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STUDY TIP NO 1

Your Memory's Natural Rhythms

Understanding how the brain naturally remembers can improve your own ability to recall.

There are a variety of memory techniques that obviously require some conscious effort, but people often ask whether we can utilise the mind's natural processes for learning information. Of course the answer is yes.

If I were to read out a list of 30 words to you and then asked you to recall them, you would be able to recall some words from the beginning of the list, some from the end, but only a few from the middle of the list. (If you don't believe me, try it.) These effects are known as PRIMACY (words from the beginning of the list) and RECENCY (words from the end of the list). Unless you were applying a memory technique, it is highly unlikely that you would recall all of the words. You would, however, be able to recall words you were interested in or that you ASSOCIATED to. Those that were REPEATED or LINKED in any way, and any OUTSTANDING or unusual words would also stick out in your memory - for example the word "rhinoceros" in a list of underwear is outstanding just as the word "underpants" sticks out in a list of large African herbivores.

If we were to draw a graph of these phenomena it would look something like this:

"But", I hear you ask, "how can we use this?" If we were to study for hours and hours and hours without a break, then we would find that the dip in recall between the PRIMACY and RECENCY effects would be considerable. On the other hand, if we stopped every 5 minutes for half an hour then we would not give ourselves enough time to get into the flow of learning and we may as well not bother.

So we need to find a balance between these two extremes. You will be pleased to hear that I am going to encourage you to take more breaks when you are studying. Split your study time into 20-50 minute chunks, with 10 minute breaks in between when it is important that you relax, or do something physical or creative.

The time chunks will mean that you create more PRIMACY / RECENCY high points and so remember more from your studying. The breaks will give your mind a chance to rest from learning, and doing something different will actually stimulate it. Instead of poring over your notes solidly for 3 hours, if you split the time up into 50 minute segments, you will actually remember more during your learning periods. "Brilliant," I hear you exclaim, "but what about being able to recall this information after I have learnt it?" That is a good point.

What normally happens to information after we learn it?

Can you imagine only having to learn something once and then have the ability to recall it whenever you wanted? Sounds too good to be true? Well, it is possible but it does require a little effort. Let's imagine that you went to a class, listened to the teacher, took your notes and at the end of the lesson threw your notebook into your bag. How much information do you think you would remember about what you learnt by the end of the following day? Well a chap called Ebbinghaus proved that within 1-2 days, we forget about 80% of what we have learnt. That seems quite a waste doesn't it? The reason is not so much that we "forget" things, more that information becomes confused by all of the other data we have to process - for example conversations, television programmes, music we listen to, telephone calls etc. What in the moment was unique and easily remembered becomes harder to recall as it is swamped by everything else competing for our attention.

There is a way to overcome this problem. At the end of an hour's learning, your mind integrates the information you have just studied so that your ability to recall it actually rises, peaks after about 10 minutes and then falls off dramatically. Now if you review what you have learnt at that 10 minute point, you will reinforce the information at its strongest in your mind. Your ability to recall this information will remain at a high point for about a day before it begins to drop off rapidly. So it is a good idea to review what you have learnt again after a day. This second review will mean that your ability to recall what you have learnt will remain for about a week before it begins to tail off again so guess what we do after a week? Full marks to those who think we should review again. These early reviews are vital because it is during this first week that the information is at its most fragile.

If you are worried about all these reviews, don't be because with the right note taking technique, each review will only take a couple of minutes. After this third review your recall will last for about a month at which your fourth review will keep the information accessible by you for up to 3 months. A fifth review after 3 months and then another at 6 months will mean the information is firmly logged in your long-term memory.

Types of Review

There are two types of review. First of all you could just look at the information that you have learnt to remind yourself of its content and relevance to you. That is fine, but a much better way is to try and recall from memory everything that you learnt. Now that sounds daunting and possibly a little too much like hard work? Well if you think about your exams or the use of your acquired knowledge, you are going to have to recall that information from memory. Therefore doesn't it make sense to practice the recall (ie the OUT mechanism) instead of concentrating on putting it in again (when it might already be there anyway)? Using a technique such as Mind Mapping will make this process very easy to do by comparison to conventional note taking techniques.

In summary then:

  1. You are more likely to remember things from the beginning and end of a learning period.
  2. Our memory of information is improved if it is of interest or ASSOCIATED to us, is OUTSTANDING, is LINKED, or is REPEATED a number of times.
  3. Study for as long as you like, but make sure it is in 20-50 minute chunks with breaks of 10 minutes where relaxation and/or something physical and fun is mandatory.
  4. Review what you have learned at least:
      10 minutes after learning
    • 1 day after learning
    • 1 week after learning
    • 1 month after learning
    • 3 months after learning
    • 6 months after learning.
  5. Review the information as many times as you can.
  6. Practice what you recall from memory rather than keep on trying to force the information in again and again.



 

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