How to Remember Dates for a Test - Memorization

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Dates are often difficult to remember because they seem so random and obscure unless we can relate them to something specific.

For instance, the American Civil War started in 1861, but unless you have a strong interest in the specific timeline of the war, you might not see anything distinctive about this date that would separate it from any other. What makes 1861 stand apart from 1863 or 1851?

When trying to memorize a date, students can really benefit from a mnemonic system—a memory technique based on patterns of letters, ideas, or associations—to help them recall the right numbers in the right order. There is a multitude of ways to do this, and you just need to find the method or methods that work best for you.

One of the principles of memorization is that you want to engage as many different senses as you can to remember something more profoundly.

Simplifying

Sometimes, memorizing dates can be as simple as leaving off the first two digits. If you are studying a particular time period, you already know in which century the events took place. Even though it might not seem like it, breaking it down to just two numbers can make memorization much easier.

Similarly, splitting the number into smaller chunks can be of use as well. Some people find it easier to remember 1776, the year when the Declaration of Independence was signed, as 17 and 76.

Connections/Associations

Mathematical Operations

In the spirit of employing as many of the senses as possible, let's build on the example from above. Think about the dates mathematically, and see how you could employ simple operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division.

For example, with 1776, or 17 and 76, you might notice that we are actually only working with three numbers: 1, 7, and 6. You may also notice that we can put these numbers into equations like these:

1+6=7 OR 7-1=6

With these operations in mind, and especially if you already know we are talking about the 1700s, you can remember that the last two digits, 7 and 6, are formed, by simply using the first two.

Visualizations

Another memorization technique you can add to anchoring 1776 deep in your memory is to visualize the number on a number line or as a bar graph. Put into a bar graph, 1776 would look like this: first number is very low; second and third numbers are high up there, on the same level; and the third number is just a little lower than the middle ones.

This can also be represented by a line connecting the different bars. Imagine it going from very low, to very high and then descending just a bit. Or, since we are speaking about historical dates, you can employ another type of line and create a chronological timeline.

Use Context. Make up a Story

In the spirit of building upon other techniques, you can turn your mental or physical visualization into a story. The more outlandish or funny your story is, the more likely it will get anchored in your memory.

A favorite mnemotechnic device is the Method of Loci, by which you imagine a place you are very familiar with, like your home or your route to school or work and then associate the pieces of what you are trying to remember to the different parts of that location.

Another really powerful way of working with stories is to use the context, the history itself. This method works especially well when you need to memorize a multitude of dates. Think about the tiniest details, real or made up, that can be associated with the date(s) you are trying to learn. The more you can contextualize your dates, the more you will really grasp them, and thus memorize them.

With regards to 1776, browsing the internet for snippets of information on the signing of the Declaration of Independence, looking at images associated with it, or going all out and reading loads and loads of fictional and historical documents about it, and creating your own version of what it all probably was like at that time, any of this, and definitely all of this can become very useful to your memory.

Put It on Paper. Write and Draw

Just like with vocabulary learning, drawing connections and even literally drawing can help you memorize dates faster. This is another opportunity to let your creativity shine and put the images and stories your mind creates on paper.

You can simply write down the date many times; you can make it look really fancy as you decorate it in your own style; or, you can even create a full-scale drawing that implements the date inside of it.

Sounds and Rhymes

Another little trick can be sound. By connecting the mounting and descending line mentioned above with the tonal scale, you can sing to yourself a low sound, followed by two high sounds, and end with a tone just slightly lower than the last two.

Or you can either make your own song using the date and its meaning and context, or you can use a song you already know and just replace some or all of the words by what you are trying to learn.

The rhythm, tones, and rhymes of songs are great for any memorization. Two frequent rhyming examples for remembering dates are:

  • ’59 was the date when Alaska and Hawaii became new states.
  • In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

The more you make the syllables of one part of your sentence match the other, the more rhythmical your rhyme will be, and thus you will remember it better.

Movements

Along the same lines, engaging your body in any memorization exercise can prove very effective. It can merely look like using your hand to trace the flow of the line you associated with 1776—low, high, high, lower.

Of course, if you are feeling more adventurous or could use an energy burst, you can also squat down for number one, stand or jump up for the two sevens, and then lower yourself just a tiny bit to represent six.

Interpretive dance, twisting your body into the shapes of the numbers can only be of help, or even simply dancing to the memorization song you just came up with can all be very useful.

Connect To Something You Know

You can also associate the dates with something that you know really well. Maybe 17 and 76, or only 76 are the numbers of your favorite athletes or are a part of your or someone else's birthdays or some other significant dates to you.

Or maybe the date you are working with includes another well-known date such as Christmas day (24 or 25 based on where you are from), or you may connect number 31 with New Year's Eve, or number 4 with the 4th of July.

Putting It All Together. Cockney Slang

To use many of the suggested techniques, try a practice from the London Cockneys. (A Cockney is an inhabitant of the East End of London, England.) Cockneys have an old tradition of using rhyming slang as a secret language, of sorts. The tradition originated centuries ago, and it was used by London's thieves, traders, entertainers, and other members from the lower strata of society.

In Cockney slang, Can you believe it? becomes Can you Adam and Eve it?

More examples:

  • Whistle and flute = suit
  • White mice = ice
  • Tom Hanks = thanks
  • Trouble and strife = wife

Remembering Dates

We can use the same method to remember dates. Simply think of a term that rhymes with your date. Make sure your rhyme is a little silly and that it paints a strong picture in your head.

You can leave off the century, so that 1861, the starting date for the Civil War, becomes 61.

Example:

  • 61 = Sticky gun

Imagine a Civil War soldier struggling with a gun that has been covered with honey. It may sound silly, but it works!

More Examples:

1773 was the date of the Boston Tea Party. To remember this, you could think:

  • 73 = Heavenly tea

You can just picture protesters sipping lovely cups of tea right before tossing them in the water.

1783 marks the end of the Revolutionary War.

  • 83 = Ladies' bee

For this image, think of several women sitting on a quilt and celebrating by stitching a red, white and blue quilt.

The most important element of this method is to come up with a great, amusing image. The funnier it is, the more memorable it will be. If possible, come up with a little story to connect all your mental images. If you have trouble coming up with a rhyme or have a lot of connected information to remember, you could set the information to a song.

Usage

The overall point of trying to engage as many senses as you can is to create for yourself many different relationships with the learning material. The more you are engaged with it, the easier it will be for you to save it in and then fish it out of your long-term memory.

For this reason, you want to get involved with the numbers in front of you as much as possible. That may mean that you write out the number and its meaning 50 times, or that you insert it into your everyday conversations, emails, text messages. It may mean that you create a poster with it, or a timeline, or a story and then place it on your fridge or on the wall in your restroom.

Or maybe, it may mean that you spend a long time and a lot of effort writing an article about the date or number you didn't remember, only to realize that you now know it by heart.

Generally, if you set your mind to learning something, and you are really conscious, intentional, and persistent about it, it will find its way into your memory. So next time you are about to learn something really crucial, think, "This is really important. I am going to remember this."