Pulling it all Together
Organizing and ordering information can significantly improve memory. Imagine, for example, how difficult it would be to remember a random list of 61 letters. On the other hand, it would not be difficult to memorize the first sentence in this paragraph (consisting of 61 letters). Similarly, learning a large amount of unconnected and unorganized information from various classes can be very challenging. By organizing and adding meaning to the material prior to learning it, you can facilitate both storage and retrieval. In other words, you can learn it better and recall it easier. The following concepts can help you pull varied information together in order to increase understanding and organization. This can mean organizing material on paper, such as when you make an outline or idea web, or simply organizing material in your memory, such as learning it in a particular order or making intentional associations between ideas.
The Funnel Approach
This means learning general concepts before moving on to specific details. When you study in this manner, you focus on getting a general framework, or overview, before filling in the details. When you understand the general concepts first, the details make more sense. Rather than disconnected bits of information to memorize, such as history dates, the material fits together within the overall framework. Seeing how the smaller details relate to one another, you process the information more deeply (which helps you store, and later retrieve it from memory). This idea is probably familiar -- there are many learning strategies based on the funnel approach. For example, the approach is used in previewing a chapter for the major ideas as a way to enhance your comprehension of details contained in the chapter. You may also notice that many textbook chapters are organized in a "general to specific" format. Finally, you probably use this type of approach when studying from an outline, matrix, or concept map. Because of their organization, these tools are particularly well-suited for learning general to specific.
Organizing Through Meaning and Association
Earlier, we discussed the concept of making intentional associations in order to improve learning retention. What do we mean by "intentional associations"? When learning, a person continually makes associations. We make associations between what we are learning and the environment we are in, between the information and our mental states, and between the information and our stream of thoughts. When things are associated in memory, thinking of one helps bring the other to mind. Have you ever actually retraced your path when you have forgotten where you put an object such as your keys? Often, as you approach the place where you put them, you are suddenly able to remember the act of laying them down on the table or putting them in your gym bag. This is association. The memory of putting the keys down was associated with your memory of things in the environment. You can make associations work for you by making them intentional. When you are having difficulty recalling new material, you can help bring it to mind by thinking about what you have associated it with. In other words — retrace your mental path.
a) Deep processing — relating the material to yourself. One way to process information more deeply, and also to create meaningful associations, is to think about how the information can be personally meaningful. You might think about how the new material relates to your life, your experience, or your goals. If you can link new information to memories already stored ("mental hooks"), you'll have more cues to recall the new material.
b) Grouping. This idea is probably best explained with an example. Before reading ahead, take a moment to complete the following exercise.
Read the following list of sports one time. When you are done, write down as many of the sports as you can without looking back at the list.
Snow Skiing Basketball Tennis Long Jump Bobsledding 100-Meter Dash Hockey Baseball Luge
Ice Skate Discus Golf High Jump Volleyball Javelin Soccer Curling Cricket Decathlon Hurdles
You can organize material by grouping similar concepts, or related ideas, together. Arranging the material into related groups helps your memory by organizing the information. For example, in the exercise you just completed, you could have grouped all of the sports into one of the following categories: a) Winter sports, b) Track and Field sports, and c) Sports using a ball. Keeping these categories in mind, try the exercise again. If you are like most people, you will be able to remember more of the sports.
Of course, in this instance, we created a list with the intention of demonstrating grouping; thus, there were 6 or 7 sports in each category. Still, with a little thought, this strategy can be used in a variety of ways. For example, can you think of other ways that these sports could be grouped? There are individual sports, team sports, sports you may enjoy, and sports you may dislike. There are sports requiring a great deal of equipment, and sports requiring little or none. When you are trying to remember lists for a test, the concepts and words may or may not have a natural organization. Therefore, you may need to be creative when making associations. Finally, the process of organizing a list into groups can often help you to understand the relationship between the concepts better.
We have already discussed the idea of associations: aiding storage and retrieval of new information by intentionally pairing it with something familiar. When learning something new and unfamiliar, try pairing it with something you know very well, such as images, puns, music, whatever. The association does not have to make logical sense. Oftentimes it is associations that are particularly vivid, humorous, or silly that stay in your mind. Some people remember names this way. For example, they may remember the name "Robert Green" by picturing Robert playing golf (on the green), wearing green clothes, or covered in green paint. Or suppose for your anatomy course you have to recall names of the veins in the human body, and the first one on the list is "pancreatic" followed by "right gastroepiploic" and "left gastroepiploic" and so on. You can picture a frying pan being creative -- maybe painting a picture with bright paints and bold strokes. If the frying pan is working in a studio, picture gas pipes with little padlocks on them (gastroepiploic) in the left and right studio corners...
