty remembering.  Imagery can be helpful in encoding large chunks of verbal information.  The strategy is to retrieve a single picture that can generate as much information as possible.

As most people learn information, they generate images that pertain to what they are learning.  For example, consider the memory system discussed in Part I.  If you had a diagram of that system, it would make it easier for you to recall how the memory system works because you would be able to associate each square with its function.

Some firefighting literature is accompanied by diagrams that show the use of symbols in pre-fire plans, fire protection equipment, safety devices, color, texture, shape of flames, etc.  Diagrams of special tools can help you identify important parts, proper procedures for operation, etc.

However, much firefighting literature does not come with pictures or diagrams.  In these cases, you must construct your own diagram or mental picture of the situation.  Interestingly enough, researchers have found that the more bizarre image you create to encode the information to be remembered, the easier it will be for you to retrieve the information when you need it.

You can hold a great deal of information in only a few mental images.  When should you employ imagery?  Think of the case of essay exams.  For example, suppose you are asked to size up a particular type of fire in a given type of building.  In this situation, if you study by generating the appropriate mental image for sizing up a fire for each type of building, you should be able to retrieve the image.

Once the image is in your mind's eye, it allows you to proceed through the image and scan the different problems associated with that particular fire.  In this way, it becomes easier for you to evaluate that situation and hopefully provide the correct answers.


One problem with mental images is that not everyone can generate them easily.  In addition, some types of information cannot be represented by a picture or image.  In these cases, you can use mnemonic devices to help encode the information.

You may still recall a simple mnemonic that you used in grammar school to remember the colors of the rainbow:  ROY G BIV stands for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

A well-known mnemonic that is commonly used in the fire service in order to remember those gases that are lighter than air is:  HA HA MICE.  Each letter represents one of the gases that rise into the atmosphere in their natural state hydrogen, ammonia, helium, acetylene, methane, illuminating (natural gas), carbon monoxide, and ethane.

Constructing mnemonics to help you memorize related information is not only an asset for study material but may prove invaluable in fireground decisions.

You can use mnemonic devices to help you recall elaborate information, even mathematical formulas.  For example, some of you may have used the mnemonic SOHCAHTOA.  This one still is used today to remember simple trigonometric formulas.  SOH stands for sine = opposite over hypotenuse.  CAH stands for cosine = adjacent over hypotenuse.  TOA stands for tangent = opposite over adjacent.

You can use similar strategies to remember which substances are good conductors of heat.  Silver, copper, aluminum, brass, and zinc is a list of metals ranging from the best heat conductor (silver) to the poorest (zinc).  Thus, SCABZ is an effective mnemonic for remembering these substances.

One disadvantage of mnemonics is that they can be very time-consuming to construct.  They force you to associate the material you are studying with other, more familiar bits of information that will be easier for you to retrieve when you need them.  This strategy is useful if you can get into the habit of constructing mnemonics spontaneously as you read.

The SQ3R method

The strategies involved with mental imagery and mnemonics require you to take an active part in reading.  One popular technique designed in 1970 by psychologist FP Robinson uses a different active approach.  The name of the procedure is SQ3R.  It stands for survey, question, read, recite, and review.

  • Survey:  Before you study from a given source, survey the material.  Read the chapter's summary and its headings.  More importantly, ask yourself:  What is this chapter or section about?  If possible, write down this question.  This initial step will allow your mental processes to create the appropriate structure for the incoming information. 
  • Question:  Once you have surveyed the chapter's main points, go back to the first heading, read it again, and formulate a question.  Suppose you are reading a chapter on arson fires and the first heading is concerned with common signs of arson.  Ask yourself what these signs might be.  How are these signs detected?  The main purpose for this type of questioning is to stimulate your curiosity for the topic at hand.
  • Read:  After you have asked yourself questions about the content of the first section, read the section and try to find the answer to your questions.  This method should be active enough to make you "dig in" for the information you want.  It forces your attention to look for specific information.
  • Recite:  This is an important step because it will help you process the information at a deep level.  Once you have finished reading the chapter, look away from the text and try to recite as much information as possible.  Try to answer your initial question.  Use your own words and come up with your own examples.  If possible, you should recite out loud.  This may be an advantage for those of you who study with fellow firefighters.  If you have the opportunity, recite the information to your study partner.
  • After you recite the information, write it down.  Be brief.  Note that the recitation and writing parts in this step act as rehearsals of the information and will strengthen the memory traces for that material.

  • Review:  Immediately after you have written down the information, review your notes.  Make sure you understand them.  You may want to review these notes and ask the same question again.  Recite the answer.  Does it correspond to your notes?  Again, remember that all of these "active" steps help to further process the information.

This SQ3R method will work most efficiently if you repeat the question, read, and recite steps for each section within a chapter.

If the chapters in your book or manual do not have headings, you may want to create your own questions based on what you think the material will cover.  Then repeat the rest of the steps.

Study Habits Some Suggestions

There are no specific guidelines on what constitutes good study habits.  Each person is different and everyone has his own style of living, learning, and thinking.  Some of us like to read while sitting upright, while others like to read lying down.  Posture seems to be a matter of personal preference.

The presence of noise while studying also seems to be a subjective factor.  Sometimes we can do the best reading while on a noisy bus or with a loud radio playing in the background.  However, you can assume that you will process the material more effectively if there are few distractions present during your studying sessions. 

But there are times when, even in the most comfortable situation in a totally silent room, we simply cannot concentrate on studying.  Thoughts intrude into our consciousness and break our concentration.  This may simply reflect anxiety over the upcoming examination or some other personal conflict.

There are some other common sense study recommendations that most of you probably know bout but seldom follow.  For example: You must devote the greatest part of your study time to the material that is most likely to appear on the exam.  Also, you should make a commitment to put aside a regular time slot per day for the sole purpose of completing your study schedule.

Remember that committing large amounts of information to memory takes hard mental work.  The best strategy you can use to pass an exam is to study adequately.  So hit the books, and good luck!

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