Memory Power 101

A short-course series for parents and children

Posted May 23, 2020

School is out. Whether you have school children or attend school yourself or participate in professional training, what shall you do this summer to get ready for this fall? Because of the pandemic, school may or may not be conducted by distance education methods. Either way, school will start. What could be a better time to prepare for less-than-ideal school environments?

Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

I think this is an opportune time for me to create a series of posts to help you or your children become more effective and efficient learners. In just 14 short blog posts, I think I can tell you most of what you need to know and do to become a better learner, both for your short-term needs and as a lifelong learner.

I should be an expert on learning by now, after some 54 years as a college professor. I have written four books on learning and memory. I have published scientific research on memory. My blog posts in this area have over 3.5 million reader views. I have been on the editorial boards of six scholarly education journals,

My interest in learning and memory began with my own early childhood difficulties in school. I remember vividly my first day in a public school in Mobile, Alabama. It was a typical warm and humid southern fall morning as I walked by myself to school. In those days, most kids walked to a neighborhood school, leaving home alone and perhaps picking up a few classmates along the walk.  

I think my mom took me to preschool orientation, so all the orientation and procedural things had already been done before opening day—I don’t remember any of that. In fact, I don’t remember anything that happened in school that day. I do remember my exuberant strides on the walk to school. Along the way, I passed a beautiful row of hibiscus bushes lining the sidewalk. I paused to inspect the flowers, probed a bloom with my finger—damned bee stung me! This may have been a bad omen that hung a dark cloud over my school for the first three grades.

During those first three years, two in Mobile and the third grade in a public school in Memphis, Tennessee, I remember nothing about school. Nothing. I do remember being interested in learning how to read, because I wanted to know what was in those comic-strip bubbles I saw in the newspaper my folks had at home.

I remember the fourth grade because I hated school and hated my teacher. I don’t consciously recall anything I learned that year. The only event I remember was when movie talent scouts came into class to scout for prospects for the movie they planned called The Yearling. I and all the boys sat up straight, smiled at the visitors, and tried to get their attention, all to no avail. The scouts ended up picking a kid my age, Claude Jarman Jr., from Nashville, who played the lead in the film that came out in 1946.

The only other thing I remember was my teacher. My fourth-grade eyes saw her as old and frumpy. For reasons I don’t remember, I do remember challenging her a lot. Whatever she tried to teach was tainted. I did poorly in school, made many Ds on the report cards that came out every six weeks. No doubt, the Ds were deserved. Certainly, I had an attitude problem.

I don’t remember anything about the 5th and 6th grades either. The first thing I remember about the 7th grade was that I got to go to a new public middle school and swelled with budding grown-up pride as I paid the fare each day to ride a city bus to school. I don’t remember Memphis having school buses, though when I transferred to a county school in the 8th grade, there were school buses for rural kids.

The second thing I remember about the 7th grade was my teacher. My hormone-flooded 7th grade eyes saw her as young and gorgeous. Miss Torti was her name. In that first week of school, she had a boyfriend come to class, all decked out in Navy uniform finery. This was my first experience with the darkness of jealousy.

The second jealousy event came when I realized that there was a girl in Miss Torti’s class who was always getting Miss Torti’s attention and praise. Maybe you had kids like her in one of your classes. Remember how when a teacher asked a questioned, there was always a kid who pumped up and down in her seat, raising her hand, “Ask me, ask me. I know!” This girl was like that, and most irritating of all, she always knew the right answer. I hated her. Well, I was not going to let her outshine me in Miss Torti’s eyes. If being smart is what got Torti’s attention, I decided I was going to be smarter than this twerpy girl.

Of course, I had no idea how to get smarter. But it was obvious that I had to memorize whatever Miss Torti was teaching. I began to pay attention. I thought about what I had to do to remember things. I actually studied, for a change. Amazingly, in every six-week report period of the 7th grade, I made all As. I had gone from Ds to all As in just two years. Never got anywhere with Miss Torti though.

Even so, I got in the habit of enjoying high grades, and learned even more about how to learn more effectively and efficiently. Early on, I learned memory principles and mnemonics. I never made less than an A in any course in any grade until I got to the University of Tennessee in a pre-veterinary curriculum. I did so well academically there that I got an early admission to Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine after just two years of pre-vet. I graduated with high honors. Later, I got a Ph.D. from Notre Dame, finishing all course work and research in 2.5 years.

Later, my interest and success in learning led me to a PhD and a career in neuroscience, where I learned even more about learning and memory. Perhaps you can see why I feel compelled to share what I know about this subject.

The topics I will cover in this series are shown in the table below.

Lesson 1. The Stages of Memorizing. Encoding, consolidation, retrieval, re-consolidation

Lesson 2. Paying Attention. Learn how to focus, eliminate distractions.

Lesson 3. Getting Motivated. How to get interested in boring subjects, boring texts.

Lesson 4. Think and Grow Smart. The role of thinking in improving memory

Lesson 5. Taking Notes. Which of the three types is best.

Lesson 6. Mind Mapping. Simple ways to show idea relationships

Lesson 7. Strategic Approaches for Different Kinds of Learning. Customize strategies, organize materials.

Lesson 8. Making Associations. Using cues most effectively.

Lesson 9. Mnemonic Techniques.  Acronyms, acrostics, common-sense thinking, Ssubject-object-verb, story chains, memory palace.

Lesson 10. Learning from Videos, Lectures, Readings.

Lesson 11.  Learning and Memorizing Math. Concepts, Formulas

Lesson 12. Deliberate Practice. Make memorization systematic. Know what you don’t know.

Lesson 13. Especially Difficult Memory Tasks. Vocabulary, dates/numbers, places,

Lesson 14. Lifestyle Matters. Dealing with stress, exercise, sleep.

I will try to deliver a lesson every couple of weeks. I hope you will follow along and find your path to a life of successful learning.