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The secret of a good memory is attention, and attention to a subject depends upon our interest in it. We rarely forget that which has made a deep impression on our minds.
Tryon Edwards (1809 - 1894)

Learning to Memorize Better

Functioning of the Memory

Working Memory and Long-Term Memory

External and internal stimulations leave impressions in the zones of the brain, where they are received in the form of electrochemical signals. Though evanescent (a few tenths of a second), these impressions last long enough for their source to be identified and to decide whether it is worth a closer examination. This process takes place without my conscience knowing it. But if an unusual sound, a flash, a vivid color, a brisk movement, an interesting object or an attractive face draws my attention, I notice, examine and respond to it.

This conscious phase of thinking is associated with my working memory. This memory is limited in capacity and duration. It plays an intermediary role between stimuli and my long-term memory, where my personal memories, general knowledge and know-how are stored. It is associated with the conscious recognition and interpretation of the world around me and with the assimilation of new experiences.

Long-term memory, on the other hand, has a virtually unlimited retention capacity that ranges from several months to a lifetime. Long-term memory works like an immense network in constant reconstruction where many elements are inextricably linked together by meaning, logic, hierarchy and surprisingly, by association with emotions, sounds and other forms of very personal impressions. Just like the hard disc on my computer, the ease and speed to retrieve specific information depends on my indexing system and its frequency of use.

But unlike computers, which save things without understanding them, my memory retains what makes sense to me. I can only clearly understand that which is familiar to me. Too many new things are confusing for me. I find it difficult to initially understand them because I do not have sufficient points of reference when I enter a domain that is totally new to me.

Working memory limitations are also sources of many understanding, reasoning and learning difficulties. I am not equipped to simultaneously process lots of new information. Therefore, I must resort to using strategies such as time segmenting and transitory memory tools that include writing down the information, hypotheses and reasoning.

All professional-competence is composed of a great amount of knowledge, concepts, methods, procedures, rules and specific abilities. Although, some learning is done with little apparent effort, the acquisition of most high-level intellectual knowledge and abilities requires motivation, attention, concentration, perseverance and regular practice.

Memorization Strategies

Memorization strategies can be grouped into four main categories:

To ensure that I retain what I learn, I must:

  1. Be motivated, have a clear purpose and plan my study approach accordingly.
  2. Thoroughly study and appropriate target knowledge.
  3. Reduce the material to be learned by heart, to the essential.
  4. Remember, revise and use acquired knowledge.

Be motivated, have a clear purpose and plan my study approach

I more easily retain what I like, what interests me and what makes sense to me. On the other hand, I tend to put off until tomorrow and study at the last minute that which interests me less.

Memory, Motivation and Purpose

My motivation plays a key role in the acquisition, retention and retrieval of my knowledge. I can also develop my intrinsic motivation by working on my attitudes, if negative, on my feeling of competence, if weak, on my goals and objectives, if absent or unclear and on my learning approach, if superficial. Success generates motivation, which in turn generates success, which in turn generates motivation and so on (See Chapters 1 and 2).

Memorization, Attention and Concentration

My purpose must also translate into the careful selection of the study time, location and ambience. Selective attention and sustained concentration are fundamental for acquiring new knowledge or implementing new intellectual abilities. Studying with the goal to memorize knowledge is a very demanding learning activity in terms of concentration. Therefore, it is in my best interest to reduce this effort by identifying the content that I must memorize, the references where I can find more information as needed and that which I may forget  (See Chapter 5, Attention & Concentration).

Memorization and Planning

Memory is a function that forgets: if I do not use it frequently, my intellectual knowledge and abilities blur and become tainted. New acquisitions progressively shelve previous acquisitions. Memory storage of school-related knowledge is a process that is planned well in advance and not the day before an exam. Time is a key factor in all complex intellectual learning: to understand, thoroughly study, make links, transform and condense the material to facilitate memorization and to review at a beneficial frequency are elements of a step-by-step process that elapses over time. Contrary to what one may think while reading these words, this process does not require a great deal of mental energy: a few well-placed minutes of revision are more efficient than hours of cramming on the eve of an exam and the knowledge will likely be retained longer. Remembering and revision are two processes by which knowledge is consolidated in the long-term memory. Rhythm is also a factor beneficial to efficiency in this remembering and revision work. My purpose must translate into specific objectives, which must be attained according to a pre-determined schedule involving study and revision periods (See Chapter 7, Planning & Organization).

Thoroughly study and appropriate target knowledge

I forget more quickly if I cannot make links between what I learn and the things that are concrete and make sense to me.

Memorization, Learning Conception and Learning Approach

Superficial learning tends to focus on rote memorization using successive repetition of elements of knowledge in the exact format that they are presented in class or in textbooks. The emphasis is placed on detail, to the detriment of the whole. Concepts are learned word for word rather than understanding their significance and implication. The acquired knowledge is stored in a rigid form that is often inappropriate for its use, except in the case of exams requiring learn-by-heart content. On the other hand, a thorough approach founded on understanding and personal appropriation of the material contributes to the embedding in memory of more versatile and applicable knowledge.

