Sharpen Your Memory-3

-Paulson cmf


Memory and related learning principles

The Principles of Short-Term and Long-Term Memory. This principle of long-term memory may well be at work when you recite or write the ideas and facts that you read. As you recite or write you are holding each idea in mind for the four or five seconds that are needed for the temporary memory to be converted into a permanent one.

In other words, the few minutes that it takes for you to review and think about what you are trying to learn is the minimum length of time that neuroscientists believe is necessary to allow thought to go into a lasting, more easily retrievable memory.

Recognition is an easier stage of memory than the recall stage. For example, in an examination, it is much easier to recognize an answer to a question if five options are listed, than to recall the answer without the options listed. But getting beyond just recognizing the correct answer when you see it is usually necessary for long-term memory, for the more we can recall about information the better we usually remember it.

Understanding New Material. First and most important, you must make sure that you understand new material before trying to remember it. A good technique to ensure understanding is to recite or write the author’s ideas in your own words. If you cannot, then you do not understand them. The conclusion: you cannot remember what you do not understand. In other words, you cannot form a clear and correct memory trace from a fuzzy, poorly understood concept.

In the classroom, do not hesitate to ask the instructor to explain further a point that is not clear to you. If the point is unclear to you, there is a good chance that it is unclear to others, so you will not be wasting anyone’s time. Furthermore, most instructors appreciate the opportunity to answer questions.

Getting it right the first time. We have learned that all remembering depends on forming an original, clear neural trace in the brain in the first place. These initial impressions are vitally important because the mind clings just as tenaciously to incorrect impressions as it does to correct impressions. Then we have to unlearn and relearn. Incorrect information is so widespread that Mark Twain once wrote, “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.”

Evaluate the Learning. Another way to improve retention is through evaluation. After you have studied, work the matter over in your mind. Examine and analyze it; become familiar with it like a friend. Use comparison or contrast: how is this topic like or different from related topics? If the learning concerns things conjectural, do you tend to agree or disagree? Are there aspects of the subject which you can criticize? Analytical thinking encourages you to consider the matter from various aspects and this kind of mental manipulation makes you more knowledgeable. For all these reasons, recall is significantly improved.

The Principle of over learning.

After you have recited a lesson long enough to say it perfectly, if you continue reciting it a few times more, you will over learn it. A well known psychologist and researcher, Ebbinghaus, has reported that each additional recitation (after you really know the material) engraves the mental trace deeper and deeper, thus establishing a base for long-term retention. For many people over learning is difficult to practice because, by the time they achieve bare mastery, there is little time left and they are eager to drop the subject and go on to something else. But reciting the material even just one more time significantly increases retention, so try to remember this and utilize the technique when you can.

The Principle of Recitation

There is no principle that is more important or more effective than recitation for transferring material from the short-term memory to the long-term memory. For one thing, you are obviously in the process of repeating the information. Recitation can take several forms — thinking about it, writing it out, or saying it out loud. “Thinking about it” is potentially the least effective because it gives us the least amount of reinforcement since writing or speaking involve more electrical muscle movement messages to the brain which are known to increase mental response and recording. Vocal, “out loud” recitation is usually the most effective single technique for review because it employs more of the senses than any other review technique (utilizing both auditory and vocal senses.) If, for example, when reviewing your notes immediately after class the reviewing is done by vocal recitation, you will not only be consolidating the new information but also strengthening the neural traces made to your brain.

What is recitation? Recitation is simply saying aloud the ideas that you want to remember. For example, after you have gathered your information in note form and have categorized and clustered your items, you recite them. Here’s how: you cover your notes, then recite aloud the covered material. After reciting, expose the notes and check for accuracy. You should not attempt to recite the material word for word; rather your reciting should be in the words and manner that you would ordinarily use if you were explaining the material to a friend. When you can say it, then you know it. (This is why it is best NOT to recite directly from the text.)

How recitation works. Recitation transfers material to the secondary or long-term memory. While you are reading the words in a sentence or paragraph, the primary memory (short-term memory) holds them in mind long enough for you to gain the sense of the sentence or paragraph. However, the primary memory has a very limited capacity, and as you continue to read, you displace the words and ideas of the initial paragraphs with the words of subsequent paragraphs. This is one reason for not remembering everything in the first part of the chapter by the time we reach the end of the chapter when we read continually without taking a break or taking time to review what we have already read.

It is only when we recite or contemplate the idea conveyed by a sentence or paragraph that the idea has a chance (not guaranteed) of moving on into the secondary memory (a long-term storage facility).

