Methods of Memorization

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The Master said, "To learn and at due times to repeat what one has learnt, is that not after all a pleasure?" (Analects I, 1).

Why should we memorize information?

Memorization is not all there is to learning; it is part of it.

I very much value students "learning things by heart."

When you have memorized the basic facts about a religion (names, dates, places, key features, specific vocabulary), you are in a position to think about what the religion means and to see for yourself how it relates to other religions and to events in your own life.

Our minds are active beneath the level of consciousness. When we feed them data, our creative unconscious will look for patterns and associations. We can't predict when or how insight will take place, but it is a normal feature of human intelligence and we can be confident that new ideas will emerge over the long run.

Memorizing material for the objective section of the exam also supplies you with facts, terms, viewpoints, and ideas that you can discuss in the essays. An essay without telling details in it is not a good essay.

The handouts that I distribute indicate the material that I want students to learn by heart. If a student has mastered all of the material, then he or she will be able to answer all of the objective questions on the exam. A student who tries to guess--or wants to be told!--exactly which 20 or 40 items will be on the test will, as a general rule, not do well. The tests are designed to sample what students have learned, not to act as a filter for what "really matters" in the course. As a general rule, the more students know about the material presented in the course, the better they will do on the test.

Flash cards

This is far and away the best method of memorization.

Put the word, name, term, or event on one side of the card.

Put the definition or explanation on the other side.

Buy lots of cards and make one for each term that needs to be memorized.

Looking at the term and giving the definition is like short ID questions. Looking at the definition and remembering the term is like fill-in-the-blank questions.

If you can define the term or identify it when you look at the definition, you should be able to figure out the right answer for multiple-choice questions.

Go through the whole deck of cards once. If you find that you know the answer, put the card in pile of things you know. If you don't know the answer, put the card in the pile of things that you need to study. Repeat the process two or three times. The pile of things that you know should get bigger and the pile of things you don't know should get smaller.

Shuffle the cards and go through them looking at the other side.

The beauty of this system is that you are testing yourself and finding out what you don't know. The more you review with the cards, the more efficient your study time becomes, because you pay most attention to the things that you know you don't yet know.

Two-column notebook

This is a good way to organize notes in class.

Make a line on the page dividing it unevenly into a narrow column and a wide column.

In the small column, put the name, date, event, or vocabulary word.

In the large column, put the definition or explanation of the term.

To test yourself, cover one column or the other and see whether you can supply what is missing.

The first drawback of this approach is that we always see things in the same order. We may actually pick up clues from position on the page or from other material that we see on the page--but the exam lacks those clues from sequence and context.

The second disadvantage is that our review never becomes more efficient. To find the things we don't know, we have to plow through the things that we do know--every time. That's boring.

Random class notes

This is better than not taking any notes at all. I aim to cover every term on the handouts at least once during lectures. It should be possible for students to jot down the term and the definition, at least in short form.

Crib notes on handouts

I make an effort to say something about everything on each handout in the class presentations. You could jot down a word or two beside each term to help you remember what it means.

This is a quick way to take notes. It can become nearly illegible if you try to fit all of the information on the handouts, especially those that have columns.

This method offers no way for you to test yourself before the test. It would be difficult or impossible to look at the material both ways (short-ID and fill-in-the-blank). It does have the advantage of being fairly compact.

Underlining material in the book

This is an excellent method for reading a book. Books are cheap nowadays. I always mark up my books (never books from the library!).

I also make marginal notes and insert arrows and symbols in the margin.

When it is time to review the book for a test or to use it in writing an essay, I only look at the material I've underlined. Sometimes I'll use a different color pen for the second or third reading so I can highlight the things that really matter to me.

This is a very effective way to cut a book down to a more manageable size. If I don't highlight the significant material on the first reading, I have to re-read everything. That's no fun.

As with the crib notes on handouts, this approach does not allow us to test ourselves to find out what we do and don't know. All review from a marked book requires us to turn every page all over again.

"Looking at" things over and over

This is better than never looking at notes, handouts, or the texts.

This is probably the most common method of study that students use.

Huge advantage: it doesn't take a lot of work to set up.

Huge disadvantages: boredom, confusion, and a false sense of security.

The students who use this method never test themselves to find out in advance what they do or do not know. Every time they want to study, they have to go through EVERYTHING. They look at both what they know and what they do not know, always in the same order. Study never gets more interesting or more efficient. It's always the same thing, over and over and over (if the student is really trying).

The problem is that our minds register very quickly that "I've seen all this stuff before." Everything looks familiar because it is familiar. The trouble with familiarity is that it is not the same thing as mastery of the material. Recognizing something that we have seen before is not the same thing as being able to summon it from our memory on demand.

It is very boring to look at the same pages over and over. On the second review, everything looks familiar, so the student says, "I know all this stuff. No need to look at it any further. I'm ready for the test." During the test, the student recognizes every term and feels, "I have seen this before--but I can't remember exactly what it is." They feel cheated by the test because they do not get a grade commensurate with the amount of time they spent reviewing the material.

Sitting in class, hoping something will sink in

This is better than not attending class.

I do try to say something about everything on each handout, so if you're quick, you can write down a definition for each item during the classes or jot notes that will help you define the term when preparing for review.

I do try to repeat the essential views of each religion as much as I can stand repeating them. I hope that a certain amount of learning will take place in class from this repetition, but I expect students to take that general orientation and use it to read the texts thoughtfully and to fill in the assigned material for the exams by reading and taking notes outside of class as well.

Mnemonic devices

When trying to memorize a list of things, it can be helpful to make up a nonsense sentence that gives you the first letter of each word in the list.

So, for example, in biology you can use "King Philip Cuts Open Five Green Snakes" to remember the taxonomic categories: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.[1]