Memory Training—an Overview


Most of us believe we have poor memories because we forget schoolwork so quickly, but as we read in The Curve of Forgetting chapter, this is not necessarily the case.  Most of our academic “forgetfulness” is the fault of how we use our memory.  Items touched once or twice simply will not “stick” in our memory for very long--this is a chemical fact of the brain.


What we do know is that we have an almost unlimited supply of free space (available locations) in our brains for memory storage.  By following certain steps and understanding certain principles, we can maximize our study time and improve our recall.








The most important step in memorizing anything is to ORGANIZE the material, so it is meaningful and usable to your mind.  Organization is not new to us; we use it constantly in our daily lives.  Organization tells us to look for the toothbrush in the bathroom and the motor oil in the garage—this is organization by location.  Other ways of organizing our world include using the alphabet for the phone book and our common sense—socks in the socks drawer, silverware in the kitchen.  Supermarkets are models of organization with the bread in one aisle and the milk products in another, not scattered throughout the store.  So we already have a “feel” for organization.


Proper ORGANIZATION simply means putting things that go together, together--putting items that belong together in a single group.  Our use of “tinkertoy” sketches throughout the quarter is an example of this.  We’ll explore the “Box and Label Method” a bit later to get a good example of grouping.


Note: the opposite of proper organization is trying to memorize by rote.  Rote information is random; it is not organized in a useful way.  The shopping list we used in class tried to use rote memorization.   Sometimes, though, memorizing something by rote cannot be avoided.  Students who begin studying a foreign language need to use rote memorization to store initial vocabulary words.






Many of us think that if we hear or see something in a lecture or book, we will automatically store the information in our memory.  Not so—at least not in a way we can easily retrieve it when needed.  Focused memory doesn’t work if it’s not turned on and alert, so create a mental “Memory Switch,” which can be some saying or action that turns on our focused memory.


Here’s how it works:  Let assume you have decided to use the saying, “I want to remember this,” as your memory switch.  While in a lecture, you hear an important term and definition.  Immediately say to yourself, “I want to remember this,” and then immediately repeat the term and definition to yourself.  This action helps record the information in focused rather than general memory.  Try it with names, too.  When you first meet a person, listen for his or her name.  When you hear it, say silently, “I want to remember this.”  Then look at the person’s face and immediately repeat the name to yourself.  This gives you a good start to remembering.


Another example of a Memory Switch is to imagine you have a special camcorder in your mind.  When you sit in a lecture or study a textbook, imagine your finger is poised on the “pause-record” button and pay attention.  When you hear or read something you want to store, visualize yourself pushing the “record” button and then silently repeat what it is you want to store in your camcorder’s memory.  Then imagine yourself pressing “pause” as you listen or read for the next key point.


So remember, we have a general memory that we use day-to-day.  New items easily flush out of this part of memory.  To avoid this happening to course work, create and use a “memory switch.”






Use Association


“Association” simply means sticking new ideas to things we already know.  When hearing a new term, definition, and example, work hard to think of something in your own experience that is similar—that you can “associate” it with.  Take for example our Classical Conditioning “Pavlov, dog, meat scent, bell” example.  Is there any time in your experience where you have used this technique (or where this technique has been used on you)?  Instead of using Pavlov and his dog to store this example in your memory, try to associate it with (link it to) your own experience.  Perhaps you’ve trained your pet to respond to a stimulus (say, jump when you hold your hand up or beg when you take out its supper bowl)—if so, you can “associate” or link Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning to your experience.




Use Your Imagination


Your imagination is a wonderful memory tool, so use it.  Instead of thinking of Pavlov conditioning his dog as described in a textbook, close your eyes,  imagine yourself in a white lab coat, imagine a specific dog in front of you, panting for a treat.  Continue with you ringing a bell (make it gold with a red handle), spray the meat scent (let’s imagine a yellow container) and see the saliva drip from the dog’s mouth.  As you imagine this scenario, say to yourself, “This is Classical Conditioning” to label the imaginary event.




Use Your Senses


We humans are sensory creatures; all that we know about our world we learn through our senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight.  So use your senses to memorize information.  Our “tinkertoy” sketches are sensory experiences because we are using our pen or pencil (touch) and our eyes (sight) to draw the relationships.  As we label our “tinkertoy” sketch, we could say the label names out loud.  This would employ a third sense—hearing—and would give us even a better chance of remembering the sketch.


We can also use our senses in our imaginations.  Let’s go back again to imagining that you are conditioning your pet like Pavlov conditioned his dog.  As you imagine this scenario, really hear the bell when your ring it, feel your finger push the button on the meat scent spray, smell the meat scent as it fills the air, and see the dog’s mouth water.



Use The Box and Label Technique


Let’s say we want to remember these nine items:


calendar, wrench, cup, stamps, coffee pot, pen, motor oil, napkin, and hammer


The problem is they are not in an organized order, and if we tried to memorize them in this order, we would be forced to use “rote” memorization or parrot learning—not a good option.












So let’s box and label them in a logical way:



Motor oil















We can see the advantage to this: now we have three groups to memorize and the groupings make sense.  So whenever you have groups of items to memorize, put like items in a box, label the box, and practice opening and unpacking the box.


On scratch paper, write


    Office                           Garage/shop                Kitchen

   __________                __________                __________                           

   __________                __________                __________                           

   __________                __________                __________                           


                          and then practice unpacking each box (filling the blanks).


Note how easily we could box and label each “tinkertoy” sketch we make.



Use Catchwords and Catchphrases

(Please see the next lesson)





How does one “practice smart”?  Let’s return to The Curve of Forgetting advice.  These were a few of the rules we read:


Rule 3:  Study in Question/Answer format.  Studying in this format means that you immediately begin learning the information in the way a test will ask it.  Remember--it is possible to learn the right information in the wrong way and fail a test.



Rule 4: Use FLASHCARDS when possible:  Put any information you can on flashcards--term or question on the front of the card with the definition or answer on the back.  Remember to put only one term, question, idea, or list on a card.  Flashcards automatically show you information in question/answer format.  In addition, flashcards are very portable--you can take them with you everywhere and use those 5 to 10 minute free periods in each day to quiz yourself.


Rule 5:  The very best way (perhaps the only way) to learn anything well is to trickle it in to your mind in little bites or brief intervals over a period of time.  Lots of bites with a breaks in between.


I have noticed that many students overestimate how well they have prepared for an upcoming exam.  Many students assume that two or three times through the material will be enough to serve them well during the test. 


Lots is wrong with this assumption: 


First, two or three times through the material is very rarely enough to really implant it in our memories.  My advice: at least DOUBLE the number of practice sessions you are used to.  (Hopefully the number is not zero).  In other words, if you feel five times through the material will prepare you for a test, go through the material at least ten times.  If you think ten times will do it, trickle it in twenty times.  The more touches the better.  When you get sick of practicing, practice some more.


Another reason that two or three times through the material are not enough is that this limited practice will not compensate for the stress you may encounter when the actual test hits your desk.  Stress can do really funny things to humans and we will explore it further when we learn how to take tests.  But for now, just remember that stress can temporarily lock down your memory.  That’s right—you can recall every answer as you practice before the test, and then temporarily forget those very same answers during the test.  That’s what stress can do.  The antidote to this is overlearning—practice until you are sick of it and then practice some more.




The twenty minutes or so before we go to sleep is a wonderful time to review material, so keep your flashcards by your nightstand.  In addition, studying a problem that confuses you (a math problem is a good example) just before you go to sleep allows your subconscious mind to sort it out while you are asleep.  I can remember several instances when I “slept on” a concept or problem that confused me only to be able to figure it out the next day.