If I were to read out a list of 30 words to you and then asked you to recall them for me, you would be able to recall some words from the beginning of the list, some from the end but only a few from the middle of the list. (If you don't believe me, try it). These effects are known as PRIMACY (words from the beginning of the list) and RECENCY (words from the end of the list). Unless you were applying a mnemonic technique, it is highly unlikely that you would recall all of the words. You would however be able to recall words that were repeated or connected in any way and any outstanding or unusual words (for example the word "Rhinoceros" in a list of underwear is outstanding just as the word "Underpants" sticks out in a list of large African Herbivores).
"But", I hear you ask, "how can we use this?" If we were to study for hours and hours and hours (like I am sure it seems to you sometimes) without a break, then we would find that the dip in recall between the PRIMACY and RECENCY effects would be considerable. On the other hand, if we stopped every 5 minutes for half an hour then we would not give ourselves enough time to get into the flow of learning and we may as well not bother.
So we need to find a balance between these two extremes. You will be pleased to hear that I am going to encourage you to take more breaks when you are studying. Split your study time into 20-50 minute chunks with 10 minute breaks in between when it is important that you relax or do something physical or creative.
The time chunks will mean that you create more PRIMACY / RECENCY high points and so remember more from your studying. The breaks will give your mind a chance to rest from learning and doing something different will actually stimulate it.
Instead of poring over your notes solidly for 3 hours, if you split the time up into 50 minute segments, you will actually remember more during your learning periods.
"Brilliant," I hear you exclaim, "but what about being able to recall this information after I have learnt it?" That is a good point. Can you imagine only having to learn something once and then have the ability to recall it whenever you wanted? Sounds too good to be true?
Well, it is possible but it does require a little effort. Let's imagine that you went to a class, listened to the teacher, took your notes and at the end of the lesson threw your notebook into your bag. How much information do you think you would remember about what you learnt by the end of the following day? Well a chap called Ebbinghaus proved that within 1-2 days, we forget about 80% of what we have learnt. That seems quite a waste doesn't it? There is a way to overcome that problem.
At the end of an hour's learning, your mind integrates the information that you have just studied so that your ability to recall it actually rises, peaks after about 10 minutes and then falls off dramatically. Now if you review what you have learnt at that 10 minute point, you will reinforce the information at its strongest in your mind. (I will be writing about a suitable note taking technique to allow you to do this in future articles, so just bear with me).
Your ability to recall this information will remain at a high point for about a day before it begins to drop off rapidly. So it is a good idea to review what you have learnt again after a day. This second review will mean that your ability to recall what you have learnt will remain for about a week before it begins to tail off again so guess what we do after a week? Full marks to those who think we should review again.
If you are worried about all these reviews, don't be because with the right note taking technique, each review will only take a couple of minutes. After this third review your recall will last for about a month at which your fourth review will keep the information accessible by you for up to 6 months. A fifth review after 6 months will meant that the information is firmly logged in your long-term memory.
In summary then:
1. Study for as long as you like but make sure it is in 20-50 minute chunks with breaks of 10 minutes where relaxation and/or something physical and fun is mandatory.
2. Review what you have learned:
10 minutes after learning
1 day after learning
1 week after learning
1 month after learning
6 months after learning.
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