Memory is the generative, interactive, ongoing mental process of retaining and recalling knowledge or experiences. A student’s ability to use and manipulate his/her memory greatly influences the learning process.
There are three components of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. Sensory memory (SM) holds information for about 20-30 seconds. After this time it is lost unless it is stored in short-term memory. Short-term memory (STM) holds information temporarily. Long-term memory (LTM) involves permanent information storage.
The memory system is located in the brain and the brain stem, at the top of the spinal cord. It is commonly known that different portions of the brain perform different memory functions. The brain stem and temporal lobes are involved in registering memory. Different types of memories are located in specific parts of the brain. Because the memory system is made of brain tissue, your memory performance is directly affected by the state of your brain. Poor health, fatigue, malnourishment, and substance abuse can all lead to poor memory performance.
When memory fails us, it does so in one of three ways. It can fail to register something initially in memory. It can fail to retain over time what was successfully registered. It can fail to remember something, despite successful registration and retention. The former is often called “pseudo-forgetting” because the information was never really known in the first place.
The single most important aspect for improving memory performance is the process of attention. The likelihood that information in working memory will be absorbed depends on how intensely we pay attention to the information in working memory. A good memory requires the ability to set a high level of attention for all tasks and to control the distribution of attention.
Effective memory is the ability to produce the right information at the right time. There are some basic principles for improving your memory.
Be organized – Information that is organized is easier to find.
- Learn from the general to the specific. Get a broad overview of a subject before you begin to learn the details. Skim your entire textbook at the beginning of the term. Look over the reading assignment before you read it. Take time to get to know the big picture. The details will be easier to recall.
- Make it meaningful. Relate what you learn to your goals. We all learn more effectively when it has meaning to our lives. Know what your rewards are and then connect these rewards to your goals. When you want something, you can remember it. Be specific.
- Create associations. When new data is introduced, you will be able to recall it more effectively if it is stored near similar or related data. Fit new material in with what you already know. If you have to remember many details, you can gather them all together and create a common association. One way to do that is to create a story or song that strings several details into one image.
Be physical – Learning is an active process. Get all of your senses involved.
- Learn it once, actively. Most learning, especially in higher education, takes place in a passive setting. The environment is quiet and subdued. You are sitting down. Create an atmosphere of activity where you study. Sit down, stand up, make gestures when reciting material, pace, or use your hands. Keep yourself active and interested.
- Visualize relationships. Draw pictures of the things you want to learn. Draw diagrams. Make cartoons. Use mental visualization to connect a series of facts. Create action. Make pictures vivid. Turn abstract ideas into concrete actions.
- Recite and Repeat. Recitation works the best for most people. When you want to remember something, say it aloud. Recitation works best when you put concepts you want to remember into your own words. Recite and repeat.
Be clear – You can reduce the background noise that your own brain creates and improve your ability to recall.
- Reduce interference. Turn off the TV and your cell phone. Find a quiet place that is free from distractions. Study your most difficult subjects during your peak energy time. This is the time of day that you are able to concentrate most effectively.
- Overlearn. Learn more about a subject than you have to. One effect of overlearning is that knowledge begins to grow. Immerse yourself.
- Be aware of attitudes. Your attitudes about a subject can affect your ability to recall. Take responsibility for your attitudes. Notice them.
Be smart – Intelligent application of memory techniques can save work. You can work with your memory, not against it.
- Distribute learning. Marathon study sessions are not effective. Take regular breaks. If you find yourself completely engrossed, go with it.
- Remember something else. When you can’t remember something you know you know, remember something else that is related. Similar information is stored in the same area of the brain.
- Combine memory techniques. All of these memory techniques work. They work even better in combination with each other. Experiment to find out what works for you.