Learning to remember

‘White founts falling in the Courts of the sun, and the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run.” I shot the first couplet of Chesterton’s Lepanto at my old friend. And he responded with a word-perfect quatrain. No, we didn’t remember every line, but we made a fair attempt at a poem we had learnt in class well over 60 years ago. Long-term memory.

Revision and recall are topics which make the student of any age sigh with tedium. Out with those notes we made so long ago; out with the textbooks or the internet pages which have faded in our memory. And then the midnight hour when our lucubrations strive to push back into the skull information that has been leaking out from our memories for weeks. And of course it is much too late.

Fortunately scientific investigations have discovered many factors which relieve the difficulties of revision: unfortunately few are taught these – and even fewer put them into practice.

Here is a question. Imagine two groups both of which were taught the same material in a lecture. Group A was tested the same day and group B was tested a day later. Both groups were re-tested to discover the amount of material retained two months later. Which of the two groups have remembered most?

Interestingly, not only did Group A retain about six times as much as Group B but, after 63 days, it retained nearly twice as much as Group B retained on the day following the lecture itself. So revision is less about work than about timing. Yet too many of us are inclined to leave all revision to the very last moment when we could save ourselves trouble and greatly improve our memories by revising at the first moment.

Tony Buzan, whose Use Your Head (BBC) is my bible in such matters, suggests that the most efficient routine is to revise about 10 minutes after the original study, then a day later, a week later and a month later. By that time the learning should be in the long-term memory.

The precise ways in which memories work have not been fully established. But the distinction between short- and long-term memory is useful. I think of short-term memory as a slightly leaky bucket. Its capacity is small – perhaps three to six items – and I have to get these into the reservoir of long-term memory before the items have leaked away or have been replaced by new items of information.

There are simple ways of nudging the items into the long-term memory. The easiest is repetition. Another method is finding an association. I am bad at recalling names but I remember the name of our cleaner, Marta, (because she is a “martyr” to her work).

But revision, on the sort of schedule Buzan suggests, has little value unless you work with the material you are trying to remember. That is the best means of employing the long-term memory.

Suppose that I am trying to revise some material that I learned about the Church and slavery. No, I don’t look at my notes. What I do first is to scribble down on rough paper what I can remember. In this way I reconstruct knowledge in a way that strongly bolsters recall. So my list might start with “Aristotle, Paul and slavery, Wilberforce, Jesuits in Maryland” and so on. Only then do I look at my notes. I know that re-discovering what I have forgotten or remembered incorrectly will drive the right memories deeper. I am also inclined to give a lecture on any subject I am revising to an imaginary audience, before I look at the notes. But you need to be an egoist like me to do that.

Either way, the experts are clear that continuing to reconstruct the information through frequently attempting to recall it is the most effective technique for successful revision.

Some instructors will administer a brief tick-box questionnaire at the end of a period of instruction. This in itself acts as revision, and so is advantageous. It is enhanced, by the way, by the instructor signalling the test in advance, and so giving the student a motivation for higher attention. A similar effect would be achieved by two friends agreeing to quiz each other about 10 minutes after the instruction.

A further disadvantage of leaving revision until the last moment is that panic leads to long hours of weary work. But, as in all learning, the level of attention is maintained by working for short periods, say 30 minutes, and then having a little break. This aids attention and gives an opportunity for reviewing the revision. And I emphasise again that using different, active, methods of revision beats by a long way re-reading notes until the eyes blur. Remember that good sleep enables the memory to store important information effectively – so long nights studying are counterproductive.

But you may say that you no longer have a need to study like this. Perhaps not, but you almost certainly have a friend or a relative who needs it. Will their instructors have taught them how to revise? Possibly, but when I made a professional audiotape on the issue some years back several teachers told me that they themselves were ignorant of the available research.

I have confined this column to a few key points. But I trust that many of you have experience of teaching and instruction. So do share your ideas with us here. You may well be helping someone pass an exam they would otherwise have failed.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Learning to remember

  1. Gerry says:

    Oh, if only I had read this 70 years ago. I have two – or is it three? – books on how to have a high-powered memory, including Tony Buzan’s, but they came too late. One saving fact is that if one is very interested in a subject the information tends to remain.

    • Horace says:

      I am struck by Gerry’s comment ” . . if one is very interested in a subject the information tends to remain”.
      When I was about 11 years old I remember reading one of my school reports which said “works well at anything which interests him”. This was intended as a reproof but I decided to take it as advice (and rely on my teachers to ensure that I absorbed the necessary minimum of knowledge of subjects which did not particularly interest me – Latin and French grammar for example – this was, of course, a time when corporal punishment was the norm and I came in for my fair share of it ! ).
      Even today (70 years later) I still think that this is good advice.

