A big part of studying is about remembering. Of course you have to then be critical, evaluate the arguments, and so on, but if you can’t remember any of the arguments or the evidence you are pretty stuck! So I’ve put together this post with lots of empirically supported information about memory to help you tackle your revision. I hope you find this useful, and if you do please rate the article using the stars at the bottom, and maybe leave a comment with some tips of your own!
Can remembering make you forget?
If we repeatedly attempt to retrieve a memory we improve our ability to do so in the long term. This is called the testing effect. However it has a side effect that you may not know about – it can actually reduce our ability to recall those things that we have not “tested” ourselves on (Anderson et al., 1994). However in contrast it has also been found to improve recall of non-tested material in certain instances (). Chan (2009) conducted some experiments to determine under which conditions each of these occured, and although I will not go into the detailed description (which would require explaining the van Dijk & Kintsch (1983) text processing model, which I am not convinced I really understand myself!) the summary seems to be that the more we can integrate what we are learning with existing knowledge the better we will be at remembering it. However learning independent facts that are unrelated and difficult to integrate into our existing knowledge can lead to the forgetting effect.
So what do we do with that?
When you are revising, remember to link things together as much as possible. Do not learn things individually, but relate them to each other. For example when learning about the van Dijk & Kintsch (1983) text processing model I could compare it to other models, and think about how it fits into the wider context of our ability to read.
Despite many claims in both directions, Nehlig (2010) reported that caffeine has inconcistent effects on memory and attention, with no benefits being seen from intentionally learned data. Mednick et al. (2008) also reported that caffeine had minimal impact on memory and motor performance tasks compared to napping.
It should also be noted that the impact of caffeine on sleep may have a subsequent impact on memory and recall. The general advice seems to be that you should only consume caffeine first thing in the morning, if at all.
Van Der Werf et al. (2009) found that it isn’t just the amount of sleep you get that is important for good memory and recall, but also the type. Shallow sleep (caused by disrupted sleep) leeds to weaker subsequent hippocampal activation compared to participants who experienced deep sleep.
So it is important not only to get enough sleep (and ignore what people say about a minimum of 8 hours, everyone is different and requires a different amount of sleep), it is also important to ensure you get good quality sleep. This means avoiding stimulants like caffiene and nicotine before you sleep, avoiding eating just before bed, and having a quiet place to sleep among other things. Have a look at this page on Sleep Hygiene for more information.
Everyone has heard that you remember things better in the same environment that you learned them in. This is called reinstatement effect (as in, the learning environment is reinstated at recall) or cue-dependent memory). This theory has a long history, perhaps most famously demonstrated by Godden and Baddeley (1975) who had participants memorise word lists underwater then found that they recalled those lists better underwater than on land. There is a long controversy around these findings, with many studies failing to replicate the results in a variety of environmental conditions, however an in-depth meta-analysis by Smith & Vela (2001) has shown reliable results so maybe there is something in it after all.
However it has also been claimed (Carey, 2010) that varying your learning environment improves subsequent recall, possibly by building more associations in your memory.
So what do we do with this?
You should ideally keep environmental distractors to a minimum anyway as things like music, TV, etc. draw your attention away from what you are learning and studies have shown that divided attention leads to poorer memory encoding. However there may be an added benefit here to matching the environment to your test condition (the quiet of an exam hall for example). I have also seen suggestions that wearing a specific perfume or cologne while revising then wearing that same one in the exams may help – however I have not seen any empirical evidence of this!
A long long time ago, Ebbinghaus (1913) discovered that learning could be significantly improved by correctly spacing practice sessions, however his techniques failed to gain the popularity they deserve. More recently Piotr Wozniak performed research into finding the optimal spacing for retention, and developed an algorithm which he built into his software SuperMemo. The algorithm has also been adapted and included in the free software Mnemosyne which is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Using this software you can test yourself regularly in a way that is evidence-based to give you the best recall. Mnemosyne is very simple to use, and you can even get an add on which works on Android phones so you can test yourself any time.
Related to this Taylor (2010) also found that practicing different skills in an interwoven spaced approach rather than as one block improved performance. So rather than spending a whole day learning one topic, you are better off mixing things up a bit!
Anderson, M. C., Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1994). Remembering can cause forgetting: Retrieval dynamics in long-term memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20, 1063–1087.
Carey, B., 2010 Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html?_r=1 Accessed: 20-Apr-2012
Chan, J.C.K., 2009. When does retrieval induce forgetting and when does it induce facilitation? Implications for retrieval inhibition, testing effect, and text processing. Journal of Memory and Language, 61(2), pp.153-170.
Ebbinghaus, H., Ruger, H. Alford. (1913). Memory: a contribution to experimental psychology. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.
Godden,D. R., & Baddeley,A. D. (1975). Context-dependent memory in two natural environments: Land and underwater. British Journal of Psychology, 66, 325-331.
Mednick, S.C. et al., 2008. Comparing the benefits of caffeine, naps and placebo on verbal, motor and perceptual memory. Behavioural brain research, 193(1), pp.79-86.
Nehlig, A., 2010. Is caffeine a cognitive enhancer? Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD, 20 Suppl 1, pp.S85-94.
Smith, S.M. & Vela, E., 2001. Environmental context-dependent memory: a review and meta-analysis. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 8(2), pp.203-20.
Taylor, K. & Rohrer, D., 2010. The effects of interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, pp.837-848.
Van Der Werf, Y.D. et al., 2009. Sleep benefits subsequent hippocampal functioning. Nature neuroscience, 12(2), pp.122-3.
van Dijk, T. A., & Kintsch, W. (1983). Strategies of discourse comprehension. New York: Academic Press.