Relational Memory for Long-term Memory
When you meet someone new, you might try to learn what the two of you have in common. You’re taking Biology? I took that last year. Who’s your teacher. You have Mr. Smith? So did I. He’s really kind of crazy isn’t he? If you discover that your new friend is your best friend’s cousin, if you like the same kind of music and watch some of the same TV shows, you are finding relationships. Soon, you will feel like old friends.
Luzviminda and Ninita just met each other a few hours ago. They love the same movies, are both crazy about the same singer and they both plan to attend the same college to study education. And, from the picture, we might say they both share the same sense of humor. They have become good friends.
This is exactly what you want to do with new information you are learning. If you encounter a totally strange piece of information…. you never heard of it before …. it doesn’t apply to you in any way that you know of…. you aren’t interested in this information … then it won’t take long before you forget that you ever heard of it.
If you are read something about schizophrenia and you remember a friend of your mother who’s daughter was schizophrenic… perhaps you’re not quite sure what that means but you’d like to know…. or if you just read a book about someone who was schizophrenic …. or you know it’s some kind of mental illness and you are seriously thinking about becoming a psychiatrist, you will want to know more and, because you have associated it with your own experience, you are likely to find it easier to pay attention to what you learn and you will remember it much longer.
How can we use this information to remember what we study?
1. There is a common study method called KWL: Before reading, you ask What do I KNOW about this subject and what do I WANT TO know about this subject. When you finish reading, you ask what did I LEARN about this subject.
Some people might think it’s a waste of time but give it a try. If you are learning about World War II and you start by thinking about what you know, you are forming a relationship or association with the material you are about to read. The new information actually attaches itself to what you knew, and they are stored together in the same part of the brain. The more ways you can associate the new information with previous information the more quickly it moves from short-term to long-term memory.
2. When you ask “What do I WANT to know about this subject?” you are forming a different kind of association. If you have a question, you will be more focused on what you are reading (or hearing in a lecture.) If you find the answer, you will be excited. This is what you were looking for. Because it’s an answer to your own question, not just your teacher’s question, you will find it easier to remember. It is meaningful for you. Some students ask a question because they know they should but have no real interest in the answer. They won’t remember as long. The greater your interest in the question, the easier it will be to remember the answer.
3. When you can relate the information you are learning to your own personal experience, especially if that experience is highly emotional, you will remember the information longer. You are reading about Pearl Harbor, how the Japanese bombed American Ships in Hawaii. If you have a good friend who grew up in Hawaii, if that friend has told you about how her grandfather was killed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, there is no question that you will want to learn more and that you will remember it.
What if you can’t find any associations?
Obviously, this is a common experience. In chemistry it might be difficult to find ways to relate to the information. You might read biographies of famous chemists. Their experiences become your experiences. You might read simple nonfiction books on the subject. When you know a little about the subject, you will find it easier to learn more. You can read the chapter first and then ask questions that really seem interesting to you. The more you want to know, the more you get personally involved with the subject, the easier it is to learn and the longer you will remember what you are learning.