Remembering Things

23.09.2018 |

Episode #4 of the course The science of learning by Benjamin Keep


Welcome back.

Last lesson, we mentioned how cognitive load impairs memory. Learning most skills requires remembering some information, but many learners use ineffective approaches to remember. Often, students will re-read or highlight material as a way of remembering material. The techniques discussed below—generation and elaboration—are much more effective.

Think of memories like a giant network. Memories are associated with each other in a specific way. Hearing a bark reminds you of a dog; hearing your friend’s name will make it easier to remember their face. Two learning mechanisms exploit this idea: generation and elaboration.



Generation is about making the links between memories stronger. When we try to remember something, our brain strengthens the link to what we’re trying to remember. Flashcards use generation. When we try to remember the words on the back of the flashcard, we strengthen the association between the word we see on the front and the word on the back. This strengthening occurs only in one direction. The front of the flashcard is the prompt to remembering what’s on the back of the flashcard. Often, you want to strengthen the connections between both sides, so switching the back for the front is usually a good idea.

Another generation technique is “free recall.” Take out a blank sheet of paper, and try to remember everything you know about a certain topic. This is a workout, and you might be surprised by what you don’t think of. Recalling things in this way is much more challenging than merely recognizing that you have seen or heard something before. It’s also more challenging than using flashcards because with flashcards, you have a prompt to remember: the front of the card. Doing this kind of exercise periodically is one of the best ways of reinforcing what you learn, especially when you can refer to a reference afterward to see what you didn’t remember.

Generation is most effective when your brain has to work hard to remember something. When you’re getting the flashcards perfectly right, you’re probably not strengthening your memories very much. Best to wait until you are on the cusp of forgetting, then go through them again. This is the difference between massed practice (cramming for a test) and spaced practice (studying for a test a little bit every day). Several apps help give you flashcards at the optimal time: Anki, Memrise, Supermemo, and many others.



Elaboration works on a different principle. Instead of strengthening a connection between memories, elaboration involves adding meaningful new connections.

When we’re trying to remember something, we reach through a host of potentially associated memories. When you have more associated memories, the target memory is easier to recall. Word associations, hierarchical memory structures, and even visualizations can be elaborations. Elaboration is also the basis for mnemonic devices. “Roy G. Biv” links a simple name to the color spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Almost any kind of elaboration is better than no elaboration at all. In one study, students who just evaluated how well words are related to economics were able to remember more words than those in non-elaborative conditions (“debt”—related; “theater”— less related). But elaborations are best when they are relevant and precise.

If we’re trying to remember what the word “endotherm” means, we could use a generation approach and take our flashcards out. Or, we might elaborate on this word. It has two roots: “endo,” meaning inside or within, and “therm,” meaning heat or temperature. Imagine a thermometer or a glowing coal inside of us. Endotherm refers to animals that can regulate their internal temperature themselves—more commonly known as “warm-blooded” animals.


How Can These Ideas Help?

Flashcards can be an effective way of studying, especially if you need to remember a lot of things, but you need to use them correctly. It’s almost always best to practice using both sides as the “front” of the card.

Cramming is a bad way to learn. It’s far more effective to space your practice out. Consider using free recall as a way of remembering the material: Few people use this effective method. Look for opportunities to elaborate on what you’re learning.

For this lesson, try a free recall exercise on what you’re trying to learn. Take out a blank sheet of paper, and write down all you can. Then check with a reliable source to figure out what you missed. I’ll do the same with my Chinese “directions” goal: Try to remember all direction-related words and sentence constructions that might be used.

In the next lesson, we’ll move on to learning strategies that target more complex skills than remembering.

Happy learning!



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Recommended book

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel


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