Sometimes memorization is the only answer: Here's how

Special Section: Education / Getting Smarter


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Phil Pavlik Jr. still remembers his worst grade in graduate school.

It was a B- in a neuroanatomy course taught by 10 professors who didn't present the material in an organized way, didn't make clear what was most important for exams and required lots of memorization of parts of the nervous system and brain.

"I worked twice as hard as I ever worked in a graduate class to get that B-," he said.

Memorization isn't necessarily easy, even for someone like Dr. Pavlik, who studies memory as a senior systems scientist in human computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University.

But the skill is vital for students at any level who may be called on to know the parts of the body, Spanish nouns, historical dates, American presidents, unfamiliar terminology, capital cities, rules or other facts.

It is possible to build memorization skills.

"There's a certain amount of aptitude. Most of it is practice and prior knowledge," said Dr. Pavlik.

"I don't think there are any tricks, any way to really remember something without putting effort into it," said Mark Wheeler, research scientist at the Learning, Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

"There are effective strategies once you are willing to put in the effort."

First, a few basic tips, gleaned from interviews with memory researchers at Pitt and CMU and educators who help Community College of Allegheny County students improve their study skills:


Remember this

Need to memorize some material? Try these tips.

• Pay attention.

• Try to understand what you are learning.

• Organize the material.

• Use your prior knowledge.

• Keep learning active.

• Test yourself.

• Pace your practice.

• Make up sentences or acronyms as clues.

• Create silly images to help you remember.

• Keep your goals in mind.


• Pay attention. Doralee Brooks, professor of developmental studies at CCAC, asks students if they can pick out the real penny from a sheet of pictures of pennies of which all but one has been altered in some small way. Many people don't study pennies closely enough to know exactly what is on the front. It's hard to remember something if you haven't paid attention to it.

• Try to understand what you are learning. "If you treat it as arbitrary, it's going to be a lot harder," said Lynne Reder, CMU psychology professor. "Most of the things you need to do in college are not just the memorization of just words. You need a little deeper understanding."

• Organize the material. Some items may be best studied grouped together, such as separating types of vocabulary words. Anatomical terms can be diagrammed on a picture of a body.

• Use your prior knowledge. If you recognize the Latin root of a word, for example, that may help in remembering the new word. Or perhaps the new material relates to or builds on something you already know. "You're trying to find links to something you already have, to point to something you don't have," said Dr. Pavlik.

• Keep learning active. Take notes in class, write the information in your own words, repeat vocabulary words out loud, try to explain the material to someone else or even walk as you practice. Students who just gloss over material as they read often say, "I read it and can't remember it," said Maureen Stradley, professor of developmental studies at CCAC.

• Test yourself. Make flashcards, with a word on the front and an answer on the back. Cover up part of your notes and see if you can answer questions on them. "Testing yourself on something gives you a lot better recall than if you passively study," said Dr. Pavlik.

• Pace your practice. You will learn more -- and retain it longer -- if you spread out your study over the term than if you cram the night before the test even if you spend the same amount of time. "Cramming does work, but you'll regret it later on," said Dr. Pavlik.

• Make up sentences or acronyms linked to what you need to memorize. Some classics are "Every Good Boy Does Fine" (its initials name the notes on the lines of the treble clef) and "HOMES" (each letter stands for one of the Great Lakes).

• Create silly images to help you remember. "If you just rote rehearse and say back to yourself 'tree apple tree apple tree apple,' you won't do nearly as well as if you said, 'I have this image of a tree with all these apples and a little girl came by and an apple hit her on the head," said Dr. Reder.

• Keep your goals in mind. "For memorizing anything, you have to want to do it. You have a reason for doing it," said Sandra Mahon, director of the reading lab at CCAC.

Memory research shows that it's not just how much time you spend on memorization but how study sessions are spaced.

"If I said to you, you've just won five lessons with Roger Federer, if you were a tennis buff, you wouldn't want to take all five hours in a day or even a week. You'd want to spread them out," said Dr. Reder.

"Your ability to learn anything is better if you space out the practice."

Dr. Pavlik's favorite method is self-testing over the course of the term.

Say the student has to memorize 200 words.

"Split it up week by week so you are adding some each week. You might want to consider splitting it up so you finish the entire set before the exam. That way you can spend the last few weeks reviewing everything," he said.

The words could be put onto note cards, with the answer on the back.

Dr. Wheeler recommends making the exercise more active by saying the words.

"If they never say it, they actually have more difficulty learning it," he said.

One possibility, said Dr. Pavlik, would be to build multiple decks: a small deck with new items, a medium deck with items that have been learned first in the small deck but need more practice; and then a large deck of items that have been learned first in the small and medium decks and can be practiced again, with more spacing between each item.

Drew Peters, 19, of Highland Park, a second-semester freshman at CCAC, has spaced out his studying ever since one of his elementary school teachers recommended reviewing notes after class to help material sink in.

"If I don't study until Friday, I'll forget everything that happened on Monday," he said.

At college, he spends the 10 minutes between classes reviewing the material covered in the previous class. He then goes over the material again later in the day.

For math, he uses the classic mnemonic device "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" for the order of operations: parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition and subtraction.

To learn about 50 psychology definitions, he made flashcards, looking for root words that would help him remember and reviewing the cards on different days.

At Westmoreland County Community College, assistant professor Kevin Kopper tries to teach memory techniques along with history, such as encouraging students to put material they're studying to their favorite songs.

"You already have the trigger in your mind to remember the melody," Dr. Kopper said.

One song he sings is the Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon," using the words "Kuna Chameleon" to remind students of the Kuna Indians of Panama.

"They immediately start laughing hysterically. They'll also remember it," he said.

If you haven't memorized the material until the night before the exam, don't give up.

Dr. Reder recommends a "triple dropout procedure" with flashcards to test yourself. If you get it right three times, drop that card. Once you've successfully gone through all of the cards, wait an hour or two and do it again.

That might be enough to get you through the test, but you may not know much of it six months later.

Dr. Wheeler said, "You can do well on a test if you cram, but the problem is you forget much of the information very, very quickly. Usually within 24 hours, much of it is gone.

"If you are really interested in acquiring knowledge and retaining it over time, you want to take small chunks and by regularly doing that you can perform just as well on the exam as cramming and you get the benefit of retaining the information."


Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955. First Published February 9, 2010 5:00 AM


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