All verbal information goes first into the primary memory (short-term memory). When it is rehearsed (recited), part of it goes into our secondary (long-term) memory. The rest of it, usually the part we are least interested in, returns to the primary memory and is then forgotten. 

After this number of days

The amount remembered
by students who did no review was

The amount remembered
by students who reviewed was







Remembering. As a student, one of your main concerns is to retain old learning’s while you continue to acquire new ones. Do we remember more when we begin to study a subject or after we already know something about it? According to several recent studies, learning which involves memorization of a unit of material begins slowly, then goes faster, and finally levels off. In other words, the amount learned per unit of time is small at first, then increases, and then becomes small again. This finding contrasts with older studies which showed that learning was rapid at first, then became slower until it leveled off.

Even though a person continues to study, he may expect to encounter periods when there seems to be little or no gain. Such plateaus in learning may be due to several causes such as fatigue, loss of interest, or diminishing returns from using the same inefficient methods. Another explanation of plateaus is that they represent pauses between stages of understanding; when the student acquires a new insight, he can move on. Sometimes the lower stage of an understanding or a skill may actually interfere with progress to a higher level. For example, learning to read by individual letters of the alphabet interferes with learning to read by words. Learning to read word-by-word delays reading by phrases or sentences.

The rate at which a student learns depends upon his learning ability, but slow learners remember just as well as fast learners, provided that they have learned the material equally well. The reason a bright student may do better on examinations is that he has learned the subject matter more effectively within the time available. But if a slower student spends enough time on his studies, he can retain every bit as much as the faster student. Fortunately, there is evidence that both rate of learning and rate of retention can be improved with practice.

The Principle of Neuro -Transmitter Depletion

If one studies the same subject too long, fatigue, boredom, sometimes slight disorientation may occur. It is a common result of too much consecutive study when even the simplest concept begins not to make sense any longer. The monitoring of brain activity and chemical changes indicate that studying too long results in a depletion of chemicals in the brain cells necessary for efficient processing of information. Therefore, for effective consolidation of material into memory storage, take frequent breaks (at least 10 minutes every hour) and do not attempt to deal with really difficult material for more than about four hours a day, and do not study any easier subject area (even with breaks) for more than four consecutive hours.

Techniques and Specific Memory Tricks to improve memory, memorization

Mnemonic techniques are more specific memory aids. Many are based on the general memory strategies that were presented earlier. Although it can be easiest to remember those things that you understand well, sometimes you must rely on rote memory. The following techniques can be used to facilitate such memorization.

1. ACRONYMS. You form acronyms by using each first letter from a group of words to form a new word. This is particularly useful when remembering words in a specified order. Acronyms are very common in ordinary language and in many fields. Some examples of common acronyms include NBA (National Basketball Associations), SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus), BTUs (British Thermal Units), and LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). What other common acronyms can you think of? The memory techniques in this section, for example, can be rearranged to form the acronym “SCRAM” (Sentences/acrostics, Chunking, Rhymes & songs, Acronyms, and Method of loci).

Let us suppose that you have to memorize the names of four kinds of fossils for your geology class: 1) actual remains, 2) Petrified, 3) Imprint, and 4) Molds or casts. Take the first letter of each item you are trying to remember: APIM. Then, arrange the letters so that the acronym resembles a word you are familiar with: PAIM or IMAP.

Although acronyms can be very useful memory aids, they do have some disadvantages. First, they are useful for rote memory, but do not aid comprehension. Be sure to differentiate between comprehension and memory, keeping in mind that understanding is often the best way to remember. Some people assume that if they can remember something, that they must “know” it; but memorization does not necessarily imply understanding. A second problem with acronyms is that they can be difficult to form; not all lists of words will lend themselves equally well to this technique. Finally, acronyms, like everything else, can be forgotten if not committed to memory.

2. SENTENCES/ACROSTICS. Like acronyms, you use the first letter of each word you are trying to remember. Instead of making a new word, though, you use the letters to make a sentence. Here are some examples:

  • My Dear Aunt Sally (mathematical order of operations: Multiply and Divide before you Add and Subtract)
  • Kings Phil Came Over for the Genes Special (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Genus, Species)

Can you think of other examples? Like acronyms, acrostics can be very simple to remember and are particularly helpful when you need to remember a list in a specific order. One advantage over acronyms is that they are less limiting. If your words don’t form easy-to-remember acronyms, using acrostics may be preferable. On the other hand, they can take more thought to create and require remembering a whole new sentence rather than just one word (as is the case with acronyms). Otherwise, they present the same problem as acronyms in that they aid memorization but not comprehension.


