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Using Memory to Become a More Effective Advisor

Authored by: Tiffany Comtois


As you walk down the hall a student calls to you by name. This vaguely familiar student asks if you've heard anything new about the class that the two of you discussed the last time you met. You wish that something about this student would jog your memory, but no luck! You don't remember this student's name, the class he is referring to, or even when you met with him. If this has happened to you, then you are not alone.
Higbee (1996) conducted a memory study that included over 500 people ranging in age from thirteen to eighty-one. In his findings, Dr. Higbee notes that during this study the largest area of complaint dealt with name/face recollection. Although this skill is valuable in nearly every field, it poses one of the greatest challenges to our memories. Names in particular tend to be more difficult to remember than other words. One reason for this is that names are much less common in our day-to-day vocabulary and some may even be completely new to us. This novelty means that the brain may lack relatable stored memories that can aid in name linkage. In these instances, creativity is key. You must find a word that sounds similar or make up a story that will allow you to store the name permanently in your long term memory.
Another problem is introductions. The fact that we have no knowledge about the person we meet makes creating a strong name/face connection very difficult. One study found that subjects remembered the name of an individual who spoke about himself for six minutes, but introduced himself after the second minute, only 18% of the time. However, the individual who introduced himself again after the fourth minute was remembered 100% of the time (Brant, 1982). Therefore, it would be beneficial to allow yourself five minutes or so to learn some non-academic related information about a student and then repeat the student's name at the end of your session to create, in a sense, a 'second introduction.'

A surprisingly common reason for not being able to recall names is because many of us don't make the effort to remember them in the first place. This usually is not done on purpose, but in many cases, we are distracted by other things taking place at the time of introduction. Some of us focus on what we will say following the introduction and fail to give the attention needed to allow for proper encoding of the name in our brain (Schacter, 2001). As advisors, we often see dozens of students each day. This sheer volume may cause us to unconsciously stop trying to remember all of the fine details (such as names and faces); instead we focus on the larger issues at hand such as requirements for graduation or avoiding probation. The key to remembering fine details is to retrain the brain to pay more attention.

In order to do this, we need to notice more elements in our everyday lives. A great way to begin is by taking mental notes while doing everyday things. For example, watch your favorite TV show and try to remember the outfit worn by the main character, or try to remember a particular punch line word-for-word. There are some people who can remember details such as these with little or no effort; most of these people will tell you that their secret is that they pay attention. When we let our brains work on auto pilot we lose sight of details; our brains only recall general ideas or vague images of what we actually saw (Schacter, 2001).
In addition to just paying closer attention to events around us, it is important to help our brains work faster and more efficiently. Our brains are compromised of nerve cells, neurotransmitters, and electrical impulses. Thus our memories are actually encoded, stored, and retrieved as a result of chemical and electrical interactions. Therefore, similar to building muscle strength, the best way to strengthen memory is to provide the brain with regular work outs. Exercising the brain through games, puzzles, and exposure to new challenges is a great way to start. Like every exercise plan, start slow and gradually increase the level of difficulty. For example start with a daily search-a-word and then move to crossword puzzles. Starting a new hobby such as wood-working, learning a foreign language or ballroom dancing involves the brain thinking in new ways that will not only improve memory, but overall brain health. Constantly exposing the brain to new things improves the brain's ability to search and retrieve information efficiently. This exposure protects our brains from neuron damage, brain atrophy, and ultimately reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease (Small, 1999).

Another secret about memory is that we tend to remember the things we find interesting. Conversely, we are inclined not to pay attention to things we do not like or understand. We see this with students who earn A's and B's in their major courses but have D's and F's in their general education courses; they are capable of learning information, but it becomes more difficult for them to study if they are not interested in a subject. As advisors we rarely relate this phenomena to our own learning abilities. To make our time memorable with a student we should incorporate things we find interesting or enjoy (Higbee, 1996). For example, the advisor who is fond of travel can ask questions about students' home towns. This is especially helpful when working with international students whose names may come from different dialects and may be difficult to pronounce. To remember these names accurately, we should engage the student in conversation about their native country, their name, how it is spelled, and how it is pronounced. Most students are happy to have someone take the time to learn their names.

Even more difficult than remembering unusual names can be remembering students with very common names since advisors can easily see three Michaels in one week. What is the best way to remember each of them individually? One strategy is to link the student's name with a distinguishing feature that is not easily changeable. For example, a student named Michael who is majoring in Art History can be recalled if you relate his name and major to the popular arts and crafts store. Physical features can be even more useful. A student named Susan who has curly hair can be recalled by imagining the letter 'S' shaping the waves in her hair. Linking one letter to the student's appearance can be enough of a cue to remember the name. In some cases, a last name may be easier to link than a first name; either can work well. Some associations are more difficult to create than others which is why it is so important to exercise the brain regularly to get those creative juices flowing. Try this association technique with three students today; then see how easy it is to recall their names tomorrow as compared to three students for whom you did not create an association.

Memory can also be stored based upon preferred learning style. There is a difference between remembering what things look like, what they sound like, what they feel like, and what they taste or smell like. Even within the same sense there can be differences; for example a person may be able to repeat an entire conversation but are not able to reproduce a simple melody. There are also motor memories that are not even stored in the conscious levels of the brain (try to describe how to tie a shoelace or how to type a word on a keyboard). As a result, it is necessary to understand your learning style and how you can use it to develop your memory skills (Higbee, 2001).

Unfortunately, there is no single secret to unlocking the key to a good memory. It's really about finding a technique-or even several techniques-that work for you an your learning style. Once you have found successful techniques, practice to perfect them. Just remember, improving your memory is not an easy task. It takes effort, but if achieved, can be a great benefit to your abilities as an advisor as well as to your overall health and well being. Nothing makes students feel better than having their advisor remember their names. Likewise few things can embarrass an advisor more than running into an advisee and not being able to remember him or her. Stop avoiding students in the halls; practice these techniques and soon you will be known as the advisor who never forgets a student!

Authored by:
Tiffany Comtois

CSU Long Beach



Brant, S.J. (1982). Name recall as a function of introduction time. Psychological Reports, 50,377-378.


Higbee, K.L. (1996). Your Memory. New York,NY: Marlowe & Company.


Schacter, D.L. (2001) The Seven Sins of Memory. New York,NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.


Small, G.S. (2002) The Memory Bible.New York, NY: Hyperion.


Wilson, B.A. (1992). Memory Therapy in Practice. London: Chapman & Hall.

Cite using APA style as:

Comtois, T. (2006). Using memory to become a more effective advisor. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:

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