  2. claret says:

    Years ago I read a book called ‘Remembering Names’ by Harry Lorrayne. he also a guest on a TV chat show and his ‘party trick’ was to accurately remember all the names of those in the audience after just one introduction to them before the show began.
    His techniques were quite simple but what I recall the most is that when we are introduced to a group of people for the first time that we give up on recalling their names without even trying because we deem it too difficult ! Hence we miss out on giving a person the courtesy of the thing that is most important to them. Their names.
    Inmates in the Nazi concentration camps had their names taken away from them as soon as they entered the camps to be replaced by a number. It de-humanised them from the outset.

  3. John Candido says:

    When you stop and think about it, learning to learn is a very important piece of information for everybody, regardless of whether you are a student or not. I think it would be a very good idea if the best information from the latest research on this issue, were regularly presented to students at the start of the year in class, as well as their school’s webpage. Making this information available to everyone and at all times is very important. You cannot beat having minds of any age operating at the top of their potential.

  4. st.joseph says:

    My late husband and I were always amazed at our son who could only study with headphones on listening to music. On the other hand our daughter needed complete silence in her bedroom!. They both did well in exams.
    My youngest grandson has an excellant memory,he has the ability to draw something in every detail by just looking at it for a short time-he is only 7, and amazes his teachers at times.My daughter was called into the Headmistress’s office one morning when he was 5 and she thought ‘what has he done wrong’, but he had drawn a picture of a big dalmation dog from a picture on the wall and every detail and spots in the right place ,in fact it was as if it had been traced.So I suppose that does help in
    learning. in reading writing spelling and maths, he is very advanced for his age.maybe because of his memory, or having two older brothers 20 and 18, who do help him a lot.

  5. JohnBunting says:

    I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with mathematics. It interests me, and I can happily spend some time on a maths problem, but I am bad in exams, when working against the clock. When I discussed this with a friend who has a degree in maths, she said, “Ah, you were obviously not well taught”. There may have been some truth in this, but eventually it seemed to me that my difficulty was not so much in grasping mathematical ideas, but rather in becoming fluent in using mathematical formulae and symbols. The process is analogous to learning a foreign language: you can’t read, write or speak it fluently until you have some familiarity with its structure, idioms and vocabulary; and this is especially true in exams, where you can’t just refer to a textbook for anything you’ve failed to remember!

  6. John Nolan says:

    When I was at school we had to memorize quite a lot. Apart from Latin declensions and conjugations, and French irregular verbs, when I was 11 we had an English master(whose eccentricities would nowadays have secured his dismissal) who made us learn the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by heart. Prep would be to learn three or four stanzas, which we would then have to write out in class, word and punctuation perfect. As a result I have a lifelong love of English poetry.

    I liked exams and was good at them, but always used to cram at the last moment. As a result I have forgotten more than I ever learned, yet I still remember nearly all of the vocabulary, and quite a lot of the grammar, of the French and German I was taught at school. Lately I have been teaching modern languages rather than my real subject (history) and am amazed at how poor modern children are at remembering anything; what they learn one year they have forgotten the next. This is partly due to a teaching methodology that despised rote learning, but it is so easy to ‘look things up’ these days that our memories are becoming untrained.

    In a less literate and certainly pre-internet age memory was more imortant. The whole corpus of Gregorian Chant had to be memorized because when it was composed there was no musical notation, and even in the late Middle Ages in English cathedrals antiphoners were not allowed in choir, so that the choristers would have perforce to learn the melodies.

  7. Quentin says:

    Here’s a little memory party trick. If you don’t know it, give it a try — you may be surprised. The purpose is to remember, say, 10 diverse objects and the order that they are in.

    All you need to do for preparation is to remember a simple rhyming pattern. Here we go: 1/gun, 2/shoe, 3/tree, 4/door, 5/dive, 6/sticks, 7/heaven, eight/gate, 9/wine, 10/hen.

    Right, now you need your 10 objects. Take each one in turn and get a picture into your imagination. For example, if the first object is an elephant, then your picture might be a huge gun actually firing an elephant out of its muzzle. If the second was, say, a violin, you would imagine putting on a shoe and finding a violin inside it. And so on. The odder the picture the more it helps. You will find that not only can you remember each object but if you are asked to name object number 5 etc, you will be able to do so.

    Here are ten objects with which to practise:

    computer, tree, germ, motorcar, desk, mouse, scissors, dictionary, eye, pelvis.

    How did you do?

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