Memorization and Understanding

To memorize without understanding is an absurdity, but to understand without retaining is not much use either. Memorization and understanding are often perceived as opposites, they are in fact integrated processes that are essential to each other for quality learning. Understanding a text is not enough to ensure retention but, it is an important condition that is indispensable to the building of knowledge. Memorization complements learning by ensuring the consolidation of essential elements in the long-term memory.

Memorization and Appropriation

I deepen my knowledge of a subject when:

  • I explore information in a complete, precise and methodical fashion and I select what is pertinent (See Chapter 8, Comprehension).
  • I organize, compare and classify essential information by sets and subsets. The human memory can be compared to a large library: we can more easily find information that is well ordered and indexed according to its degree of importance than information that has been strewn about. A good organization of knowledge allows us to pass from general-to-specific and from preview-to-detail (See Chapter 8, Comprehension).
  • I establish links between what I already know and reality; I make sense of what I learn. Even if I can deliberately memorize lists of names, objects or numbers using powerful mnemonics, this type of memorization has limited utility in life. However, it can be useful for retaining formulas, nomenclatures or technical terms.
  • I appropriate the new knowledge. Since I can better retain things that make personal sense to me, I re-word the knowledge based on my personal projects, preferences, learning style and needs, I associate it to personal images and give it my own emotional slant (See Chapter 2, Motivation).

Reduce the material to be learned by heart, to the essential

It is not necessary that I learn everything by heart. A few notions, principles, key words and images well ingrained in my memory are enough for me to remember the majority of related information. With a good summary, reference table or schema, I can store a wide range of knowledge in my memory that I can reconstitute by association or logic, when required. Textbooks contain tables, models and summaries that we can use as is. But it is even more efficient to produce our own summary sheets, syntheses, resumes, schemas, graphs, tables and other memory tools. The attention and understanding efforts I put forth to develop my own memory tools strongly contribute to the acquisition of knowledge.

The general principle is to limit the volume of information to retain by re-grouping, condensing and schematizing; to memorize only the essential, by leaving out the details and the anecdotal; by identifying or creating concrete reference points such as titles or a numbering system. I must make a rigorous selection of key elements and choose a presentation format that is easily visible at a glance: key words, formulas, tables, schemas, symbols, etc. One word, one image, one concept can be considered as key references in that they open up a certain memory space that contains the information that we are seeking. An essential idea, a definition or a theory can be reduced to one or two words, a formula or a simple schema. The memorization effort will then focus on these key elements, from which my mind can retrieve or reconstruct the overall knowledge, as needed.

However, this selection process is not easy to complete. It requires my having a good overview and understanding of the material. To know what to underline, what to note, in which circumstances and how to do this efficiently stems from having a specific purpose and a reflection upon the specific learning content and context.

Remember, revise and use acquired knowledge

Memory is a faculty that contemplates the future rather than the past.

Interiorization of  Knowledge

To interiorize is to keep the acquired knowledge in one’s mind alive for future use. A good way to construct a sound mental representation of my knowledge is to imagine how I intend to use it: I can hear myself explaining the knowledge to someone else, I picture myself answering an exam question or I see myself putting my knowledge into practice in a professional situation. The more this mental representation is clear, detailed, dynamic and vivid, the more deeply it will be embedded into my long-term memory.

To interiorize, I must first make the effort to evoke the material I wish to retain, after concealing the original material (memory tool). To review, I then verify the accuracy of my recall and relearn what I have forgotten. It is this effort that helps me to constitute a long-lasting mnemonic impression while tracing the path to my memory that allows me to later recall this information. In order to consolidate this path, I must then make the effort to repeatedly recall and review the knowledge in the minutes and days that follow and over intervals that are spread out (approximately ten-minute, then once a day, week, month). However, the best way to embed the knowledge and abilities in my memory is to use it as often as possible and in various formats (writing, discussions, practice). The use of more than one sensorial modality fosters this interiorization and subsequent retrieval.

In addition, we can better retain the beginning and the end, redundant information, strange facts, striking examples and spicy anecdotes. This spontaneous retention can be detrimental to basic ideas and principles, which are more abstract and less attention-grabbing than the examples used to illustrate them. It is in our best interest to spread out the efforts spent to compensate for these effects and memorize less striking information by starting from the middle or the end and moreover, by distinguishing the anecdotal from the essential and by placing more emphasis on the memorization of the main ideas.

Memory and Stress

Stress can have as devastating effects on memory and the capacity to acquire new information as on the capacity to retrieve acquired knowledge. In situations of high emotional pressure such as exams, one can become more susceptible to misperceiving or misinterpreting important information like instructions or the meaning of a question and have difficulty to evoke the knowledge required for the answer. I can prevent stress-related effects by reflecting upon strategies ahead of time (See Chapters 3, Stress, and 4, Impulsivity).

Memory, Spontaneity and Impulsivity

Impulsivity consists of answering without thinking. But organizing my knowledge too much in advance hampers the knowledge retrieval process. When asked to respond to a question, my memory spontaneously retrieves both pertinent and non-pertinent information in the order and format that may not be suitable for what was asked. Therefore, it is prudent to split the process into three phases consisting of: first writing down all that spontaneously springs to mind; secondly, making an additional effort to add to the information that has already been retrieved and finally, selecting and organizing all this information into a constructed response.


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