We all recognize
the importance of memory in almost any aspect of our lives and even more
so in anything related to education and learning. Yet, it is still debated
how memory works exactly. Science is still exploring the way our brain
is organized and functions. The human brain is such a developed and intricate
network that relatively few data are known for certain.
Here we point out some relevant aspects of memory that can help improve
the way you learn.
While we normally think of 'memory' as one, there are several technical
definitions of it. Two important kinds of memory are 'short-term
memory' and 'long-term memory.'
There is an important distinction between short-term memory and
long-term memory. Short-term memory stores the most recent information
(a word you have just heard, the last sentence your read in a text,
a person you have just met, etc.) for a short time. Definitions
vary, but generally speaking short-term memory lasts from 6 to
30 seconds or up to a minute. Long-term memory stores information
for a longer time, eventually for the whole of our life. The information
in the long-term memory has been assimilated: you retained it and
can retrieve it when necessary.
Memory has also been categorized according to the sense or activity
involved in the mnemonic process. 'Visual memory' is the ability
to remember what we see; 'auditory memory' is the capacity to recall
something we hear; 'verbal memory' relates to spoken words; 'tactile
memory' refers to the sense of touch; and so on. Different people
may be more or less proficient in one or more of these types of
memory. For instance, we commonly say someone has a 'photographic
memory' when they can remember in great detail something they have
seen. They may, however, be very poor in recalling something that
they heard. Some people may remember names or numbers easily, but
cannot recall how a particular face looks like.
It is useful to consider how you tend to memorize better. If you
think of how you find easier to remember (e.g. using your eyes,
ears, hands, etc.), you can develop a method that makes your studies
more effective. [more
Another important concept is that of 'working memory.' The term refers
to what we remember or 'have in mind' at a given moment. Working memory
is the process that allows us to deal with recent information (something
we have just seen, heard, read, etc.) and store it temporarily. It also
deals with older information when we need to recall it. The idea of 'working
memory' is very important in the learning process. A 'good' working memory
helps you study better.
Working memory has a limited storage or processing capacity. Several
studies show that this ability revolves around the number 7: at one time
you are able to keep in mind 7 pieces of information. There are variations
of minus 2 (5 chunks of information) or plus 2 (9 items being the maximum
number). This does not define exactly how much information working memory
can deal with because a 'chunk' can be a rather complex piece of information.
When you study, however, it is important to keep the 'seven plus or minus
two' rule in mind. When you organize your schedule, it can help you break
down the load of work and facilitate your learning. [more
Attention, practice, and understanding
The key point in learning is not that you memorize information for
a short time, but that you can recall it and use it correctly whenever
necessary. To do this, you must transfer information from short-term
memory to long-term memory. Students often think that learning by
is all that matters. If you can commit to memory briefly before an
exam, you are going to pass. In fact, learning is not a question
of memorizing alone. You learn something if you understand it and
how to use it. Research shows that rehearsing information (practice)
and applying meaning to it (what we call here 'understanding') help
the transfer from short-term memory to long-term memory.
Arguably, one of the most important aid to memory is attention. While
information can enter memory unconsciously, you remember more or for
longer if you pay attention. This is quite obvious and it is why you
memorize better if you are concentrating on what you are studying.
Attention is not enough, though. You need to rehearse the information.
You must repeat and practice what you are learning. While 'learning
by rote' is not appealing to most, it is true that you can memorize
something forever simply by repeating it enough times. Repetition is
truly fundamental whether one likes it or not. Think of musicians:
we admire their skills, the smooth way they play our favorite piece
without the need for the score. How do you think they can do that?
We like to see their artistic side, but in reality they had to rehearse
that piece of music over and over and over again until they could play
it with their eyes closed.
The arguments against repetition are often misleading. Because it is
associated with continuous reiteration without variations, repetition
becomes the equivalent of boredom. You are instead made to believe that
you can learn to play an instrument in 24 hours without having to play
a single note twice. The truth is that repetition is invaluable. Even
Mozart rehearsed. And he was one of a kind!
To rehearse does not mean that you have to repeat everything exactly
in the same way until exhaustion. You should see repetition as practice.
Practice is repetition, at the end of the day: it is the necessary exercise
that we need to do in order to learn something. Think of sport people:
they have to exercise constantly to keep in good shape. They go through
the same routine very often, but varying exercises to develop different
muscles and maintain or improve fitness.
