How can we make our working memory more effective and how can we pass an item from working memory to long term memory?
Our first step is to make our memories more memorable, but how?
In the first place, we should know that we have super sized visual and spacial memory abilities and that they help us to form our long term memory. As it was very important for our ancestors to be able to get back home after a three day deer hunt or remember where those plump berries where to be found in the forest, we developed these abilities over time. However, we don’t have very effective abilities to memorize numbers and names… they were not so important for our ancestors! If a friend of ours invites us to her new house, we are able to remember details about the house furniture, the colour of the walls, the carpet or the first aid kit located in the bathroom. If our friend showed us her pictures, we would definitely be able to spot immediately a picture that has been shown twice… no doubt about it! We probably wouldn’t be able to remember a phone number, a date or a name in the same way.
Therefore, to make our memories more memorable we have to tap in to our super sized visual and spacial abilities. Let’s associate our new vocab, rule, or idiom with an image to make it more effective…. let’s use a funny or weird image which is even easier to remember. Let’s see an example. Here is a rule that, we have to admit, is not very exciting: ‘In front of masculine nouns starting with s+consonant we have to use the definite article LO or the indefinite article UNO’…. we have to admit that it’s not very memorable either… but here is a strawberry which by chance starts with s+t and here we have a STRUZZO (the strawberry we’ll remind us of the pronunciation). Now let’s write here LO STRUZZO and UNO STRUZZO. I bet you that this is much more memorable than this (2 pictures below).
In front of masculine nouns starting
with s+consonant we have to use
the definite article LO or the
indefinite article UNO
It is possible to use images to memorize rules, pronunciation and idioms. To get the most out of our super memory ability, we could make our flashcards (time permitting). In fact, if on top of using images we also pick our own images for our flash cards, the time spent to look for the images (on Google images for example) and the personal association we build with the images we picked will make our memories even more memorable. A young student of mine did a great job recently: every day she’d look for images on Google images and pick ones for the new words she wanted to remember. She printed them out and wrote the noun on the back. She also wrote a sentence/idiom with this word so that she would remember the connotation and the collocation of this word. She’d also recall the words before going to sleep (during our sleep our mind keeps working on what we want to memorize) and remind herself of the ones she couldn’t remember by turning the flashcards over. She achieved great results and she really enjoyed the process (and we learn more effectively when we enjoy our learning).
We shouldn’t forget that understanding is very important and it is the first step towards memorization. In fact, it is like a super glue which holds together traces in our memory and links them to other memory traces.
Now we have our memorable memory and it is easy to remember it, but how are we going to store it in our long term memory? How are we going to avoid losing it with the natural dissipating processes which is forgetting?
Repetition is our answer, but repetitions over a period of time: spaced repetitions.
In fact, repetition is the way to strengthen and solidify our neural pattern related to our newly born memory. To be effective, though, repetitions must be spaced out. It is as we decided that we wanted to become very muscled…we couldn’t achieve this result in one day… even if we tried to lift all the weight of the world! The same applies to our memory… we can’t expect to memorize by repeating a bunch of time in one day, but sporadically over several days. In fact, we can’t expect to remember something we crammed in to our memory by rote repetition. It might work to pass the test, but it is not useful for us in the future.
We also have to remember that repetition is more effective when practiced through recalling instead of reading. Research shows that recalling is much more effective than reading over time.
Here is a graph which shows that students who studied a paper once and recalled it subsequently were able to remember it better over time. The other group of students who read the same paper twice remembered it better after 5 minutes, but they forgot what they had studied much sooner. To make our recalling even more effective, we can handwrite and say the items we are recalling. It has been proved that all the efforts, sweat and sometimes frustration experienced by recalling a word, a rule or an expression is what strengthens our neural patterns. It also appears that recalling items which are on the brink of being forgotten (our famous: I have it on the tip of my tongue) is the best way to fix these memories in our long term memory and to ensure them a long life. So… what are we waiting for…Let’s meet our friends on a Sunday and play with our hand made deck of flash cards!