Now for a test: In what year did Columbus sail the ocean blue? How many days hath September? What percentage of our brains do we actually use?

The answers are 1492, 30, and 100%.

How did you do? Many people would get the first two correct and the last one wrong. When something is stored in the brain and we can retrieve it easily— through a rhyme or because we have a strong association, for instance—it is an indelible memory. If you answered 10% to the last question you remem- bered correctly, but remembered a myth. The 10% myth is often repeated in our culture in ads and everyday conversations, and it's usually attributed to an authority, such as Albert Einstein. It's also believable: I must be using only 10% of my brain; otherwise, I would have remembered to turn off the stove/mail the check/make that appointment. No wonder so many of us have locked it away as a memory. In order to remember that it's a myth we'll have to make a concerted effort to re-learn or "un-learn" our prior knowledge.

Memory is not the same thing as learning. A person who remembers all sorts
of facts, dates, and information but does not understand their context, is not knowledgeable. A wise person understands concepts, analyzes and synthesizes ideas, and thinks critically—and knows that learning is not simply accruing bits of information. However, strengthening your memory will help you do well at college, so in this chapter, we will

  • define short-term and long-term memory
  • discuss the factors that support building memory
  • provide memorization tips and tricks
  • discuss multitasking and how it inhibits concentration

Short-term and Long-term Memory

Learning literally changes your brain: It changes the internal structure of neurons and increases the number of synapses between neurons. Memory is the record of the learning process.

Short-term memory is a temporary record. Most people's brains hold only about seven units of information for a few dozen seconds. You can capitalize on your short term memory by "chunking" information. Let's say you need to remember this number: 578206781. The task would exhaust your seven units of storage space unless you "chunk" the digits into groups. In this case, you could divide it into three chunks, like a social security number: 578 20 6781. By chunking the information and repeating it you can stretch the capacity of your short term memory.

Long-term memory includes memory of recent facts (if you can remember the three questions at the beginning of this section, they are technically in your long-term memory) as well as older, consolidated information. There are three processes involved in establishing a long term memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval.

Want to know more about the brain, learning, and memory?1)To encode, you assign meaning to the information. Let's say you wanted to remember the meaning of the word "monopoly." You might encode it by associating the word and its meaning with the board game Monopoly. You could encode it further by breaking the word into its root meanings: mono = "alone" and pol ="to sell." You could picture your sister monopolizing a conversation. You could assign it emotional or sensory significance (for example, imagining the word written in a certain color).

2) To store the word, you would review it and its meanings. (In other words, study.) Also, get some sleep. Research suggests that sleep plays a significant role in consolidating information.

3) To retrieve it, you follow the path you laid for yourself through encoding. Monopoly, hmm, it's like the board game and it reminds me of a certain company, I can see the word written in big steel-colored letters, I can hear my sister jabbering on and on...Ah! Monopoly is to have complete control over something!

Remember the story of Hansel and Gretel, the children who went for a walk
in the woods and scattered breadcrumbs behind them so they could find their way home later? Animals ate up their breadcrumbs and they were stuck with a wicked witch in a freaky gingerbread cottage. The moral of the story? Don't encode with breadcrumbs. You want something nice and lasting to help you find your way back to your stored memory.

Some long-term memories don't require deliberate encoding and storing: Your first kiss, a traumatic event, the smell of a favorite place. People can recall in great detail where they were and what they were doing on the morning of September 11th, 2001 because the shock of the events of that morning was so great.

Memory Retrieval: Recognize or RecallMuch of what you read, hear, and view in college, however, won't necessarily be intense. Therefore, you will need to make a concerted effort to learn and remember. Here are four factors that influence memory:

Attentiveness: Concentrate on the information.

Motivation: Decide why you want to remember the information. Sometimes this will come naturally. For example, you've probably forgotten the number we used in the "chunking" explanation earlier in this section because you recognized there was no motiva- tion to remember it. In other cases you'll need to determine the purpose and worth of the information.

Emotional state: Remembering your emotional state when you first took in the information can help retrieve it. Also, some emotional states are more conducive to encoding memories than others. If you're anxious and stressed about finals week you might retain a strong memory of your emotional state but have a hard time remembering the course content you need to master.

Context (sights, sounds, smells, place): Connecting the information to sensation, location, or other contextual clues will help you encode it.

You can improve your ability to remember information by incorporating these factors into your daily practice. Your participation in class, note taking, and regular study habits should all help strengthen your memory retention and learning.

Memorization Tips & Tricks

Once you're motivated to memorize material, try these tips and tricks:

Break it down: Memorize sections at a time. Take in new information piece by piece and rehearse as you go—it's less overwhelming than trying to remember the whole thing at once and it's more likely the content will make more sense when you master it bit by bit.

Organize it: What's most important? Which comes first, which last? Is one person, idea, or event dependent on another? What are the relationships between elements? Drawing a graphic organizer can help you understand the material better and retain it, too.

