Learning and Memory: Strategic Approaches

Lesson 7: A four-step process.

Posted Aug 06, 2020

Different learning tasks typically benefit from a prior analysis of how to approach the task. You wouldn’t want to approach learning mathematics the same way you would learn history. Because it is not feasible to specify an approach to all possible learning tasks in this short lesson, I will suggest some more general ideas.


Step 1. Assessment. The first thing to do is an overall assessment of the task. That is, identify how much you already know, which parts of the task are not even understood at the moment, which ideas and factoids you can figure out, and which you will have to memorize.

Anthony DeRosa
Source: Anthony DeRosa

Step 2. Tackle the confusion. For the parts you don’t understand, go to whatever teaching resource needed to explain it. Why try to memorize something you don’t understand? In fact, the very process of trying to understand helps to form memory. Commonly, multiple explanations are needed in order to find the one that “clicks” with your capacity to understand. Sometimes asking a question in a web browser field will take you directly to a site that explains what you are looking for. Sometimes Wikipedia works. Sometimes Kahn Academy works.

Step 3. Isolate what requires memorization. Why memorize trivia? Why memorize information that you can easily figure out? Save your brain energy and power for difficult memorization tasks.

Step 4. Develop a task-specific memorization tactic and/or mnemonic. When confronted with a learning challenge, ask yourself, “What is the best way for me to memorize this? What associations and cues will help? What that I already know makes this easier to understand and remember? Can I develop a mnemonic that makes this easy to recall?

Some General Tactics


Encoding refers to conscious registration of the information you are trying to memorize. Perhaps you have heard of the phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness,” wherein you can see things but not realize your eyes have seen them, and your conscious mind is unaware of them. The point is that you are only conscious of targets of attention and conscious awareness strengthens encoding. Be aware. Focus, focus, focus.

Encoding is also strengthened by thinking about relationships and associated cues that can be attached to targets of attention. Recall what I said earlier in the lesson on concept maps.

Spaced Learning

Students like to cram for exams. They often do this the night before an exam, studying late into the night and thus making themselves sleep-deprived, which only compounds their mental performance on the exam because sleep deprivation makes it difficult to think straight.

The more fundamental problem is that memory formation takes time. The process, called consolidation, is like wet cement: impressions take a while to set up. After all, long-term memory is stored in the gene activation, protein synthesis, and growth of new neuronal membrane and synapses that store the information representation. Spreading out the study allows time for these processes to occur and complete robust consolidation. Also, the passage of time allows for relevant new thoughts and associations to attach to the memory and thus strengthen it.


Using what you have just learned, especially soon after initial encoding, enriches the encoding, creates new associational cues, and allows the learned material to stay active long enough in neuronal circuitry to enhance the consolidation process. When application occurs in contexts other than that of initial exposure, it creates new frames of reference cues and may even broaden the depth of understanding. Furthermore, new handles for retrieval emerge.

Forced Retrieval

Many students study by “looking over” their notes and learning resource materials. This creates the illusion that they are improving their memory. However, research has shown that strong memories require one to force retrieval. For example, if you are studying flashcards, you look at the question side of the card and mentally quiz yourself on what you think is on the answer side of the card, before you look at it to check for accuracy. The reason that forced retrieval works is that each time you retrieve a memory, its encoding can be strengthened by adding new associations and thoughts. In any case, once retrieved, the memory has to be reconsolidated, which adds to the strength of information storage.

Deliberate Practice

In Lesson 12, I will explain this more completely. For now, just realize that effective study requires not only forced retrieval, but also awareness of what you are retrieving and error checking and correction as needed.

Mnemonic Devices. These will be covered in Lesson 9. They can be extremely powerful. People who compete in memory contests rely exclusively of mnemonics. These contestants are just normal people who do not have a natural “photographic memory.”


In a study by Katherine Rawsom at Williams College, students studied 35 Swahili-English word pairs on flashcards. The students were asked to practice until they got the vocabulary correct using either the entire stack or five stacks of seven cards each. Researchers instructed students to study the flashcards until they had gotten each translation correct either once, five, or 10 times, before taking a final quiz a week later. Getting the stack correct five times was three times more effective for the final quiz score than getting the stack correct only once. Also, the study of one big stack was better than five little ones.

Students had predicted just the opposite. They expected studying smaller groups of flashcards would be more helpful than studying the big stack, and they expected no real benefit from studying cards more than once. Those who had studied the small stacks expected to remember nearly 60 percent of words, yet they recalled only 17 percent. In general, students were incorrect in two ways: 1) they give too little value to learning strategies that are difficult (using multiple sessions on the big stack), and 2) they give too much value to strategies that were later documented to be less effective.

Next Lesson From “Memory Medic:” Lesson 8. Making Associations.

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