How to Memorize Damn Near Anything

By: Keith


Do you want to improve your vocabulary, learn a language or memorize poems?  Do you stink at math formulas?  You aren’t alone because I’ve been trying to improve my memorization skills, too.  In fact, I recently got this neat little iPhone app that purports to improve my vocabulary with flash cards.  The idea is to use my free time to casually cycle through these words until, at some unspecified point in the future, all the words become lodged in my head.  Sounds great!  All I need to do is to fill the time I wasn’t already using for something else, a few minutes here and there, to study, and before I know it I’ll be Shakespeare!  Um, not quite.  Rote memorization only works for information like phone numbers and safe combination, and it barely works even at that.  New research, reported on in the July issue of Scientific American Mind magazine, has found that memory is not centralized in a particular region of the brain.  We do not store information in memory files like a computer or as lines of text as in a book.  We remember things similarly to how we imagine hypothetical future event, by relating one bit to another until we create a story (it’s also the reason for false memories and why brainwashing works).  It’s a giant web, stretching throughout the brain, where pieces are accessed through interconnected and interdependent relationships.  Memorizing anything, it’s been found, requires making new connections along previously established routes.              


Memorization is as Simple as Making Connection              


Say you want to learn a language.  A lot of methods rely on memorizing words, parts of speech and conjugations.  My college courses taught me Spanish that way.  The reason it didn’t work is because I didn’t already know anything about Spanish before I started learning it.  I couldn’t make connections.  A better way would be to first study the Spanish culture, geography, history and people – to slowly introduce the language by way of associations.  For instance, if I know the Visigoths occupied Spain and that they introduced almost all the words relating to horses and war, well – now I have a connection, and I won’t ever forget the words associated with that history.  Language programs like Rosetta Stone have taken a big step forward in language education by teaching it through the context of everyday situations.  I can relate to a guy trying to catch a bus.  If I see a Spanish guy catching a bus and talking to the driver, I can remember that scene when I try to catch a bus.  That recollection, based on my already established personal experience, will now connect to foreign words.  I’ll never be able to stand at a bus stop without thinking “Autobús”.  The more repetition you can achieve, to strengthen and expand the new synaptic connection, the more you will remember.  No matter how much you repeat a safe combination you are likely to forget it unless you can connect it somewhere to something else.              


How Does this Apply to Teaching              


Reading comprehension is a big deal.  Maybe you wonder why your kid can’t seem to remember what he reads.  The answer is connections.  He doesn’t have the depth of experience required to make solid connections; remembering is difficult when there’s no basis from which to start.  We recently studied ancient Rome.  When we started it quickly became clear that Neil was not going to remember anything from the book I gave him to read.  Pretorian meant nothing to him.  What’s the Circus Maximus?  The Via Appia?  Why do they use swords, spears and rocks rather than guns?  We needed to establish experience before we could learn specifics.  Since we didn’t have the money to go to Rome and take a tour, I did the next best thing – I started showing him maps of the world.  We started in Boulder Colorado, moved to other places in the US that he knows, and then crossed the Ocean, compared distances, and wound up in Italy.  Besides geography we also had to travel back in time.  Starting with today, we went back as I showed him pictures of various epochs.  Through connection we learned why there weren’t guns in ancient Rome.  Finally, we had somewhere to start.  That’s when we watched a few documentaries, Gladiator, and Spartacus.  Neil wound up learning about the Romans, but it took months rather than days.              


You might say “Well, that’s not going to help me.  I need to learn now!”  The beauty of learning methodically with connections and reinforcement is that there is no upper range to how many connections you can make and how much stuff you can learn.  You can’t rush a good thing, but you can be guaranteed of success.  The more foundation you build, the easier it becomes in the future to memorize things.  Say I want to teach Neil about ancient Greece or Egypt.  Would we need to spend the same amount of time as we did with ancient Rome?  No, because now our point of reference is Rome, not Boulder Colorado, and Rome is a lot closer.  The more you learn the quicker it gets, until remembering anything is as simple as plugging in your newly found information to the nearest outlet.  That’s why cramming for tests does not work, and flashcards only work for a day or week before it’s all forgotten.              