1. Try making up a sentence (acrostic) to remember the five mnemonic techniques discussed in this section.

2. Now come up with acrostics for several of the main sections of a chapter from one or your textbooks.

3. RHYMES & SONGS. Rhythm, repetition, melody, and rhyme can all aid memory. Are you familiar with Homer’s Odyssey? If you are familiar with the book, then you know that it is quite long. That is why it is so remarkable to realize that this, along with many ancient Greek stories, was told by storytellers who would rely solely on their memories. The use of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition helped the storytellers remember them.

You can use the same techniques to better remember information from courses. For example, even the simple addition of familiar rhythm and melody can help. Do you remember learning the alphabet? Many children learn the letters of the alphabet to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” In fact, a student demonstrated how she memorized the quadratic formula (notorious among algebra students for being long and difficult to remember) by singing it to a familiar tune!

Using these techniques can be fun, particularly for people who like to create. Rhymes and songs draw on your auditory memory and may be particularly useful for those who can learn tunes, songs, or poems easily. Like the other techniques in this section, however, they emphasize rote memory, not understanding. Also, when devising rhymes and songs, don’t spend too much time creating them. Use these techniques judiciously and don’t let them interfere with your studying.

4. METHOD OF LOCI. This technique was used by ancient orators to remember speeches, and it combines the use of organization, visual memory, and association. Before using the technique, you must identify a common path that you walk. This can be the walk from your dorm to class, a walk around your house, whatever is familiar. What is essential is that you have a vivid visual memory of the path and objects along it. Once you have determined your path, imagine yourself walking along it, and identify specific landmarks that you will pass. For example, the first landmark on your walk to campus could be your dorm room, next may be the front of the residence hall, next a familiar statue you pass, etc. The number of landmarks you choose will depend on the number of things you want to remember.

Once you have determined your path and visualized the landmarks, you are ready to use the path to remember your material. This is done by mentally associating each piece of information that you need to remember with one of these landmarks. For example, if you are trying to remember a list of mnemonics, you might remember the first–acronyms–by picturing SCUBA gear in your dorm room (SCUBA is an acronym).

You do not have to limit this to a path. You can use the same type of technique with just about any visual image that you can divide into specific sections. The most important thing is that you use something with which you are very familiar.


1. If someone reads a list of unrelated words to you, just once, how many do you think you could remember? Give it a try. Have someone read a list of 10 words to you at a slow but steady pace (about 1 word per second). Rather than using any of the memory techniques presented here, simply try to concentrate on the words and remember them. How many words did you remember?

2. Now take a few minutes to identify a path or object that you can use in the method of loci. Familiarize yourself with each of sections of your path or object. Mentally go through each of the loci (locations) and visualize them as best you can. Remember, it is important to be able to visualize and recall each location readily. Once you have done this, have your friend read you a different list of words. This time, try to create visual images of the words associated with one of the locations. This may not come easy at first, but with practice you should be able to create these visual images more readily. If you find that you are having difficulty coming up with the images quickly, practice on some more lists until you have improved. Chances are, when you become familiar with using this technique, you will be able to remember many more words (maybe all 10 items).

3. Practice the technique to sharpen your skills.

5. CHUNKING. This is a technique generally used when remembering numbers, although the idea can be used for remembering other things as well. It is based on the idea that short-term memory is limited in the number of things that can be contained. A common rule is that a person can remember 7 (plus or minus 2) “items” in short-term memory. In other words, people can remember between 5 and 9 things at one time. You may notice that local telephone numbers have 7 digits. This is convenient because it is the average amount of numbers that a person can keep in his or her mind at one time.

When you use “chunking” to remember, you decrease the number of items you are holding in memory by increasing the size of each item. In remembering the number string 64831996, you could try to remember each number individually, or you could try thinking about the string as 64 83 19 96 (creating “chunks” of numbers). This breaks the group into a smaller number of “chunks.” Instead of remembering 8 individual numbers, you are remembering four larger numbers. This is particularly helpful when you form “chunks” that are meaningful or familiar to you (in this case, the last four numbers in the series are “1996,” which can easily be remembered as one chunk of information).

6. PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT (or closer to it anyway): Okay, it may not be a mnemonic, but repeating is still a great memory aid. Remember the children’s game “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing….” As each new object is added, the old objects are repeated. People can often remember a large number of objects this way. When remembering a list of things, you might try a similar concept. Once you are able to remember 5 items on your list without looking, add a 6th, repeat the whole list from the start, add a 7th, and so on. It can be quite intimidating to see long lists, passages, or equations that you are expected to commit to memory. Break up the information into small bits that you can learn, one step at a time, and you may be surprised at how easy it can be. You might even utilize grouping techniques, like those discussed earlier, to form meaningful groups that you can learn one at a time.

Related posts: