Having a tough time learning new concepts? In this article we’ll boost your learning capacity with eleven bullet-proof techniques for improving memory: chunking, transfer of learning, memory palace, funny imagery, peg system, eliminate unrelated associations, explain to others; study with others, put yourself in the picture, use mechanical aids, use your passion, and learn from the past.

Chunking

You can remember more if you chunk, but what is chunking, and how do we form chunks? Because short-term memory is so limited, the way that we can get more information through to the long-term storage warehouse is by connecting little bits of information until they become larger chunks. There is a trick, though: the little bits have to be meaningful connections, or the whole thing collapses. Chunking came to be part of memory study years ago when researchers studied chess experts. What they found was that the ability to have readily accessible “chunks” – more significant insights into game strategy than a single move – was what characterised the play of the winners.

An example of chunking can be seen when your new friend shouts out her telephone number as her train pulls away from the station; this is often about ten digits, depending on where you live. If each digit is “just a number”, you may struggle to remember it for more than a few seconds, as it probably entered your sensory memory from the auditory sense.

But let’s say it’s a landline number (meaning a two-digit area code and eight further digits in Australia) and let’s say the area code and first four digits of the exchange are the same as your own. That means that, with chunking, you suddenly are able to reduce those ten digits – read: ten memory slots required to six: one slot of your memory is filled with the area code, containing two digits, and the second slot is filled with the exchange number, containing four digits. But these two slots plus the remaining four digits, each occupying one slot, will still strain your short-term memory.

What to do? Further chunking

Let’s say your friend said that the last four digits are 4532, which you recall is the same sequence as an old address of yours. Now you can “chunk” the last four digits, reducing them to a single slot. So, where you started with ten digits/slots needed – let’s say 0738634532 – you now have three: my area code + my exchange + my old address. Easy! In fact, you probably further chunk the area code and exchange down to a single slot called, “The same number as mine” And you will still have several slots left for other bits of data!

The idea is to create larger and larger chunks, and increasing numbers of chunks, in our mental library. Dancers and athletes do this as they string together various individual moves into sequences which they can access in a moment’s notice. With academic learning, we can learn to form ever-longer ribbons of material which contain vast amounts of individual data, woven together in our minds by either personal or subject-relevant connections.

Transfer of learning

Our working memories would all go crazy if we didn’t employ the strategy of transfer at least to some degree. What we want to be able to do is to use it fully and consciously. Transfer involves learning a chunk in one field and then applying (transferring) it to another situation/field. For example, if you learn Spanish as a second language, you find out that nouns are deemed either “masculine”, such as wine (“vino”) or “feminine”, such as table (“mesa”). To speak Spanish more like a native speaker, you must get the correct gender, shown partially in the ending (“o” for many masculine words and “a” for many feminine words). You can see in this short explanation how making a simple sentence in Spanish about putting the wine on the table is going to involve a chunk!

Now, let’s say that after learning Spanish, you decide to go to Prague, in the Czech Republic, and want to speak Czech while you are there. Must you start over completely in learning the Czech language? No. Thanks to transfer, you already have a “chunk” from Spanish which informs you that items/nouns have a “gender”, so it’s not too hard to “get” that Czech nouns are masculine or feminine. You even get to enlarge your chunk about other languages and gendered nouns, because Czech additionally has “neutral” nouns. Your transferred chunk from Spanish also contains the idea that the “gender” of the noun can be shown in the last letter or two. Fantastic! In Czech, too, the gender of the noun is seen in its ending!

How does this story end? You have a great holiday and win the respect of all the Czech people for how quickly you are picking up on their language, which is deemed to be relatively complex – and you are doing a lot of it through the use of transfer of learning.

Memory Palace

Spatial memory is sometimes better than other types of memory. The Memory Palace technique uses visualisation to organise and eventually recall information. You begin the technique by thinking of either a familiar location (such as your bedroom or lounge at home) or – if you are creative – an imaginary palace with multiple rooms. By following a specific route through your palace/home, you can deposit things that you want to remember later along the way at specific locations. When you wish to recall the items that you deposited, you simply retrace your steps through your palace/home. For example, if you don’t have paper handy to make a grocery list, but want to remember to buy spinach, bread, and tofu, you might “place” spinach leaves in a big pile on, say, your coffee table. The bread might be resting on the couch, and the tofu could be jiggling around in the bowl where you keep all your remotes. By placing bizarre items in a spatial situation, we can remember them.

