I had a bad memory and in school I was never quite able to cram for examinations. I found memorisation a complete chore and whenever I had to remember something, it was important that I found something already in my memory to associate it with so as to bond the materials better to my mind.
It turned out that this exercise from young did two things for me. One is that it caused me to develop an interest for learning and genuine understanding when confronted with something new. Since I wasn’t able to retain much in my mind, what I did, I kept them for much longer than everyone else. And I had to develop my own reasons and purpose for wanting to put something into my memory since they were usually stored longer term. And the other was that it gave me a method that allowed my memory capacity to accelerate as I learnt more.
The second point requires a bit more explanation. When I recall things by associating the new information with something already in my mind, I’m actually causing the web of my knowledge to be denser. When a piece of information stands alone, it is easily forgotten. But when you connect it with other information, it suddenly becomes more memorable.
Take for example you meet a guy and he tells you he is 23 years old, then says nothing further. Your memory of him is reinforced by how he sounded, his clothes, hairstyle and perhaps handshake. But if he also tells you that his Mum is a widow, and he had gone to college in Boston, you might actually take all these pieces of information, form even more associations and once you meet him, you’d be able to recall him better than if he had not shared the additional information.
If you’re good at quick wins, you might miss out the opportunity and the grounding to get the harder wins. So when the quick wins are exhausted, you find yourself poorly positioned to make any further wins.
It’s been a long time since the previous entry; ERPZ have been very active with posts in the month of November generally but kind of stalled this moment. I’ve not written about studying techniques for a while now and I’m hoping to revisit it. Today’s topic is somewhat related to memorizing stuff, something I almost never dwell on because I believe that when you understand something, you won’t have to memorize it to remember it; the associations made in your brains when things you already know would help you anchor new concepts firmly in your mind. These associations can only be made because you understand the concepts.
The reality is that there might be many things that are not about understanding but pure memory. Alternatively, understanding may only come with exposure to an unrealistic amount of facts that would have to be remembered anyways. When that happens, we have to resort to ‘memorizing’; a process we normally understand as ‘getting stuff into the brain’. The question is how things normally enter our minds. The mind is a closed system which receives information only through the neurons and these cells in turn, receive the information they’re transmitting through the sensory organs. In other words, our senses are the ultimate gateway to the mind and thus our memory.
Yet when we study, we often overtax our visual sense as we task it to commit things we read into memory. For some audio learners, reading out chunks of text may help but people rarely attempt to go beyond the visual-audio means of learning. There’s more to our senses than our eyes and ears; our skin, our muscles can all work in sync with our eyes and ears help us to remember things. There is a reason why big events tend to stick to our minds more than small events – those events are big because they arouse more of our senses, we see, smell, hear, anticipate, feel through our skin and react to them through our muscles and thoughts. That’s why it’s so hard to remember a chunk of exchanges perhaps in Macbeth if one don’t feel for the characters or comprehend the context of the story in the first place (insufficient arousal to our senses). The principle of having more information to anchor new ideas works the same – understanding the circumstances where a poem was written and the background of a poet naturally helps you remember the poem better (not to mention the rhymes and choice of words which are designed to introduce patterns that our minds can recognise more easily and thus recall).
Thus, to help yourself memorize stuff, pick up things that help arouse more of your senses: read aloud as you look through your notes, process them in your mind and write them in more concise or condensed forms on a piece of paper all at the same time. This way, you remember the words you read, the things your hear, the different reactions your mind produce to the things you read and the muscle actions involved in penning down the concise form of the things you’re trying to remember. You may not progress as fast in terms of covering content when you do this compared to just plain reading, but the effect of memory is so significant you will soon realize that multiple reading of the same material is no longer justified with such intense ‘memorizing’. In tech speak, the amount of bandwidth each senses can offer as a gateway to the mind is limited and to expand this bandwidth and thus increase retention in our mind, there’s a need to use other channels, other senses.
To reinforce the stuff ‘memorized’, one could use mindmaps to surface connections between the things read and absorb after the studying process I prescribed above. The mindmap is to help you see more clearly the big picture of the disparate information you’ve been trying to take in. It reviews things you’ve learnt and bring to your attention some stuff you might have missed out and have to relook. The mindmap can be tossed aside after use (I recommend just trashing it) since its use is limited once it’s satisfactorily formed.
This article might be a little too late considering people are almost done with O Levels and A Levels now but hopefully, students who are still studying and moving on to higher level educations would find this useful.
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