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Learning Skills

Memory Improvement

Success in college courses requires that you master the material of the course and that you remember what you have learned when you take exams. Many students feel that their academic problems stem not from a failure to learn the course material but rather from a failure to retain it. You have probably had the experience of knowing something "cold" the night before an important exam, then having your mind go blank during the test. But your memory can be improved.

How well you remember academic material depends less upon your inborn talent than upon the specific strategies you follow as you study. These strategies are simple to understand and simple to use:

Distributed practice. Distributed practice means to break up your study into smaller periods; to study a little every day instead of a lot all at once. Studying for an extended period without a break is usually unproductive.

Overlearning. You should not stop studying when you have acquired 100% mastery of the material, but should continue studying to produce overlearning. Continuing to study after mastery gives you a margin for forgetting, a margin that you will need on the exam. The rule here is: after you've learned it, keep practicing.

Repetition. Few individuals are able to retain information seen once. Repetition is necessary in order to get the material into memory storage. For example, many college textbooks introduce a large number of technical terms and names of theories. This vocabulary of terms and names can be mastered by using a flash-card method, just as you might study French or German vocabulary words by going over and over the words on cards.

Elaborative Rehearsal. Rote rehearsal involves repeating the material to be learned over and over. Elaborative rehearsal is a more active learning process. When you rehearse material using this method, you study it by thinking of its meaning, by trying to picture it (forming a mental image of it), and by thinking of things that are associated with it. Material that is elaboratively rehearsed is remembered better than material that is rehearsed in a rote fashion.

Selective learning. No one can memorize an entire lecture series and textbook before the final exam. All that is possible is to select the most important material and to learn it. Knowing what to decide to remember and what to forget is a difficult process. William James once wrote, "The essence of genius is to know what to overlook." In deciding what is important enough to remember, your textbook can be helpful -- note what appears in boldface or italics and what is emphasized in the chapter summary.

Exam Perspective. Your memory would work best if you could study the material exactly as it appears on the exam. Memory problems result when there is a big difference between the wording of a concept in the textbook and on the exam. Such problems can be partially overcome by studying with an exam perspective -- that is, by trying to anticipate exam questions as you study.

Active Learning. Some students think that they are studying when they expose their eyes to the pages of the textbook or their ears to the lecturer. But for information to be retained in memory, a much more active approach must be taken. Ask questions -- out loud or to yourself. Sift out the less important material, and actively decide to retain the important points. Take notes. Organize your notes and review them. Take an active approach to studying.

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