Has this happened to you? You begin a class with an honest desire to learn the material. Your read the coursework, study and write strong papers. But when the time comes to demonstrate what you’ve learned on a test, suddenly all of that knowledge seems to disappear. How can all of that hard work go to waste?
Unfortunately, this happens a lot in life. The best way to deal with this is to employ a cognitive strategy to help make the information more relevant.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to remember the name of someone who contacted you by phone or you met at a party. If you follow the cognitive strategy of elaboration, you would write down that person’s name. If there’s no pen around, you would repeat the information to yourself until you could memorialize it, which is the cognitive strategy of rehearsal. Some of these strategies come to us naturally, but others we must learn for the sole purpose of retaining information.
This is especially true for college students who are trying to gain expertise in a specific subject matter. If you want to just kick back at the beach and enjoy life, employing learning strategies doesn’t matter. Strategies only become necessary if you care to learn a bunch of information in a relatively short amount of time.
What do learning strategies have in common? They make information more meaningful so that your brain is better able to encode it.
Here’s an experiment—look over the following scenario and try to predict the results.
Two separate groups of people look at 10 different words, one at a time for a couple of seconds each. The first group counted how many vowels are in each word and were then told to state the answer as fast as possible. The second group was told to make a sentence using each word as fast as possible. After both groups had run through the ten words, they were asked to recall as many words from the list as possible (they did not know they would be asked this beforehand). Which group do you think recalled more words and why? Consider this and then read on.
If you said the group who made sentences from the words, you are right! The reason for this is due to the meaningful elaboration that these students went through that the “vowel” group did not. Consider these 2 words:
The “vowel group” responses are 2 and 3 since the first word had 2 vowels and the second word has 3 vowels. But this group did not come into contact with the meaning of the words, which causes the information that went into the brain to decay rapidly from memory so that the words entirely leave the brain within 30 seconds.
The “sentence group” had to come into contact with the meaning of the words and, furthermore, think about how each word can be made into a sentence. This is a meaningful elaboration and causes the brain to retain the information even if it is not the person's intention to do so! The sum point of all this is that learning strategies are way more important than an intention to learn.
So how does all this help you with your studies? Here are a couple tips for retaining information:
1. Attempt to make the information you are learning meaningful to you. Make up an event in your mind whereby the information carries meaning.
2. Write things down. This requires you to think about the meaning. If you find that you are not retaining the information you are reading by merely highlighting, write down all your highlights.
The following references provide strategies for learning. There are many that can be found on a basic Internet search using the keyword “learning strategies” or “cognitive strategies.” Using strategies will help you recall information for exams, and will increase your knowledge of a specific career-oriented domain. Here are a couple of links to get you started.
Dr. Eric Siegel is the Director of Institutional Effectiveness at Herzing University since 2009. He received his doctorate in Experimental Psychology in 1995 from Stony Brook University. His research interests include self-control and learning.