Study skills 6# How memory works

13. 11. 2021 | Student Life

how does memory worksPeople often complain that their memory is terrible which prevents them from becoming good students. You have to realise that human memory doesn’t work like a computer’s HDD which means three things: Firstly, it has much bigger capacity than any existing hard drive. Secondly, you can’t pour information into it only once and expect it’ll stay there forever. Thirdly, old information doesn’t get deleted because there’s not enough free space. So how does our memory work?

Why don’t we usually retain new information immediately and forever? 

It’s actually a good thing that we don’t remember everything immediately and forever. Imagine you would retain everything that has ever happened to you. (There are rare cases of people who do… and it’s often a nightmare for them.) Even the most stupid thing would stay in your brain forever, haunting you. What a scary prospect, right?

The thing is that we retain only things that we use repeatedly. When our brain sees that something is being repeated, only then it evaluates that it’s worth remembering. So if you cram a night before your exam but you never ever use that information again, it’s no wonder you forget it soon. Your brain made a justified guess that it probably wasn’t useful.

The famous forgetting curve 

The forgetting curve is a handy memory model that shows how information naturally fades from our memory over time. If not being used, that is. If you don’t revise the material, only two days after you tried to cram it you usually forget 80%! What a ridiculously high percentage, right? Still, it’s good news because it doesn’t mean you’re stupid. That’s just how our brains work.

Repetition is the key to retention 

Because our brain works on the principle “use it or lose it,” the key to remember new information long-term is repetition. Long story short, you revise new material until your brain evaluates that it’s really necessary to retain.

Revision actually saves time  

A lot of students are scared by this extra effort to revise study material after they’ve crammed it and passed their exam. However, revising material already learnt while we still remember it takes much shorter than learning it again after we forget it. Cramming one page of new vocabulary can take an hour. Revision can take only five minutes. Decide for yourselves what’s more efficient: feeling frustrated that you have to cram something again or smartly revising it?

One practical example 

The usual ineffective approach: A student crams new vocabulary because they need it for an exam. They really do devote the time, cram it all, pass their exam and get a good grade. After a week, they get frustrated because they barely remember 10% of it. They find out too late that languages build up on previously attained knowledge so they quit the course with a feeling of being a failure and believing they just aren’t good at learning languages.

The smart approach: A student crams new vocabulary using suitable memory techniques. The test is just a validation that they’ve mastered the material and an external motivator to really sit down and do the work. They’re aware of the principle “use it or lose it” so they make an effort to put their new knowledge into practice right away or at least revise regularly. After a certain number of repetitions, they retain it forever and are happy about their progress.

In our next article on study skills we’ll tell you how the spaced repetition works and how to apply it.

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