Memory and related learning principles

The Principles of Short-Term and Long-Term Memory. This principle of long-term memory may well be at work when you recite or write the ideas and facts that you read. As you recite or write you are holding each idea in mind for the four or five seconds that are needed for the temporary memory to be converted into a permanent one. In other words, the few minutes that it takes for you to review and think about what you are trying to learn is the minimum length of time that neuroscientists believe is necessary to allow thought to go into a lasting, more easily retrievable memory.

Recognition is an easier stage of memory than the recall stage. For example, in an examination, it is much easier to recognize an answer to a question if five options are listed, than to recall the answer without the options listed. But getting beyond just recognizing the correct answer when you see it is usually necessary for long-term memory, for the more we can recall about information the better we usually remember it.

Understanding New Material. First and most important, you must make sure that you understand new material before trying to remember it. A good technique to ensure understanding is to recite or write the author's ideas in your own words. If you cannot, then you do not understand them. The conclusion: you cannot remember what you do not understand. In other words, you cannot form a clear and correct memory trace from a fuzzy, poorly understood concept.

In the classroom, do not hesitate to ask the instructor to explain further a point that is not clear to you. If the point is unclear to you, there is a good chance that it is unclear to others, so you will not be wasting anyone's time. Furthermore, most instructors appreciate the opportunity to answer questions.

Getting it right the first time. We have learned that all remembering depends on forming an original, clear neural trace in the brain in the first place. These initial impressions are vitally important because the mind clings just as tenaciously to incorrect impressions as it does to correct impressions. Then we have to unlearn and relearn. Incorrect information is so widespread that Mark Twain once wrote, "Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned."

Evaluate the Learning. Another way to improve retention is through evaluation. After you have studied, work the matter over in your mind. Examine and analyze it; become familiar with it like a friend. Use comparison or contrast: how is this topic like or different from related topics? If the learning concerns things conjectural, do you tend to agree or disagree? Are there aspects of the subject which you can criticize? Analytical thinking encourages you to consider the matter from various aspects and this kind of mental manipulation makes you more knowledgeable. For all these reasons, recall is significantly improved.

The Principle of Over learning.

After you have recited a lesson long enough to say it perfectly, if you continue reciting it a few times more, you will over learn it. A well known psychologist and researcher, Ebbinghaus, has reported that each additional recitation (after you really know the material) engraves the mental trace deeper and deeper, thus establishing a base for long-term retention. For many people over learning is difficult to practice because, by the time they achieve bare mastery, there is little time left and they are eager to drop the subject and go on to something else. But reciting the material even just one more time significantly increases retention, so try to remember this and utilize the technique when you can.

The Principle of Recitation

There is no principle that is more important or more effective than recitation for transferring material from the short-term memory to the long-term memory. For one thing, you are obviously in the process of repeating the information. Recitation can take several forms -- thinking about it, writing it out, or saying it out loud. "Thinking about it" is potentially the least effective because it gives us the least amount of reinforcement since writing or speaking involve more electrical muscle movement messages to the brain which are known to increase mental response and recording. Vocal, "out loud" recitation is usually the most effective single technique for review because it employs more of the senses than any other review technique (utilizing both auditory and vocal senses.) If, for example, when reviewing your notes immediately after class the reviewing is done by vocal recitation, you will not only be consolidating the new information but also strengthening the neural traces made to your brain.

What is recitation? Recitation is simply saying aloud the ideas that you want to remember. For example, after you have gathered your information in note form and have categorized and clustered your items, you recite them. Here's how: you cover your notes, then recite aloud the covered material. After reciting, expose the notes and check for accuracy. You should not attempt to recite the material word for word; rather your reciting should be in the words and manner that you would ordinarily use if you were explaining the material to a friend. When you can say it, then you know it. (This is why it is best NOT to recite directly from the text.)

