Maximizing Memory: Retaining Info for Exams

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When I was a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), I took a freshman-level psychology class to fulfill an elective requirement and build up my total hours. I wasn’t particularly interested in the course, but in hindsight, I’m glad I took it, mainly because of a particularly memorable experience I had.

 

One day, a certain Professor Rajan Mahadevan, a member of the UTK psychology department, gave a remarkable guest lecture on memory (incidentally, one of the few occasions I was actually awake in the class that semester).

 

Mahadevan certainly was qualified to discuss this subject — he was in “Guinness World Records” for his ability to recite the mathematical figure pi (about 3.14) to the 31,811th digit, the most at the time.

 

Interesting side note: His accomplishment was actually referenced in an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Apu claims he can recite pi to 40,000 places.

 

Following a brief introduction, Mahadevan proceeded to demonstrate his amazing capacity for recollection by reciting the social security number of every student in the class. After reassuring us that he would not use our personal information in some kind of identity theft scheme, he pointed to each one of us in turn, asked us our names and then reeled off our corresponding social security numbers without even stopping to think about them.

 

Perhaps the most amazing thing in all of this was that he had spent only a few minutes before the class skimming over a list of our names and numbers. He explained that the way he had memorized our information, as well as tens of thousands of digits of pi, was through a process he called “chunking,” that is, breaking a large number down into “chunks” of two, three and four digits and associating them with something meaningful. For example, one could remember 231898787 as 23 (Michael Jordan’s number), 1898 (the year of the Spanish-American War) and 787 (Boeing’s new Dreamliner jet) combined.

 

Mahadevan also maintained that a good memory was an acquired ability, which could be developed through rigorous practice. He offered himself as evidence of this, as he’d studiously built up his memory for several years.

 

Although the first focus of learning always should be on understanding the concepts behind a certain system, it is imperative to develop memory to place those concepts in an existing mental context, as well as be able to relate them to other things.

 

There are a variety of memory techniques IT professionals can use to master exam content or just information they might need to know on the job. Here are just a few:

 

 

  • Associate a set of related objects by matching the first letters in their titles with a related sentence or statement. For instance, I still remember the way the biological classification of animals breaks down (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species) through the sentence “King Philip came over from great Spain,” even though I haven’t needed to know it since high school. It doesn’t necessarily have to make sense (no Spanish king named Philip ever came over here) — it just has to be memorable to be effective.
  • Take down notes on a subject, copy the notes and then copy them again. If you read and write about something over and over again, it will be imprinted in your mind as if etched in steel. This method is especially good for a large volume of information.
  • Visualize what you’re thinking about in an interesting way. If you have to remember a particular name, title, number or any other bit of information, you can imagine it being spelled out in some ostentatious, fantastic manner. For instance, picture a word or sentence made up of colossal letters of blazing fire or, if you like, massive blocks of gleaming ice.
  • Create a concept tree. Draw up a classification structure that details how certain objects and/or concepts connect to one another, similar to the family tree genealogists use to illustrate lineage, then think about how these unite to form an overall system. By pegging items to specific places in a complex arrangement, you will remember and come to understand both the forest and the trees, so to speak.
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