As humans, we exercise the most powerful machine of recall on the planet, with a memory capacity that far exceeds any modern-day hard drive. When faced with the challenge of assimilating new information, the human brain goes through a specific method of cognitive processing. All input is stored initially in short-term memory, but this piece of our processing is like a small bucket, constantly overflowing and losing facts under a deluge of information and sensation.
Studies indicate short-term memory can hold up to 7 items for only twenty seconds at a time. Extensive research into learning strategies in the past few decades have enabled scientists to identify a few methods that ensure your brain will hold onto and remember the factual items you process. Most of the following are simple methods that you can use independently or combine to improve your ability to learn and retain important information.
Strategy 1: Write It Down
This method, confirmed by a Princeton study in 2014, is based on the research that indicates our brains are much more likely to remember information that we physically write down as opposed to simple auditory processing or even typing electronic notes.
Because the physical act of writing utilizes different areas of the brain, it gives our memories more points of reference when we seek to recall that information. The tactile sensation of pushing against the paper is an important component of this strategy, as well as the speed in which we are able to take written notes. Scientists found that the slower pace of writing required students to reorganize information in smaller, shorter phrases that proved to be advantageous over electronic note takers, who were more likely to produce notes verbatim, but also less likely to remember the increasing amount of detail.
Strategy 2: Use Mnemonics
This is a strategy that has risen in popularity in recent years and studies have supported its ability to increase memory performance. Mnemonics involve consolidating a larger piece of information or a complex idea into a simpler phrase or sentence, where key points of the concept are usually represented by a corresponding letter that begins the first word of the idea being recalled. For instance, a mnemonic for the scientific method might be ” Quick (Q= Question) Rabbits (R=Research) Hover (H=Hypothesis) Everywhere (E=Experiment) Chewing (C=Collect Data) Giant (G=Graph/Analyze Data) Cabbages (C=Conclusion).” The Center for Research on Learning reports that students who employed this method before exams received test grades that increased from an average of 51 percent to 85 percent.
Strategy 3: Create Visual Organizers
Teachers have long noted the appeal of this method, specifically for younger learners. The use of visual imagery in note taking has the ability to cement ideas in the brain that enable the memory to work more easily off association, like a kind of shorthand. This mind mapping, if done well, can create a vast web of concepts tied to a particular image in the learner’s mind and is effective for those who are more active learners. It also, by default, utilizes the same tactile sensations as the strategy of producing notes by hand and can even employ mnemonics as an additional advantage for recall.
Strategy 4: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
While the effectiveness of this method has been under fire in recent years, it is still a preferred strategy for many learners. The brain is more likely to remember information it sees repeatedly. But there are a few ways to enhance this fairly simple tactic, including auditory methods like repetitive songs or chants that utilize mnemonics or an approach called spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition, championed by language learning icon Paul Pimsleur, involves repeating exposure to information at increasingly longer intervals of time. Initially, when seeking to learn something, it helps to repeat frequently. But as time goes on, spacing the repetition out a few hours and then a few days between can result in better recall over longer periods of time. It’s like endurance conditioning for your memory.
Strategy 5: Get Some Sleep
You’ve probably seen the research that suggests sleep is necessary to cement our memories and keep the integrity of information we learn intact. While we rest, our brains are quietly categorizing a vast trove of items in our memories, sorting and prioritizing so that information can be pulled up with ease when the need arises.
A study in Germany in 2011 suggested that our ability to learn information is enhanced directly before we sleep. To take advantage of this method, try to read and review notes immediately before drifting off. Our minds have a habit of holding onto the last thing we do or see before sleep and this phenomena can work in your favor when seeking to learn something new.