You never forget. With the exception of injury and disease, the brain never loses anything. Forgetting is either 1) the failure to store information in the first place, or 2) the inability to retrieve the information, or 3) the failure to store it in such a way that it can be found when needed. Remembering and forgetting are fairly big issues in academics. Experiments suggest that we forget all kinds of information all of the time. Although there are several theories which attempt to explain forgetting, much about the neurobiology of the brain remains unknown. What is known about memory is that it works more effectively when conscious effort is required vs. more peripheral routes to learning. Intention, motivation and interest are critical. That is also why novel information is more easily recalled.

Short term memory has a limited capacity and information disappears fast unless you can shift it into long term memory. Most of the information that we receive is not stored but quickly lost - probably at least 50% almost immediately and around 20% after 24 hours. Review quickly and repeatedly to improve your retention.

Memory has two parts: Concentration (you have to get it before you can forget it) and Recall.

It is a natural tendency to divide our attention, e.g., driving in the car while listening to the radio, but when we can focus exclusively on material we are attempting to learn, we have a better chance to complete the memory task quickly and accurately. Memory is strengthened by association, e.g., by adding new information from supplemental reading or placing the material in a hierarchal network. Memory is also reinforced when logical connections are made, e.g., while learning the bones in anatomy, visualize the connections and see the pathways as in a computer program. Draw on information from your background for pictures or a mental image. This helps you to utilize both the left and right hemispheres of your brain, which have certain specialized functions.

Ideal Conditions to Improve Concentration and Recall

In class and while studying:

  1. Pay attention to get information right the first time. It's difficult to replace wrong information with the right information
  2. Make certain that you understand a concept - its very difficult to recall what is fuzzy. Read and then reread before class, ask questions and try to explain the concept to someone else during your review session.
  3. Use chunking, there are limits to how much we can recall, but these limits expand when the material is meaningfully organized, e.g., what are the three key concepts of the chapter and how are ideas grouped under these key ideas. Cluster ideas around a heading or category. One item may serve as a cue to another during the exam.
  4. Be selective - condense and summarize. This helps to make the time requirements more manageable. Remember: Memorization Secondary to Comprehension.
  5. Mnemonic devices can serve as organizers for new information, either classic acronyms such as Every Good Boy Does Fine to represent the lines on the musical staff EGBDF, or individualized ones that you design for yourself. Be sure to memorize completely as a small error will create difficulty when utilizing these techniques.
  6. Create a peg on which to hang the information you want to remember. It might be a rhyme, an unusual image or maybe a sequence, e.g., remember your grocery list by visualizing going through the aisles in the market.
  7. Eliminate distractions:
    1. Use a "cue" - e.g., when you are wearing a certain baseball hat, you are not to be disturbed. Use your desk to read, review, write letters but use your bed only to sit on for a relaxing break.
    2. Remove obstacles, a sound or visual background which is unobtrusive may help to screen out distractions.
    3. Have all of your equipment available before you begin, lamp, pencil, good comfortable chair, books and paper clips, etc.
    4. Record stray thoughts on a note pad, but don't act upon them. Call this your worry pad, e.g., personal tasks that need to be completed. Make your to do list for the week before you start, or as a study break, to get random thoughts out of your head.
  8. Check your concentration as you go - generally toward the end of every other page, but more often if the reading is dense in terms of facts, definitions, equations, etc. Test yourself on identifying the main idea, restate in your own words.
  9. Use all of your senses, e.g., draw on the board, trace it over and over, look for unique visual patterns, talk it out to somebody, rehearse it in the mirror.
  10. Erase to remember. Write out what you need to recall for an exam completely in pencil. Progressively erase words as you commit them to memory. (Thanks to Dr. John Tenny for this idea).
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