In my free guide, the 20 Secrets of Successful Nursing Students, secret #4 is: Successful students know what to memorize vs conceptualize. What do I mean by this? For the most part, in order to be successful in nursing school you must understand broad concepts that you can apply to a wide range of specific situations and disease conditions. You may even hear people say, you don’t need to memorize…or that you shouldn’t memorize in nursing school, you should ONLY strive to understand concepts.

So this isn’t entirely true. For example. Let’s say you have a checkoff on the cranial nerve assessment. And your instructor says, “Show me how you assess Cranial Nerve VII.” You can’t conceptualize what cranial nerve VII is or if its’ sensory, motor or both and what it does. Without knowing that background knowledge…you can’t show your instructor how you asses for it.

But, if you’ve memorized that cranial nerve 7 is the facial nerve and it controls muscles of facial expression, is sensory to taste on anterior ⅔ of tongue. When we commit that information to memory, then the assessments for it make sense conceptually.

With that said, successful students know what to memorize vs what to conceptualize and definitely don’t try to memorize everything…just the things that are going to help them understand concepts.

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Memory Techniques for Nursing School

So you’ve all had experience with memorization…that was basically all of your anatomy class material, right? You had to memorize all the bones and all the landmarks. Those aren’t concepts. Those are facts and anatomical structures…you had to memorize them. Think back to how you did that? What methods did you use? Were they effective or did you struggle?

The good news is, there is more than one way to memorize information. If you’d had trouble with memorizing in the past, it might be that you’re not using the best format for that particular type of information or for the way YOUR brain works.

For example…Here’s how I used memorization in A&P to learn the bone landmarks.

  • It started in lab, examining the models and viewing them from various angles. I tried to get as much sensory input in as possible. Touch, visualize, and verbal repetition.
  • Then I followed up with reviewing the same bones in my lab atlas. So that the information I received from a 3D model would translate over to a 2D photograph.
  • Then comes the actual memorizing and testing of recall. If you’re dealing with something like the bones of the body, you start with the larger structures and work your way down to the tiny landmarks. For instance…learn the femur bone before you learn the greater trochanter and the lateral epicondyle. Make sense?
  • So, to review and memorize the bones themselves, I covered the names in my atlas with tiny strips of Post-It notes. I then numbered each of these and made an answer key. So, for example, the strip of post-it note covering the femur bone might have the number 22 on it. The answer key has the number 22 followed by the word femur.
  • I would then write out as many of the bones as I could and then check them against my answer sheet. I would do this over and over until I had the bones down solid.
  • Then I repeated the process with each individual bone to learn all the individual landmarks.

So that’s one way to use visual cues and writing repetition to memorize information. Some other highly effective methods include:

Using flashcards and reviewing them repeatedly until you get all of them correct. I am developing an app that serves this exact function (depending on when you are hearing this, it may already be available). Some students will try to use flashcards to LEARN information, and these are typically the students who say “flashcards don’t work for me.” That’s because flashcards are not meant for LEARNING concepts. They are for memorizing key facts and are fantastic for reviewing concepts. But to learn a concept using flashcards? That’s not going to work.

Some students can memorize information really well by drawing or looking at illustrations or photographs. If you find that you are able to conjure up images in your mind easily, then this method may work really well for you. Essentially this is what I utilized for anatomy, but I combined it with repetitive writing to really seal the deal.

So let’s talk about repetition for a moment. It can be written or verbal. If you have a strong connection between your memory and things you physically write, then repetitive writing may work great for you! Just be careful of hand cramps and take frequent breaks to stretch! Also, as you are writing, be mindful that you’re not zoning out and just going through the motions. Stay present, stay engaged.

Verbal repetition is an amazing way to memorize and review material, and is one of my favorite techniques utilized in the Straight A Nursing Study Sesh podcast. In this private podcast, we go through drills for things that do require memorization such as the cranial nerves, lab values and appropriate needle gauge sizes. You can learn more about Study Sesh here.

