It is the beginning of the academic year. It will soon be time to slog it out with those never ending chapters, long notes and innumerable details to know and remember. I wish to share with you few ways that could make our efforts more effective and worthwhile.
The mechanisms I will now describe are well established in the area of “Cognitive psychology”, with several researches corroborating their effect. We may all know them intuitively; however, they could slip our minds when we’re stressed out thinking about how to cover a mammoth syllabus in no time. While the first one is about how we feed in information to our brain, the second one pertains to what information we are trying to learn.
SEMANTIC ENCODING – LEARNING BY ‘MEANING’
An experiment conducted by Craik & Tulving (1975) revealed that people who tried to recall a list of words did much better when they thought about word meanings compared to when they thought about rhyming words. What they found was that the kind of rehearsal – rote versus elaborate, made a significant difference to both ease and accuracy of recall.
Extrapolating this to study material, think about this: a child repeats to himself several times – “the sun is a star, the sun is a star, the sun is a star…”. Let us further presume that he was unable to revise that chapter before the exam. He could well make a mistake and write – “the star is a sun.”
Rote rehearsal in this case would cause the child to recall ‘sun’ when he thinks of ‘star’ and ‘star’ when he thinks of ‘sun’. Even so, the child has no way of knowing how ‘sun’ and star’ are related through rote learning. Learning by meaning on the other hand entails that the child understands that a star refers to the entire group of celestial bodies that emit light. Therefore, the sun has to be but one star. Once he understands this, he would probably remember this for a long time to come even without last minute brush-ups.
Let’s understand a little more about how learning by meaning enhances memory. The more you think about meaning, more the number of associations that are made in the brain, improving memory. A simple example would be – thinking about the meaning of ‘cap’ makes it connect with several other concepts like ‘head’, ‘heat’, ‘protection’, ‘cloth’ and so on. More the number of such associations, stronger the memory.
Big words, simple concept. Imagine you have just mugged a phone number up temporarily. Just as you reach out to the phone, your friend who is talking on his cell phone reads out another number. What is likely to happen? The number you had learnt instantly exits your memory. This is an example of ‘retroactive inhibition’. Proactive and retroactive inhibition refers to a phenomenon where information learnt just before and after a piece of information ‘A’ can impact memory for ‘A’.
The message: try not to learn very similar concepts one after the other, especially if you are learning them for the first time. It is not a good idea for example, to study about the architecture of five temples altogether, or study about the nervous, respiratory and digestive systems successively. Introduce variety. Study a different subject, or a completely different chapter, for eg., on plant biology maybe.
This is also why cramming in new information just before examinations is ineffective. Our brains need time to form consolidated memory traces of newly learnt material. Learning long stretches of similar information greatly hampers this process leading to difficulty in recall, or ‘blank-outs’.
These are but a couple of mechanisms that could improve memory. However, they are two fundamental building blocks in the process of learning.
Post contributed by: Malini Krishnan (Psychologist, Inner Space, 2010-Present).