A doubtful advantage of repetition is that you can memorize something
without understanding it. However, the best way to remember and learn
is to give meaning to what you are studying AND rehearse it. It appears
that long-term memory stores or encodes information semantically. This
means that you apply meaning to what you study to be able to remember
it. When you read a novel, for instance, you do not usually commit
to memory the content of each page. Yet, you can say you remember the
novel if you are able to recall the main characters and the chain of
events. You understand the content of the book and can tell the story
to someone else. If you then rehearse telling the story, you become
more and more proficient in it: you can recall more details, explain
the story better, and memorize it for longer.
To truly learn what you study, first understand it. Committing something
to memory too early is not helpful, especially if you have to explain
it to others or need to apply it in different contexts. First, go through
the material to make sense of it; then, practice to memorize it. You
know something when you understand and rehearse it enough to be able
to recall and use it whenever necessary.
There is no doubt that the best way to remember is to pay attention,
understand, and practice. For instance, listen to the lecturer, grasp
the meaning of what he or she is saying and write it down, go over
your notes later, and repeat what was said.
Sometimes, however, you may just need to memorize small or isolated
bits of information. You do not need to learn the content of a lecture,
simply remember a name, a number, or a list of words. That's where
memory aids or mnemonics may come handy. A mnemonic is something
you remember something else. It can be anything: a word, an image,
a poem, a whole story. Below we refer to some of the most common
Remember that these aids are suitable in certain situations, but are
not general substitutes for learning and practicing!
- The place method
This is also called 'the method of loci' from the Latin word for 'place.'
The system was first created by the ancient Greeks around 2500 years
ago. At the time, people held the art of oratory in great esteem. Oratory
consists in promoting certain ideas by way of long, elaborated speeches.
The orators had to remember a great deal of information to deliver
their lectures successfully and therefore needed a good system to remember
every passage of the speech. They conceived a method that is still
popular today. It is very effective if rehearsed correctly (indeed,
you still need to repeat a mnemonic in order to remember the information!)
of a place you know well and that you can divide into smaller areas.
Imagine that each piece of information you need to remember is
located in a different area. Practice going through the place in a well-defined
order. This way you can remember the information as you move from one
area to the other.
The complexity of the place is linked to how much information you need
to memorize. For a short list of items, a single room that has a certain
number of features may be enough: the door is 'item 1,' the window 'item
2,' the armchair under the window 'item 3,' and the fireplace 'item 4.'
You may think of a flat with various rooms for a longer list: in the
hall you find 'A,' in the kitchen to the left there is 'B,' while in
the sitting room to the right stand 'C,' further ahead in the first bedroom
you find 'D,' and so on. For more complicated information, you may have
to imagine a building with several floors of flats, each with many rooms.
You may even use the image of a whole town.
The possibilities are infinite. What is important is that you rehearse
going through the place in the right order. It can help to think of a
particular route you know well: for instance, visualize the way from
home to work or school, and choose places along the route to 'hold' the
information you need to memorize.
- The story method
This technique uses a story instead of a place. Make up a story that
contains the words or information you need to learn. It does not have
to make sense, but it has to be memorable for you. Again, you need
to rehearse the story enough times to learn it by heart.
- The link method
Like in a chain where each link is tight to the next, the words of the
list or the pieces of information are joined together in the order
you need to memorize them. Using this method, you link the bits of
information to one another with images rather than creating a whole
- The pegword method
This system is based on numbers and can help learn a list where numbers
play a role (for instance, a shopping list where you need different
quantities of items). The pegword method transforms numbers into images
by way of a rhyme:
one is a bun
two is a shoe
three is a tree
four is a door
five is a hive
six is sticks
seven is heaven
eight is a gate
nine is a line
ten is a hen
The image (a bun, a door, sticks, etc.) links the quantity (one, four,
six, etc.) to the items on your list (milk cartoon, bread rolls, eggs,
etc.) You need to learn the rhyme by heart to be able to use it. As the
other methods, pegwords require some additional exercise in memorization
before you can use it.
- The face-name method
As the name suggests, this method can help you remember the name of a
person by linking it to his or her face. You choose a distinctive feature
of the person's face and create an image that links that feature with
one or more words that remind you of the person's name. For instance,
to memorize the surname Cherrington, you could imagine a ton of cherries
rolling down the person nose!
