End-of-term partials, competitions or exams, revisions cannot be improvised. For a good efficiency of this learning period it is important to understand how memory works. Everyone has their own way of learning, their own methods and “learning strategy”. The human brain contains 200 billion neurons (one hundred for the brain proper and one hundred for the cerebellum). Well, you can easily imagine that this immense brain cannot produce a single and unique memory. And since there are multiple memories and mechanisms, there is not ONE method (or recipe), but several. Here are the main ones (because there is a memory of faces, a musical memory, etc.) to revise well before an exam.

Biological memory: the law of neurons is repetition!

In the final analysis, all learning or memory corresponds on the level of the brain to connections between neurons, a little like the electrical connections in your house. However, these connections are not established by magic, but are built biologically by the growth (like the roots of plants) of thousands of ramifications, the dendrites. The law of Neurons is therefore repetition.

As neurons are real “factories”, they need energy, construction elements and they get tired. Thus research has shown that it is more effective to learn over time, with breaks so as not to exhaust the neurons, this is distributed learning. It is also necessary to favor sleep and therefore to remove the stimulants; It is also necessary to eat well, proteins, meat, fish, eggs, but also all the essential nutrients, lipids, sugars (slow; pasta, fries, banana…), and vitamins (varied food or supplements) and minerals ( chocolate, etc.).

Conversely, we must remove all that is harmful to the brain, alcohol (which destroys neurons and a structure that stores memories), tobacco (which reduces cerebral blood flow), drugs (including cannabis) that unbalance the chemical exchanges between neurons.

In summary, NO more cramming, you have to learn all year round and revise and on the contrary relax and eat well the days before the tests!!!

Revisions and short-term memory: danger… overload!

It is a discovery as revolutionary as that of protons and electrons inside the atom to have shown for Memory that there are two main systems, short-term (or Working) memory and long-term memory. To take the computer analogy, long-term memory is the hard disk with all the software and information (text, images, calculations, etc.) while short-term memory is the memory alive and the screen.

Short-term memory has two operating characteristics that must be well known to avoid the “black hole” at the time of the examination. This memory is like the library file, but it has only 7 cells: each cell contains the reference of a well-constructed file in long-term memory, a word, a concept (eg isosceles triangle), a image.

A very effective method is therefore to learn in small groups of information. For example three categories of four words each, 4 animals, 4 musicians, 4 flowers. Thus, thanks to the knowledge of the long-term memory (here the semantic memory), it suffices to retain in short-term memory “Animal” to then recover the four animal names.

In concrete terms, faced with a lesson (courses or manuals) or during revisions examinations, it must first of all be simplified to avoid overloading; an ideal plan is 3 titles and 4 subtitles. It is necessary that the pupil or the student remakes a course (or a small manual) summarized thus; it is the card system. Be careful, you have to do it yourself, and do not revise on the files of a friend or a friend; because it is the work of going back and forth between long-term memory and short-term memory, which will allow the structured recording of knowledge. Taking your friend’s plugs is like adapting the electrical plan of your neighbor’s house to yours!

The second characteristic of short-term memory is that it lasts 20 seconds. It is like a magic slate that erases itself to take care of other information. But don’t worry, if the cards have been well learned, structured and repeated, they are in long-term memory and can easily come back to short-term memory, to write during the exam.

Lexical memory: the good recipe is good old ‘rote learning’

The long-term memory corresponds for the computer to the hard disk which contains the software and the specialized knowledge, text, calculations, images. The big difference with the computer is that the memory contains two specialized “libraries” for words (and texts), Memory lexical memory for the body of words and semantic memory for their meaning. For these two dissertations, the methods are very different. Lexical memory is the body library of words; it is the manufacturing plant for the bodywork but not for the engine.

This body is composed of spelling (which comes from visual memories), phonology (which comes from auditory memory), pronunciation (vocal memory) and writing (graphical motor memory). The main method is REPETITION, the famous learning by heart, which must be rehabilitated. It generally takes (everything depends on the phonetic and spelling difficulty) a number of repetitions half the number of words to learn: ten repetitions for twenty words. If the words are difficult phonetically, they must be subdivided into syllables in order to learn them better, Xenophon, mycellium. This is particularly the case in chemistry for complex molecules, such as the famous deoxyribonucleic acid in acid-desoxy-ribo-nucleic (ribo being the contraction of a sugar, ribose)…

Semantic memory: a new method, “multi-episodic” learning.

Semantic memory, on the contrary, records abstractions, ideas, concepts. Its structure is hierarchical as in a tree structure; for example, an eagle is classified in the category of birds, itself classified in the category of “vertebrates”, then animals; It is therefore necessary to learn semantically, to make well-structured files, plans, diagrams, arborescences.

To understand, you also have to repeat, but semantic repetition is more subtle and is done by multiplying episodes, a method that I have called “multi-episodic learning.” Reading the course, reading the manual, television documentaries, research on the internet are all episodes to enrich semantic memory.

Image memory: beautiful images… virtual!

According to the popular idea, we have a “photographic memory”. Such a pupil thinks he “sees” in his head the page of his lesson, etc. This belief is false. Sensory memories do exist, but they are ephemeral. Visual sensory memory (called “iconic”) lasts only ¼ of a second, auditory memory 2.5 seconds. The impression of “seeing” the page of a book comes from another memory, the imaged memory.

This memory produces lasting but reconstructed, virtual mental images, hence the errors in eyewitness accounts. So fixing a diagram or a map to photograph them is a total illusion. The best method is multi-trial learning; for example, you have two sheets cut out to make eight small pages which you number from 1 to 8. You learn by repeating the words on the card for a minute, then you reproduce on answer sheet n°1 without looking at the model; then you relearn for a test n°2 for one minute the card, and so on until perfect reproduction. We speak of overfitting when the reproduction criterion is more difficult, for example three consecutive trials without error. Overlearning is safer for success, obviously.

Procedural memory: blacken paper with exercises! Useful for revisions.

Finally, there is another memory, procedural memory, which has still different mechanisms. Procedural memory encompasses learning sensory-motor, cycling, driving, playing a musical instrument…but also more abstract learning of rules, procedures, such as using the keyboard and mouse of a computer, or a game console.

So, in these examples, you know that at the beginning, you have to look for the icon, the window of the drop-down menu, look for the right title, and then after multiple repetitions, you click on the right, on the left, in the middle by automation while thinking of something else. I think a lot of math is abstract procedural. Thus for algebra, it is necessary to grope, to understand, to seek then with the repetition of similar exercises, one solves the problem almost automatically, the numbers passing on the other side of the equal sign, become by automatism of contrary direction, the demonstrations geometry, or certain integral or other calculations become automatic like multiplication in CM2.

If this procedural memory has a function of its own, it is because it depends on other structures of the brain, in particular the parietal cortex, which in Einstein was more developed! In total, no magic to revise well: the law of neurons means repeating, therefore learning over time what is incompatible with cramming. Finally, it must be remembered that each dissertation has its method and its recipes. With multiple memories, multiple methods…

Text and file: Alain LIEURY

Alain Lieury is Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Rennes 2. The author of more than 20 books, he notably published with Dunod the visual license textbook Cognitive psychology (2008), Psychology of memory (2004), But where is my memory (2005). 
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