7 September 2022 1384 words, 6 min. read

Memory techniques: practical experience with my 12-year-old son

By Pierre-Nicolas Schwab PhD in marketing, director of IntoTheMinds
Memory, and even more so, memory techniques, are, in my opinion, a key element of academic success. Based on Ulysses Lubin’s challenges, I proposed several challenges to my son during the summer. One of them was to remember 40 works of art (country, […]

Memory, and even more so, memory techniques, are, in my opinion, a key element of academic success. Based on Ulysses Lubin’s challenges, I proposed several challenges to my son during the summer. One of them was to remember 40 works of art (country, title, author, period). In this article, I will share with you:

  • the 3 memory techniques we used
  • the results of this experiment
  • the material (downloadable) to repeat this experiment with your children and increase their memory capacity

If you are interested in the experience and want to know more, feel free to comment on this article. I answer all comments.


technique mémorisation : flashcards

I proposed a challenge to my 12-year-old son for the summer: to memorize information about 40 works of art. We combined several memory techniques to meet this challenge.

The 3 memory techniques used

There are many memorization techniques. There are only 3 of them. The purpose of this short paragraph is not to quote them all but to share the ones I relied on for this experiment.

Memory technique n°1: flashcards

The first memory technique I used was flashcards. The principle is simple: a question on one side of a cardboard sheet, the answer on the other. By spacing out the repetition exercises, the brain combats the forgetting curve theorized by Ebbinghaus.

Memory technique n°2: storytelling

Storytelling consists in contextualizing the information to be retained (making historical links, telling the story of a work of art, etc.). This memory technique works well for abstract objects or concepts. It makes it possible to link existing knowledge already acquired, thus simplifying the memorization.

Memory technique n°3: the incongruous stories

This memory technique is found in many books. I started to apply it when he had to learn his multiplication tables. It consists in inventing a crazy story to associate elements of the question with the answer. I will give you concrete examples in the rest of this article.

We combined 3 memory techniques to meet the challenge.

Selecting 40 works of art: the principle of the experiment

Let’s now come to the challenge I proposed to my son. He had to remember information about 40 works of art (paintings, sculptures, archaeological objects) from various periods, styles, countries, and authors. The 40 works were divided as follows:

  • 39 different artists
  • 10 different countries
  • from -3000 BC. JC to 1850

The challenge is particularly difficult for at least 2 reasons:

  • on the one hand, art is not necessarily what interests a 12-year-old. A 12-year-old child cannot count on his knowledge of Art History to recognize the style, technique, and artist. The attention span, crucial for memory, seems to be negatively impacted.
  • the matter is particularly abstract. Apart from work fixed on the paper, the information to be retained means nothing. It is names, dates, titles, and countries.

Before leaving for vacation, I chose a series of works (mostly from the Louvre) that my son did not know. I made an A5 sheet for each work, with the black and white reproduction on one side and the other:

  • The author
  • The title
  • The country
  • The date

You can download the entire set in pdf format by clicking here. In my haste, I made a mistake. I had set myself the goal of having him retain 10 works of art, and in my haste, I prepared 40. You will see that the experience will be more interesting.

Preparing for the memorization

In preparation for the memorization, I went over the different works of art with my son and told him what I knew about them.

Here are some examples:

Albrecht Dürer autoportrait au chardon

Albrecht Dürer painted the self-portrait with thistle for his future wife.

  • Self-portrait with Thistle (Albrecht Dürer): “Dürer painted this self-portrait to send to a woman he loved. At the time, photography did not exist, so it was the only way to show his appearance. It’s a little like the ancestor of Tinder.”
  • The Lady of Auxerre: “This painting was found in the reserves of the museum of Auxerre. On her dress, we can see geometrical patterns reminiscent of a labyrinth. It is the ancient Greek style known as “Daedalus” (Do you remember who Daedalus was?).”
  • Portrait of Louis XIV in coronation costume (Hyacinthe Rigaud): “Rigaud painted this portrait of the king at his request. Having a grandson in Spain, the Sun King had the idea of sending him a painting in which he appeared. When Rigaud finished the painting, Louis XIV found it so beautiful that he decided to keep it for himself and placed it in his bedroom
  • The Venus of Milo: “This was discovered in Greece, and more precisely (as its name indicates) in Milo, in a field.”

I let him figure it out for the rest, knowing he was familiar with flashcards.

1st memory test and the results

The first memorization session took place on the living room table. We placed all the cards side by side to visualize the work.

test de mémorisation 1 avec flashcards

We added a dose of gamification to track progress and identify challenges. Each category of information corresponds to a type of pasta.

gamification memorisation flashcards

To visualize the results of the first memorization phase, we used pasta to identify the most problematic points. Quantifying the results is THE way to improve memory skills by detecting weak points.

The results of the first memory test can be seen in the picture below.

As you can see, some types of pasta are much more represented than others. This proves that some information is more complicated to remember than others.

résultats test de mémorisation aec flashcards

Results of the first memorization test.

The first session achieved an overall score of 60%. The detailed results are as follows:

  • Country: 87%
  • Title: 59%
  • Author: 48%
  • Date: 25%

Without wishing to jump to conclusions, I have the impression that the more abstract the information is (a date / a country), the more difficult it is to remember.

The more abstract the information (a date / a country), the greater the difficulty memorizing it.

2nd memory test and the results

We realized the second memory test about 3 weeks apart.

The picture below was used as a reference point for review. The most problematic works were isolated. Those mastered were quickly reviewed and classified into 2 piles:

  • those that were 100% mastered
  • the others

For the cards that posed the most problems, it was mainly the memorization technique n°3 that was used (incongruous stories). Here are some examples:

  • tricheur à l'as de carreau

    To remember the name of the author of “The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds,” my son imagined that a tower (Georges de la Tour) was emerging from one of the cards.

    for the painting “The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds” we imagined that a tower was coming out of the card that the cheat is holding in his hand (the author’s name is Georges de la Tour)

  • for the portrait of François 1er, we imagined that he had a nail in place of his nose (the author’s name is “Clouet” or nail in English!)

At the end of the second memory test, the progress is impressive. The success rate reached 75.6%. For countries, it reached 100% and nearly 90% for the titles of works and their authors. Memorizing dates remains challenging, and finding a suitable memory technique will be necessary.

Conclusion: which memory techniques work best?

This experiment shows that our brain can, with a little training, retain relatively diverse information.

We used only 3 memory techniques here. We note, however, that some types of information are more complicated to remember than others (dates in this case) and that an adapted memory technique could be necessary. There is, therefore, no memory technique that is superior to another. All are equal, and it is from their combination that the solution will emerge. You will have to experiment to find what suits you best.

At the end of this experience, I am particularly proud of my 12-year-old son. He brilliantly demonstrates that it is possible to retain detailed information by using the right approaches. It is also a good way to build confidence in the child and show him his full potential.


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