What’s The Best Way To Memorize Things? Scientists Have The Answer

PITTSBURGH — Do you have trouble remembering events that happened in your life? A new study might be able to help. Psychologists at Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh are revealing fascinating insights into the mechanics of learning and memory retention. These studies show how our brains remember real-world experiences and suggest novel approaches to improve memory by manipulating learning intervals and content variability.

The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, emphasize two key strategies for enhancing memory: varying the material studied and spacing out study sessions over time. The effectiveness of these strategies, however, hinges on the nature of the information being memorized.

“For example, if you cram the night before a test, you might remember the information the next day for the test, but you will probably forget it fairly soon,” says study author Benjamin Rottman, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Causal Learning and Decision-Making Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, in a university release. “In contrast, if you study the material on different days leading up to the test, you will be more likely to recall it for a longer period of time.”

Yet, real-world learning seldom involves repeated encounters with identical information. This reality prompted researchers to explore how the spacing effect operates amidst the variability inherent to our daily experiences. For instance, while certain aspects of visiting a local coffee shop may remain constant, others, such as the person serving you, might change.

To address this, researchers conducted two large-scale experiments. The first involved participants using smartphones to study material at various times throughout the day, thereby mimicking real-life learning patterns more accurately. The second experiment collected data online in a single session. These methodologies allowed the researchers to examine the impact of timing on memory, spanning from seconds to minutes and hours to days, and how variations in learning content affect recall.

Older couple looking at photos
(Credit: Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels)

“The combination of these two large-scale experiments allowed us to look at the timing of these ‘spacing effects’ across both long timescales — for example, hours to days — in experiment number one versus short timescales — for example, seconds to minutes — in experiment number two,” explains study lead author Emily Cowan, a postdoctoral fellow in Temple’s Adaptive Memory Lab. “With this, we were able to ask how memory is impacted both by what is being learned — whether that is an exact repetition or instead, contains variations or changes — as well as when it is learned over repeated study opportunities.”

“In other words, using these two designs, we could examine how having material that more closely resembles our experiences of repetition in the real world — where some aspects stay the same but others differ — impacts memory if you are exposed to that information in quick succession versus over longer intervals… from seconds to minutes, or hours to days.”

Conversely, associative memory, or the ability to remember the connection between different pieces of information, benefits from stability and exact repetition, especially with extended intervals between study sessions.

“For example, if you are trying to remember the new person’s name and something about them, like their favorite food, it is more helpful to repeat that same exact name-food pairing multiple times with spacing between each,” notes Rottman.

Rottman also cautions against oversimplifying these findings into one-size-fits-all study advice, noting the complex nature of memory and the varied tasks it encompasses. Further research is needed to refine these strategies for specific learning objectives.

“This work demonstrates the benefits of spaced learning on memory are not absolute, instead depending on the variability present in the content across repetitions and the timing between learning opportunities, expanding our current understanding of how the way in which we learn information can impact how it is remembered,” says Cowan. “Our work suggests that both variability and spacing may present methods to improve our memory for isolated features and associative information, respectively, raising important applications for future research, education, and our everyday lives.”

The study was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

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  1. Has there ever been a study anywhere, at any time, on any subject that did not end with …: ” Further research is needed ..”
    Also known as : “give me more money so that I don’t actually have to find a job.”

  2. An increasing number of Study Finds articles are difficult and time consuming to get through, let alone remember. I like to go through the daily email and read the articles I am interested in, but with all the ads and the backwards way they are written, putting important details nears the end of the article, it takes longer and is more confusing.

    If you want to help people remember your articles, write them in a way that they used to recommend for newspaper articles – that is, put the main facts up front so the reader can get to them first and fast, then elaborate the details into the body of the article.

    But the whole purpose of this, to see ads, has this rule gone and puts information through a confusing array of ads so the reader has to click through the whole article to find the important parts.

    Also, answer the question who, what, when, where and why.

  3. This article does not clearly describe the results of the studies being discussed. The text talks about what “could” be tested, but doesn’t tell what was actually observed. The paragraph starting with “conversely” contrasts associative memory to what exactly?

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