VIVID ASSOCIATIONS: LEARNING THE NAMES OF CLASSMATES
1. Pick names of classmates with whom you are unfamiliar.
2. For each name, brainstorm some words or ideas that you can associate with the name. For example, if one student's name is Teresa Martinez, you might think of Mother Teresa, a Martin (a type of bird), Mars the planet, a Martini (the drink), the word "terrific," Martinique, etc.
3. Once you have brainstormed several ideas, you can begin to think of ways that some of the associations can be combined to remember the name. In the above example, you could create a visual association by picturing Mother Teresa standing on the beach at Martinique.
4. Do this for each person, and you will have a great way to remember the names of your new classmates!
You will notice that the term "active learning" has come up frequently. Active learning facilitates your memory by helping you attend to and process information. All of the memory techniques we have discussed require active learning. Even if you attend every lecture and read every assignment, there is no guarantee that you will learn and remember the information. Although you may passively absorb some material, to ensure that you remember important information requires being active and involved, that is attending to and thinking about what you are learning.
Some people remember information best when it is encoded visually; if that is the case for you, then code information in this manner. But even if you do not consider yourself specifically "a visual learner," you may find that including visual memory can still help. After all, it is one more way of encoding and storing information — and one more way of retrieving it for a test.
There are many ways of visually encoding and retrieving information. We have already mentioned the strategy of associating concepts with visual images. But other aids to visual memory include diagrams, tables, outlines, etc. Often these are provided in texts, so take advantage of pictures, cartoons, charts, graphs, or any other visual material. You can also draw many of these things yourself. For example, try to visualize how the ideas relate to each other and draw a graph, chart, picture, or some other representation of the material. You may even want to make it a habit to convert difficult material into actual pictures or diagrams in your notes, or to convert words into mental images on the blackboard of your mind.
Finally, using your visual memory can be as simple as writing out vocabulary words, theories, or algebraic formulas. This allows you to not only practice (repeat) the information but also to see the way it looks on the page (developing a visual memory that you may be able to retrieve later). Another advantage is that it helps you take an active role in learning the material. When you draw your ideas on paper or write down things you are trying to remember, you have the opportunity to think about the information more deeply.
Talk it Out
When trying to memorize something, it can help to actually recite the information aloud. You might repeat ideas verbatim (when you need to do rote memorization), or you can repeat ideas in your own words (and thus ensure that you have a true understanding of the information). Repeating information aloud can help you encode the information (auditory encoding) and identify how well you have learned it. Some students have told us that they know the test information and are surprised when they "freeze" and cannot give adequate responses. For some students, this "freezing" may be a result of test anxiety. For others, however, it may be a result of overestimating how well they know the material. If you recite the information aloud from memory (answering questions, defining words, or using flash cards), it is often quite clear how well you know it. If you stumble in your responses, have to look up answers, or can only give a vague response, then you know that you need to study more.
Although reciting aloud can be a helpful memory technique, some people avoid it out of fear of appearing foolish ("what if someone sees me talking to myself?"). If this applies to you, work with a friend or study group. Another advantage of working with someone else is that they can inform you when you are missing important concepts or misunderstanding an idea. Keep in mind, however, that studying with others does not work for everyone. For example, some students may become anxious or intimidated in study groups and would be more comfortable studying alone.
Visualize Yourself Teaching the Material
An effective way to enhance recall and understanding of dense material is to teach it to an imaginary audience. By doing so, you are forced to organize the material in a way that makes sense to you and to anticipate potential questions that may be asked by your students. Moreover, by articulating your lecture aloud, you will uncover gaps in your comprehension (and recall) of the material. (Far better to discover those "weak" areas before a test than during it.) After you have mastered a particular section from your textbook, try delivering an organized lecture on any topic from that section. Then check for accuracy. Don't forget to anticipate questions that students might ask about the material as a way of anticipating potential test questions.
Grateful acknowledgement to the Learning Center, University of Texas – Austin.