Practice it: Write it, recite it, work with it. The repetition builds the pathways you need to store the information in your long term memory.

Move it: Kinesthetic practice works for a lot of people. This can range from simply pacing while reading to choreographing memory hooks with facial expressions and body movements. The drawback of this method: Your roommate might think you've gone crazy. The benefits: You remember the information.

Over emphasize it: Too much of a concept or fact is sometimes just enough to retain it. When studying vocabulary, for instance, you could try using your newest words in many more situations than you normally would. ("Oh, thank you! That's so perspicacious of you! Do you think he's perspicacious? If I were more perspicacious I would have noticed that..." OK, OK, you get the point. Because you're perspicacious....)

Teach it: One way to ensure you've mastered material is to teach it to somebody else. Put it into your own words. Explain it. Draw it out for someone who is not familiar with the material. Anticipate questions a person might have about the topic and be prepared to answer them.

Use mnemonics. Mnemonics are memory tools that help you encode and retrieve information. Songs ("Fifty, nifty United States..."), rhymes ("I before E except after C..."), acronyms, and imagery are powerful ways to remember. Try including sensations in your imagery. 

Test it: You want to recall the information in a variety of situations. Reading a page of notes over and over is not going to help most people retain the informa- tion. Flashcards–or other means of splitting questions and answers, terms and definitions–are great for this because they force you to come up with the answer.

Your memory skills support all the other academic skills, so we'll come back to some of the terms and ideas from this section. Before we move on to reading, writing, and the other skills, we need to switch gears, interrupt this topic, take just a second, to talk about...hold on, let me pick up this call...multitasking.

The Case Against Multitasking

Memory depends on concentration. Multitasking interrupts concentration.
It inhibits learning and productivity. In his book CrazyBusy, psychiatrist Dr. Edward Hallowell defines multitasking as "a mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously."

The word multitasking itself is misleading, as research has consistently found that the brain does not have the capacity for focusing on many things at once. Instead, it switches among tasks. Focus. Switch. Focus. Switch. The result is a loss of focus, loss of productivity and, often, an increase in stress. Frequent multitaskers think they are exceptions, that they somehow have mastered the art of managing multiple tasks and information streams. Brain scans and other tests show otherwise. In an interview on National Public Radio, Professor Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, said, "Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not." In fact, those who think they are the best at multitasking are, in Miller's words, "deluding themselves."

In 2005, Dr. Glenn Wilson of the University of London conducted a study for Hewlett-Packard on the effects of multitasking. He found that workers distracted by email and phone calls experience a 10-point drop in IQ points—more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana or losing a night's sleep. It's not a permanent drop, but it's still counterproductive.

What about listening to music while studying? In this case, studies support what some students already knew: the brain can effectively block out or "quiet" white noise and music while focusing on a more challenging task, such as memoriz- ing geologic features or learning a chemistry equation. For many people, background noise stays in the background and doesn't compete with the more demanding stuff at hand.

How to break the multitasking habit:

Become conscious of your multitasking. How often do you check email while writing a paper? How frequently do you respond to interruptions such as texts and phone messages?

Set reasonable goals, e.g., "I will turn off my phone for one hour while I finish this math set."

Make it possible. Remove or limit distractions or, conversely, remove yourself from distracting situations. Dorm mates, your computer, the refrigerator—you know the worst (or favorite?) interruptions and can figure out ways to avoid them. For instance, some people choose to self-monitor time spent on certain websites; services such as allow users to set time limits on distracting websites. Ah, the ironies of college life! You finally move out of the house and now you're the one seeking Parental Control websites.

Reward yourself for focusing on one task at a time, e.g., "When I am satisfied I understand these equations I can check my email."

We realize that some of you are still not convinced. No amount of research or number of brain scans will persuade you that multitasking negatively affects learning and concentration. But there's nothing to lose from trying some of the above tips—and a lot to gain if at least one of them helps you focus and work more productively.

Memory Skills and Multitasking Exercises

  1. Describe a test you've taken recently that tested your ability to recognize information. How did you study for it? How did you do on it? What are the benefits and drawbacks of these kinds of tests?
  2. Now describe a test you've taken recently that tested your ability to recall information. How did you study for it? How did you do on it? What are the benefits and drawbacks of these kinds of tests?
  3. With a partner, create an exam for this chapter (or another chapter in this book) that tests students' abilities to recognize or recall informa- tion. Switch exams with another pair of students. After all parties have taken an exam and graded it, discuss the process: To what extent did preparing a test help you remember the material? What were the best questions and prompts? Why?
  4. Multitasking Log. Challenge yourself: What's the longest you can focus on a single school-related task, such as reading, studying, writing, researching, or working in the lab? The next time you're working on a school-related task, keep track of the number of minutes you spend on task versus the number of minutes you spend off task (checking email, getting a snack, picking out the perfect music to accompany your work, etc.) Write 1 – 2 paragraphs that reflect on what you learned about your own multitasking and/or the interruptions you encounter.



for more resources and exercises.