A large percentage of an employee’s or a student’s success still depends on being able to recall facts, figures, names, dates, places, etc. from memory. Yet they are rarely given the tools they need to remember this new information.
Learning any new material is easier if you apply the formula:
Concentration + Comprehension + Memory = Learning.Concentration is the need to stay focused and pay attention to the material you are studying. Challenging your ability to do this are your internal and external distractions.
Internal distractions can take many forms and include such things as daydreaming, thinking about personal problems, anxiety about an upcoming event, etc. All act as mental clutter that competes with your ability to concentrate. To combat internal distractions keep a notepad and write down what is on your mind and then dismiss it until later, when you can deal with it. If it is a question of boredom with respect to the material you are studying try to find some way to reinforce the purpose for learning the material or another way to make it personally relevant.
External distractions are physical in nature. The television, family and friends, excessive heat or cold, anything that seeks your attention or makes you uncomfortable is a physical distraction. The best way to eliminate these distractions is to remove them. Usually that means finding another location in which to study. Ideally try to find a place that you can devout exclusively to studying. One that offers good lighting, fresh air, and quiet. If you keep a location strictly for studying you will also diminish any internal distractions which are associated with that area.
If you are unable to clear your mind of an internal distraction or remove yourself from an external distraction it may be best to take a break from your studies, deal with the issue, and resume at a later time. Your ability to concentrate is extremely important for learning.
The relationship between comprehension and learning is straight forward. It is far easier to commit to memory something that you understand (semantic encoding). When and how long to study, effective note taking, and the review process can all aid in your comprehension.
The question of ‘when’ to study is more a matter of personal preference and in many cases opportunity. Some studies suggest that information learned before sleep has a better chance of being remembered because it is not affected by all the additional information you are exposed to throughout the day. This is probably more important when you are trying to memorize facts or lists and not as relevant for overall comprehension.
One of the most common mistakes is attempting to study for extended periods of time without taking breaks. There are two key things you should consider when deciding on how long to study. The first is the effect of Primacy and Recency. It is a fact that you will generally remember more from the beginning (primacy) and the end (recency) of your study period. Shortening your study periods or increasing the number of breaks will increase the number of primacy and recency points and therefore increase the amount of material you will remember.
The other factor relates to how your memories are formed which you learned from an earlier chapter is by biochemical changes at the cellular level. It has been shown that studying for extended periods of time can actually deplete the chemicals in your brain cells that are needed to process information effectively. This is known as Neuro-Transmitter Depletion and it gives further support to the importance of frequent breaks.
So how long should you study? Most people find success with 30 - 50 minutes of concentrated study followed by 10 - 15 minute breaks of physical or creative activity. Difficult and complex material seems to have a limit of about 4 hours per day after which fatigue, boredom, and the inability to comprehend new information may occur. Your personal limit for consecutive study is marked by the point at which things no longer make sense.
So far you have looked at the importance of concentration, where to study and how long to study. Now let’s explore some ideas on how to study.
By previewing the material you will get a sense of how it is organized which will help you to associate the material as you study it. This is particularly useful for textbook chapters.
This is one of the best ways to reinforce what you are reading in a book or learning in a classroom environment. Notes help you to organize the material for later review and add to the encoding process. Tips for taking effective notes:
- Date and keep your notes in one location.
- Leave the left margin clear for later comments.
- Use indenting to organize your notes based on:
- Primary Concepts
- Secondary Concepts
- Supporting Details
- Use a highlighter to flag key concepts, definitions, etc.
- Add any diagrams, charts, or graphics that help you to visualize what the material represents and how it relates.
- Record any questions or observations the material raises for which you need clarification.
- Re-organize your notes when necessary.
Creating mental imagery as you read will also aid your concentration and encoding. Visualize the battle in history, discovery in science, scene in a play, characters in the novel, etc.
Apply Mnemonic Techniques
As you read you can apply the mnemonic techniques you are already familiar with. Which technique you choose will depend on the type of material you are reading and what you wish to commit to memory. For example if the material is organized sequentially you might choose to associate key words to the material and use the Link system to remember them. If you are trying to remember a list of items from the material you could use any of the techniques suited for lists such as Linking, LOCI, or the Peg system. In each case you have your knowledge of Keyword mnemonics (substitute words) for difficult words or unfamiliar concepts, the phonetic alphabet for numbers, and your knowledge of encoding and elaboration for creating strong associations.
Hint: If you are learning in a classroom environment read the material you will be covering in advance of the class whenever possible. This will help you form a mental outline of the material, identify questions, and it will facilitate more effective note taking. Also, if you have questions ask them. The only dumb question is the one not asked and chances are that other people are wondering the same thing!
How much of the chapter you just read or the material from the class you just attended will you remember in 24 - 48 hours? Without review it could be as little as 20% and continues to decline. There is a strategy for review based on memory fade that will greatly increase your ability to recall what you have learned. If you adopt a 30-50 minute study period and take proper notes the review process does not need to be lengthy in order to be effective. Use the following Review guide (as a minimum) to help you enter the new material into memory:
- Review 10 minutes after the initial study period.
- 1 day later
- 1 week later
- 1 month later
- 6 months later
- Flash Cards - Prepare cards with questions on one side and answers on the other. Test yourself or have someone ask the questions. This will also add another level of encoding.
- Teaching - An excellent way to test what you have learned is to play the role of teacher and explain the new material without benefit of notes or reciting from a book. Vocalizing your knowledge of the material will soon identify any weak spots that need further encoding.