Improve Your Memory for Learning

by Aggie Chapman

People often complain about their memory – how bad it is, how difficult it is to remember stuff, how easily things slip out of their mind, or that their memory is not what it once was. Little do they know that the dream of near perfect memory is well within our reach! The truth is, our memory is not bad, it’s simply not used the way it should be, probably because we don’t know how it functions and how to make it work to our benefit. And that, you’ll be glad to hear, is easier than you’d thought.

To start with, there is not one memory system in our brain – there are two types:

1. Short-term / working memory – the RAM of our brain if you like. Everything you experience here and now goes into your short-term memory. This type of memory works almost non-stop, so it can get tired if we overload it with too much info, especially if we don’t focus on new information, or don’t repeat it in any way. When it gets tired, we experience various slips – for example confusing people’s names even if they’ve just introduced themselves to us.

Most people’s short term memory has 4 available slots – that means we can remember up to 4 bits of new information that hasn’t been stored in our memory yet. When the new info has been reinforced enough, a link is created to the place where it’s going to be stored for good – the long term memory. Long-term memory is where we store the information permanently. One of the interesting things about it is that it’s not possible to fill it completely, new information can be added there all the time. However, nothing goes straight to the long-term memory, anything new needs to go through the working memory, be retrieved a few times before the link with long term memory is created. Unlike the short-term memory, this one doesn’t actively work all the time. It contains lots of information, but depending on how often we active it, some things will be easier to recall than others. That’s where the saying “to have something at the back of your mind” comes from – you know you have the information somewhere, it just takes a moment for your long term memory to access it.

2. Long-term memory can be randomly triggered by various stimuli we experience in daily life. Certain smells can take us back to our childhood, other things remind of something we’ve seen or experienced somewhere else, we can also suddenly remember something that had been struggling to recall for a long time – our long-term memory is triggered by something, and ta-dah!, we remember. Do you see now why classrooms are often full of pictures and posters? Their function is not merely to decorate the space, they’re also there to stimulate our memory.

It’s a bit like a very big wardrobe full of clothes and accessories, whereas the short-term memory is like the pockets in our jeans, where we can easily put and access in new things. There is a limit to how much we can fit into the pockets, and at some point, we decide what to keep, and what to throw away. Just like our short-term memory, which selects the information to send to the long term memory, and throws away the rest as it’s not been used.

The fact that unused information is removed from the memory shows how harmful procrastination can be. You know what it’s like when you’re in class and follow what the teacher is saying – it all makes perfect sense you feel that you’ve learnt loads. And you have, for now. Unless you revise the material later (at least flick through your notes), the knowledge will very soon “evaporate” as it’s not anchored and if you wait too long before you revise it, your memory may decide that it’s not useful and there’s no point keeping it. And so, if you sit down to study after a long break, your memory is totally blank and you must start all over again, even if in class you felt that the knowledge was going in. It probably did, but you didn’t make it stick.

Use these 5 tricks to see how quickly your memory gets better:

1. Really focus on the information you want to remember, otherwise no technique will help. Try your best to concentrate on the bits you need to store in your memory – select the “keys” – the most important parts that will lead to the rest, rather than trying to memorise everything. Writing things down is very helpful – first of all it adds the physical element and thus engages a different part of our brain. Then, we also have a written record that we can use for revision.

2. Linking new information to what we already know makes it easy to remember. Even if it’s not exactly the same thing – it can be a similar sounding word, rather than an identical one; a grammar rule that makes sense in another language; the same logic in one process as in another, etc. While learning Spanish household vocabulary, I noticed that the word for carpet – “alfombra” – looks like a blend Alf (a character from a TV series from my childhood) and “ombra” – shadow/shade in Italian. So, I had a picture of Alf covering himself with a carpet looking for some shade.  No way will I forget this word now!

The so-called “false friends” are actually great help for our memory for two reasons – first there’s an element of surprise by their meaning, which makes the link stronger. By using a little bit of creativity, we can create some funny, memorable connections too, like in the example here:

A German word “gar” (which can mean “really”, or “cooked”…) is the same as Polish word for a big pan “gar”. The French word for station “gare” is also pronounced in the same way. Just think of the possibilities here!

As soon as you connect the new thing (which for now is abstract) to something that you know (familiar = concrete) the link between the short-term and long-term memory starts being created. It still needs a bit of looking after (repetition), but it’s very unlikely to be instantly forgotten now.

3. Use pictures. Do you know the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”? While I wouldn’t argue about the exact number, various studies in memory have proved that visual information is easier to remember. For our brain facts, names, or numbers are abstract, whereas pictures are simple. That’s why it’s a good idea to use illustrations for the things we learn – these can be in the form of mind-maps, little symbols, cartoons or sketch notes – depending on what you are learning and your preference. The picture must be meaningful for you, so using the particular symbol just because someone else told you to do so may not do the trick for you.

4. Practise, practise, practise – whenever possible use the knowledge in practice. Do exercises, explain the rules or the process to someone, if you’re leaning a language use the new vocabulary or structures in speaking or writing. You can write sentences about you or the people you know, create a story, etc. Language journals or blogs are very helpful here, too.

5. You also need to find ways to recall the information. That’s exactly why we have tests at school! We should use recall all the time when we study – that’s the only way we really remember new information, by forcing our memory to active that newly acquired stuff. You can simply cover the notes and try to list the things you remember. The more we activate, the stronger it gets rooted in long-term memory. Have you noticed how much more you learn using flashcards than list of vocabulary / new terms etc.?

The five steps work best when applied together and consistently. I know, not all information may be possible to illustrate, and finding the ways to practise all new knowledge isn’t always easy. But it’s certainly worth making an effort and trying to combine as many of the 5 steps as possible, your memory will thank you. 😉

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