- The coding method
This system is used to memorize numbers, but it is complex and requires
extensive training. The coding changes numbers into words and it has
become popular with telephone numbers (e.g. telephone numbers are provided
in the form of a word). The method relies on the fact that most people
remember words more easily than numbers. It is more useful when the
list of numbers to memorize is long or the numbers themselves complicated.
A simpler association of numbers and images is easier when dealing with
short numbers. You can associate a number with an animal creating an
image that draws on the shape of both. For instance, the number '2' can
be thought of as a swan and the number '8' may be a cat that's sitting.
To remember the house number 28, you can picture a cat sitting to the
right of a swan in front of you.
- The first-letter method
Acronyms and acrostics are mnemonics of the first-letter kind that we
use everyday. An acronym is a word made up with the first letters of
the other words. A famous example is UFO, which is an acronym for Unidentified
Flying Object. Some acronyms are so popular that we do not think of
them as memory aids any more: NBA (National Basketball Associations),
LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation), etc.
An acrostic is a sentence, a poem, or a writing where the first (or sometimes
the last) letter of each word or line form another word. This system
may be used to remember the correct spelling of difficult words:
Tell Her Our Rare Oak Unbelievably Grows Hair.
Acrostics can be written about anything and the important letters can
be placed at the beginning, at the end, or even down the middle of the
writing. This can be done to memorize an important name, for instance:
Hoping to dine
And soon, right here
Yearning for wine
Not to mention a beer
Eating now is just fine
Sitting on the long pier
- The keyword method
With this technique you link two words by way of images as well as sounds.
This method has been mostly used to learn words in a foreign language:
a foreign word is linked to a word in your native language that has
a similar sound; you then link this word to an image that represents
the meaning of the foreign word. A simple example is the Spanish word
'árbol' (tree): it sounds very similar to the English 'arbor,'
so you can imagine an arbor made up of two trees and place the letter
L on top of the arbor to help you remember the right ending of the
Spanish word. If you need to memorize the meaning of the rather more
complicated word 'melocotón' (peach), you could create the image
of a guy called Mel wearing a bright cotton T-shirt with his name printed
on it. The Spanish language divides nouns into masculine and feminine
and it is important to learn their gender. 'El melocotón' is
a masculine noun, so if you create the image using a man or a boy,
you are including the gender of the Spanish word in your keyword mnemonic.
There are no real shortcuts to studying. How
you go about learning something depends on what you want to achieve
with it. If you simply need to memorize a name or a number, any
of the mnemonic methods explained above can be helpful. However,
if you need to learn something more substantial, mnemonics can
help you memorize bits of data here and there, but they cannot
replace thorough studying. You can integrate mnemonics into your
larger learning plan, but you should not rely on them as your only
way of learning. For instance, you can use a particular technique
to memorize a few important pieces of information, especially names,
dates, or terms that you find difficult to remember otherwise.
You still have to study, understand, and practice the rest of the
One last word of advice about learning foreign
languages. Sometimes you may need to learn lists of words: for
instance, students may need to learn a vocabulary list handed out
by the teacher or staff may need to memorize specific terms related
to their profession. Keep in mind that if you only learn words,
however, you are not learning a language. Isolated words, even
the most precise, even tons of them, are not the complete language.
If you only learn lists of words, you are not learning to speak
the language. Think of musicians again: learning the single notes
is not enough. They need to practice the whole piece if they want
to be able to play it.
If your aim is to be able to understand and speak a language, either as a beginner
or at an advanced level, you need to learn complete sentences. You must grasp
how those sentences are formed, how you can form similar ones on your own.
You must understand how words are used together, not just as stock phrases,
but in the flexible ways native speakers use them. Learning a language is much
more than learning words or set phrases! In this sense, methods like 'linkwords'
or 'keywords' are only useful in specific cases, such as when difficult bits
of information that need to be memorized or you keep forgetting a particular
word. Also, to be effectively memorable, these methods have to be personalized.
Research shows that you have better results when you make up your own images
and associations instead of using those prepared by others.
• If you understand and practice what you are studying, it is
easier to memorize and retain your knowledge over time. Pay attention,
focus on understanding the material, and practice as much as possible.
These are the best aids to memory!
• Use mnemonics that you find congenial to your skills. Do not hope they
can replace more thorough practice, however. Use them when they can help you
memorize difficult but concise data for longer (e.g. one particular fact, some
elusive words, an important number, etc.)