Organize your Thoughts              


One technique to employ when trying to remember a complicated concept is to rewrite it in your own words or explain it to someone else as if you were the teacher.  If you can put it in your own words, you will effectively be building connections. After all, you can’t organize your thoughts into words without points of reference.  No reference points means your thoughts will be disorganized and you won’t make sense.  Popular public speakers didn’t just pop up on stage and start speaking.  They first had to start in front of a mirror, explaining their thoughts to themselves (or their cat, dog or hamster).  The more they speak the more the concepts are cemented in their heads, and the easier it becomes for them to build out and convey those ideas to others.  Drawing pictures is another way to do it.  When I learned the Krebs cycle (citric acid cycle) back in college, the only way I could do it was by drawing it and writing descriptions to myself for each step.  I couldn’t memorize the molecules without understanding the basis for the process, and the more I explained and wrote its purpose, the easier it got to remember the bits and pieces of the cycle itself.  Remembering anything, then, boils down to the same process.  Create, enforce, and expand connections – build out the web in your brain until capturing new concepts and ideas becomes easy, like a spider in it’s web waiting for flies to get trapped.  It takes some time, but you’ll be richly rewarded.          


7 Responses to “How to Memorize Damn Near Anything”
  1. Trevor November 2, 2010 at 8:00 pm #

    Great thoughts on learning Keith. It’s interesting, but I just naturally tell people what I’m learning and it really helps me remember it.

    I should have realized this concept more but you put it into words very well. I know I can use this concept of building connections to help my middle daughter learn. I have recently begun to realize she just hasn’t picked up the breadth of connections that help her see relevancy in the topic she is reading or learning about.

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. Papa K November 2, 2010 at 8:45 pm #

    Whenever I have a hard time remembering something I just have my wife write it in her cleavage… then I have no problem remembering it.

    Seriously though… I’m the absolute WORST at names. I always resort to calling everyone “dude” or “man” or “Heeeeeeeey you!” I need to start associating their name with something memorable as you speak of above.

  3. PJ Mullen November 3, 2010 at 5:40 am #

    Ha! I read the title of this post too fast. I thought is said “How to MONETIZE Dam Near Anything”!

    • Keith November 3, 2010 at 7:45 am #

      PJ: Wouldn’t that be nice! :-)

  4. Jörg November 3, 2010 at 4:26 pm #

    I could almost repost the reply I made some time ago when you discussed to begin your kids history education with the Roman Empire. I still believe that it is better to start with local history for the reasons you gave in this Blog, it builds connections and kids can relate to it. Roman culture is complex and covers many different subjects. I did them in the 6th and 7th grade, as far as I can remember. We also went on school outings to Roman remains in our area which helped a lot to put class room knowledge into context.

    Regarding languages, I spent years in agony at school attempting to study English as a second language with little success. That changed when I enrolled at a language school in the UK were I learned in two weeks more than in a whole year back home at high school. But I felt that my progress was slower than I hoped. After I settled in the UK I managed to get 2 month off work. I used that time to ‘learn how to learn’. I realised that even rote memorisation, in combination with drawings, sound files etc., has its merits. Just don’t get pre compiled cards, create and research your own and use the newly learned stuff in real life situations. Prebuilt cards from the net don’t work very well for obvious reasons. Another trick is to use spaced repetition to avoid flicking through the whole pack wasting time and battling boredom only to learn the last stubborn flash card. I tend to use the Leitner algorithm but there are other systems available.

  5. TeachingMyToddlers January 4, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    Have you heard of Anki or SuperMemo? Basically, some smart guys have got “spaced repetition” down to science on how lodge information into your brain longterm. I heard about it from another homeschool dad/academic who uses with his kids but I haven’t tried it out myself yet be cause my kiddos aren’t quite old enough IMO.

    From your post, it sounds like you are on board with the peg theory of classical education. Do you follow a classical model in other subject areas? I’m still in the early stages of figuring out what approach we will settle on and I am curious to hear your feedback as to whether you are classical homeschoolers and why/why not.

    Love your blog! Great stuff. :)

  6. TeachingMyToddlers January 4, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

    Oops, forgot to leave you the link! Here’s a child using SuperMemo with his Dad. The lesson is custom made and based on facts they previously read in books.

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