Mnemonics are another fantastic tool that can help trigger your memory. With mnemonics you have a phrase that is easy to remember or that is meaningful to you. Typically, the first letter in each word of the phrase correlates to the first letter in the list of items you need to remember. For example, the cranial nerves phrase I use is “On occasion our trusty truck acts funny. Very good vehicle, any how.” I’ve used this phrase for years and is essentially the only way I can recall which cranial nerve goes with which number. Hey, if it works, it works!

Setting a list to music is another great way to memorize. How many of you learned all 50 states by singing them out loud? I memorized bone ossification by writing a song and setting it to the tune of The Beverly Hillbillies, which probably ages me but that’s ok. The point is, our brains love music and it can be a fantastic way to memorize information (and fun, too!).

Storytelling is a creative but also highly effective way to memorize. I utilized this method when I was struggling to remember all the side effects for medications used in psychopharmacology. In fact, you can listen to me tell these goofy stories here.

A technique many students don’t utilize enough is to group items together by characteristic. This helps you recall information by thinking about it in different ways. For example, when you are learning pharmacology, can you keep lists of medications that have black box warnings? Or medications that have to be taken on an empty stomach? Or medications that cause orthostatic hypotension? For A&P, I learned the muscles by using this technique. I grouped them together by insertion site, attachment site and function. It helped me think about them in various ways, giving me multiple paths for recall.

Now let’s talk about conceptualizing

This is the point where I stress, once again, that you cannot rely on memorization for everything in nursing school. Much of what you are learning will need to be conceptualized so that you can understand WHY you are doing what you do to care for a patient. When you conceptualize information, you are able to apply it to that specific situation as well as others that share some of the same characteristics.

Understanding concepts means putting the puzzle pieces together, seeing how things connect, and grasping The Big Picture. For example, when you understand the concept of ventilation, you understand why the intervention for a decreased oxygen saturation level secondary to opioid overdose is BVM and narcan and not just supplying supplemental oxygen.

Some methods to utilize to help you conceptualize information include:

Re-writing your lecture and book notes into your own words. I’m not saying re-write the whole book, but when you encounter a key concept, can you take that bit of information and distill it down into a simple, easy-to-understand paragraph? The process of doing this may take time, but the return-on-investment for that time is absolutely huge.

Creating tables is a great way to compare/contrast similar-but-different conditions. For example, I created tables for all the hypo/hyper conditions such as hypothyroid vs hyperthyroid. This side-by-side comparison really helps you understand what happens in the body when thyroid hormone is low vs high, so it makes sense to you conceptually. Doing this helped me recognize that my patient who was severely bradycardic, hypothermic and unresponsive may be in myxedema coma. A few doses of thyroid hormone later and he improved drastically!

Have you tried teaching a concept to someone else? This is one of my absolute favorite ways to understand information. When you can teach it to someone else so they can understand it easily, this means you know the concept from all angles. Plus, it’s a great way to foster a collaborative environment in nursing school!

A more passive but still effective way to learn concepts is to simply get exposure to the concept in different ways. Watching videos or listening to podcasts can help the information you heard in lecture and read in your book really come to life. Sometimes hearing it explained in a slightly different way will finally get it to “click” for you.

And lastly, writing a study guide is an excellent way to summarize conceptual information while also reviewing for the exam. You can use the objectives listed in your textbook, or hopefully your instructors are including objectives with each lesson. A well-designed course will then have exam questions tied directly to these learning objectives. So, by using those objectives you are essentially studying exactly the material that will be on the exam! And again, writing them out in your own words is the key ingredient here for conceptualization success!

So there you have it! The key differences between memorizing and conceptualizing as well as some techniques to use for each.


The information, including but not limited to, audio, video, text, and graphics contained on this website are for educational purposes only. No content on this website is intended to guide nursing practice and does not supersede any individual healthcare provider’s scope of practice or any nursing school curriculum. Additionally, no content on this website is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Heisig, M. (2018, February 15). Top 8 Memorization Techniques for Professionals. Toggl Track.

Memorization vs Conceptualization Study Techniques