How recitation works. Recitation transfers material to the secondary or long-term memory. While you are reading the words in a sentence or paragraph, the primary memory (short-term memory) holds them in mind long enough for you to gain the sense of the sentence or paragraph. However, the primary memory has a very limited capacity, and as you continue to read, you displace the words and ideas of the initial paragraphs with the words of subsequent paragraphs. This is one reason for not remembering everything in the first part of the chapter by the time we reach the end of the chapter when we read continually without taking a break or taking time to review what we have already read.

It is only when we recite or contemplate the idea conveyed by a sentence or paragraph that the idea has a chance (not guaranteed) of moving on into the secondary memory (a long-term storage facility).

All verbal information goes first into the primary memory (short-term memory). When it is rehearsed (recited), part of it goes into our secondary (long-term) memory. The rest of it, usually the part we are least interested in, returns to the primary memory and is then forgotten.

Whether new information is "stored" or "dumped" depends, then, on our reciting it out loud and on our interest in the information.

After this number of days The amount remembered by students who did no review was The amount remembered by students who reviewed was
7 33% 83%
63 14% 70%

Remembering. As a student, one of your main concerns is to retain old learning's while you continue to acquire new ones. Do we remember more when we begin to study a subject or after we already know something about it? According to several recent studies, learning which involves memorization of a unit of material begins slowly, then goes faster, and finally levels off. In other words, the amount learned per unit of time is small at first, then increases, and then becomes small again. This finding contrasts with older studies which showed that learning was rapid at first, then became slower until it leveled off.

Even though a person continues to study, he may expect to encounter periods when there seems to be little or no gain. Such plateaus in learning may be due to several causes such as fatigue, loss of interest, or diminishing returns from using the same inefficient methods. Another explanation of plateaus is that they represent pauses between stages of understanding; when the student acquires a new insight, he can move on. Sometimes the lower stage of an understanding or a skill may actually interfere with progress to a higher level. For example, learning to read by individual letters of the alphabet interferes with learning to read by words. Learning to read word-by-word delays reading by phrases or sentences.

The important thing is to recognize that plateaus or periods of slow learning are inevitable, and they should not discourage the student unduly. Learning may still be taking place, but at a slower pace. Recognizing that he is at a plateau, the student should first try to analyze and improve his study methods, if possible. Sometimes, however, an incorrect mental set may be interfering with the necessary perception of new relationships. Sometimes slow learning may simply be due to fatigue. In either of these circumstances the most efficient procedure may be to drop the activity temporarily and return to it later, after a good night's rest.

The rate at which a student learns depends upon his learning ability, but slow learners remember just as well as fast learners, provided that they have learned the material equally well. The reason a bright student may do better on examinations is that he has learned the subject matter more effectively within the time available. But if a slower student spends enough time on his studies, he can retain every bit as much as the faster student. Fortunately, there is evidence that both rate of learning and rate of retention can be improved with practice.

The Principle of Neuro-Transmitter Depletion

Often students study or attempt to read for too long a period of time without stopping for a rest break. B.F. Skinner and other experts have concluded that the average student cannot usually study really difficult material efficiently for more than about four hours a day. Then efficiency and memory begin to suffer. Research shows that the average student cannot study effectively on the same subject for more than about four consecutive hours, even with short breaks every hour. What occurs is what is referred to as The Principle of Neuro-Transmitter Depletion. Neuro-scientists have developed techniques to monitor activity (usually defined as electrical impulses) and chemical changes in the brain during study or thought processing. If one studies the same subject too long, fatigue, boredom, sometimes slight disorientation may occur. It is a common result of too much consecutive study when even the most simple concept begins not to make sense any longer. The monitoring of brain activity and chemical changes indicate that studying too long results in a depletion of chemicals in the brain cells necessary for efficient processing of information. Therefore, for effective consolidation of material into memory storage, take frequent breaks (at least 10 minutes every hour) and do not attempt to deal with really difficult material for more than about four hours a day, and do not study any easier subject area (even with breaks) for more than four consecutive hours.

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