Exam Preparation: Strategies for remembering quotes

Exam Preparation: Strategies for remembering quotes

This week, Insight writer and English teacher Anja Drummond gives tips on how best to remember quotations to use in your analytical essays for Sections A and B of the English exam.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every English teacher will have been asked the following question: ‘How do I remember quotes?’ The English exam demands that you have a detailed knowledge of three texts, and memorising quotes for all three can be challenging if you don’t have a good method for recalling information. Here are some tips to help you remember quotes for your exams.

Short quotes rule

Many students fall into the trap of thinking that long quotations are needed for essays. However, trying to remember long quotes actually has a negative impact on your working memory. The reality is that you are far better off working on being able to recall a larger number of small quotes of around two to five words each. You only need to look at sample essays written by high-achieving students to see that this is one of their secrets to success. It isn’t the size of your quotes that matters – it’s what you do with them that counts!

Leverage your visual memory

For some people, remembering an image or a symbol is much easier than remembering words. If this is the case for you, try associating some key quotes with images. This is an easier task if you are studying a film – you can simply save a still from a key moment in the film and identify some key quotes from that scene. You will find then that when you recall that image, the quotes will also come to mind more easily. With written texts, try to visualise an image that captures some of the text’s key quotes. For example, you could imagine Medea ‘glaring … like a bull’ holding a sword in her hand (‘Come, wretched hand of mine, grip the sword, grip it!’) and riding a ‘chariot drawn by dragons’. Not only will this strategy help you to remember useful quotes but it will also likely be revealing of the way that the writer is using imagery and symbolism, which you may be able to use as a starting point for your analysis.

Write a children’s story

In class you will have identified a whole collection of quotes from your text. However, if these quotes are not contextualised, it will be difficult to recall them. The human mind privileges stories in memory, so the logical thing to do is turn the quotes into a narrative. This is a great technique as it also allows you to remember the quotes in chronological order. Here is an example of what you could write for In Cold Blood:

Holcomb was a ‘lonesome’ place where ‘prosperous people’ lived quietly. But one day ‘four shotgun blasts … ended six human lives’ and changed Holcomb. There were four victims of the ‘shotgun blasts’. They were ….

Repetition, repetition, repetition

Don’t expect to be able to remember all your quotes if you only look at them the day before the exam. Memory doesn’t work like that, and in high-stress situations your memory can be less reliable. The key to avoiding a memory fail in your exam is to practise retrieving quotes over and over. Regularly practise both reading and writing out your quotes. Set a timer and see how many you can remember and write down – this will help you work out which quotes you need to spend more time studying. This will be much more effective if done by hand, not on a computer, as handwriting locks items into your working memory better than typing.

Become a quizmaster

Quizzes and trivia games are a useful and fun study tool. Many of you will be familiar with the free online quiz platform Kahoot!, which allows users to generate their own multiple-choice quizzes that can be played with friends. There will be plenty of kahoots already available on most of the texts on the VCE English text list, but you can also create your own that are specifically designed to help you remember quotes and link them to key themes. Get together with a group of friends and have a bit of fun with them. The secret here is to use the kahoots effectively. If there is a quote that you don’t recognise, discuss it with your friends and your teacher. Work out where it is from and why it is important, then use one of the other memory strategies to learn it.

Create analytical connections

Don’t study your quotes in isolation from their meaning. Practise writing short analytical statements using each quote and see how many ways a single quote can be used for different ideas. For example, in Medea the chorus declares, ‘May I know the blessing of a heart that is not passion’s slave’. This quote can be analysed to suggest that Medea is a victim because of Aphrodite’s interventions or a villain because she allows her reason to be overridden by her passion. The best quotes to memorise for your exams are those that, like this one, allow you to analyse multiple themes and ideas.

Make flashcards

Create a set of flashcards for each of your texts (I suggest you use different colour flashcards for each text). Write a quote on one side of a flashcard. On the other side, write down who says it (and, where relevant, who it is being said about). Also note the literary device being used, if appropriate, and the key themes the quote relates to.

Get some sleep!

Sleep allows us to consolidate and retain memories. Cramming all night fails to allow you the rest needed to lock items into your long-term memory and simply means that your capacity to retain information when you try to study the next day will be even more limited.

A final word …

To make sure you lock the quotes into your memory, use more than one of the strategies listed here. By mixing things up you will give your brain a better chance of soaking up all that wonderful knowledge.


Need help preparing for the English exam? Make sure you purchase the VCE English SAC & Exam Guide by Robert Beardwood and Melanie Napthine. The Guide includes revision strategies and activities to help you prepare for the VCE English exam. From time management to proofreading responses, Insight’s VCE English SAC & Exam Guide covers all the knowledge and skills required for success in the English exam.

The VCE English SAC & Exam Guide is produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.

Photo credit: de-focus/shutterstock

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