Funny imagery

Related to the Memory Palace is the possibility of remembering something because you have visualised it with funny or interesting imagery. For instance, let’s say in geometry class you want to remember the formula for the area of a circle: A = πr2. We would say this as, “Area equals pi r squared.” So what kind of imagery can we create so that we can easily recall the formula for the test? One possibility is to imagine a pastry shop in which the pastry chef walks into the back of the shop where all the freshly-baked pies are cooling and sees with astonishment that the whole bench has been covered with pies baked by his assistant in the chef’s absence: and in the entire area the pies are square! The funny imagery forms a neural hook on which to hang your ideas (formulas/facts/data).

Peg system

If you find yourself needing to memorise lists of information or want to keep something in mind, you can use a mnemonic peg system, which uses numbers or letters of the alphabet as the “pegs” upon which you “hang” objects you want to remember. So, for example, rhyming pegs associate rhyming words with the numbers one through ten. For example, if you have vowed to enhance your personal wellness through greater exposure to sunshine, rest, good diet, and sufficient exercise, you might remind yourself daily with “one, two, three, four”, like this: one is for “sun”; two is for “snooze”; three means “green tea” (and other healthy, anti-oxidant foods); four is for “door” (go out of it and get some exercise!).

Eliminate unrelated associations

Almost the opposite of the Peg system, in which you are trying to create useful linkages, this technique calls upon you to get rid of connections which are unhelpful and/or which you may have formed inadvertently. For example, let’s say you often study for a HRM course while you are watching the news. One week, you are studying recruitment practices all week. The trouble is, during that week, the international news is flooded with information about the Middle East refugee crisis, so in your mind, the recruitment strategies you are learning become paired with the idea of interviewing someone from the Middle East. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with this, except that the company you later come to work for may recruit heavily from within the country, and strategies that you would employ for interviewing an international candidate for a job may be totally different from strategies for a “domestic” candidate, thus rendering your “accidental” pairing unhelpful.

Explain to others; study with others

These are actually two separate techniques, but very related to one another. The basic idea is that you learn (and thus can remember) something better if you are able to discuss it with or explain it to others. Let’s say you are exposed to a new concept which is exciting to you. You can’t help but want to share it with your partner. But your partner is not taking the course you are, nor even working in the same field. So in order to get the basic idea across, you have to explain it rather simply. If you can put it into words that a ten year old would understand, you probably get it, but if not, at least you will see where the holes in your understanding are. There are analogies for just about everything, so try using simile and metaphor to illustrate your concept.

Similarly, hearing about a new concept which we believe we “understand”, our brain tends to automatically activate the sensation of “I am right about this”. But if you want to get a “reality check” on your new “learning”, try discussing your new understandings with colleagues studying the same thing. You find out fairly quickly if you are right or not; again, even if you were not “right” in your initial understanding, you get some wonderful insights by comparing notes/understandings in discussions with others.

Put yourself in the picture

With this technique for remembering, like many of the others above, you call on several of your senses in order to recall something. What you do for this one is “walk around” in a given scene with which you are trying to familiarise yourself, seeing/feeling/hearing what it feels like there “on the ground”. This is a favourite of several Nobel Prize winners, so you are in good company if you use this one (Oakley, 2015).

Use mechanical aids: Flashcards, anyone?

Aids such as flashcards can help with practice and with visual reinforcement. For instance, if you are trying to remember various counselling techniques, you could have the technique on one side of the card and the school or philosophy to which it belongs on the other side. In this way, you are not only reminding yourself of various techniques which you want to be able to explain readily; you are also creating “chunks” by constructing a larger sense of a jigsaw puzzle for each school of counselling, with the various techniques belonging to it being akin to the various jigsaw puzzle pieces that form the total picture. A good night’s sleep after a practice recalling these (either side of the card, cued from the other) will help you to consolidate the “pictures”.

Use your passion

Utilise your natural interest in the subject you are studying to generate the motivation to practice and review material. If some of the topics seem boring, remind yourself why you are learning them (e.g., they are relevant to the larger goal of working in a new field).

Learn from the past; be flexible

We all make mistakes; the biggest mistake might be to fail to learn from them. Use the concept of “negative practice”, in which you track past mistakes, analysing what went wrong and taking steps to eliminate the problems. In the same vein, flexibility will help you to refrain from relying on outdated learning methods; by adaptably taking on new methods, your brain is forced to create new patterns (section adapted loosely from Oakley, 2015; College Atlas, 2014).

This article was adapted from Campus College’s “Super Learner Program” – a personal development course that uses findings from leading global research to teach you better ways to grow your mind, study and retain information, and manage your time while staying on track with your goals.

References:

  • College Atlas. (2014). Top 10 study skills for college students. Collegeatlas.org. Retrieved on 17 February, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Oakley, B. (2015). Interview given to Estrada College, Fortitude Valley, Queensland.