Learning about Learning
Our budgie was called Fergie. He used to chirp “Come on the Dons“ – this was in the day when Alex Ferguson held the reins at Aberdeen Football Club. For a brief period there was someone else parroting memorised words in our house. Not a football chant but 432 lines of classical poetry. For my Latin exam, I had to learn to translate a chunk of 30 randomly selected lines of poetry from Virgil’s Aeneid.
What do I remember of this exercise? Three things:
- bemusement as to what we were actually learning from this poetry memorisation
- frustration at being told to “just learn it”
- that two of the characters, Dido and Aeneas, took shelter in a cave during a storm and got it on. Hanky-panky was not something we usually came across in Latin.
Next time you’ve got a test coming up, here are two methods you can try when you have to “just learn it.”
Change your location
Research shows that varying where you study improves your ability to remember what you‘re studying.
In a famous study students were split into two groups. Each group had to learn a series of 40 four letter words. Group one studied in two ten minute sessions, a few hours apart, in the same room. Group two studied the same words in two ten minute sessions, a few hours apart but in two different rooms.
The first group who studied in one location remembered sixteen of the forty words. The second group who studied in two locations remembered twenty four words: 40% more.
So mix it up.
Change the desk, change the view, change the music. Consciously, you’re focusing on studying but unconsciously your brain is absorbing a mass of other sensory stuff. The layered lighting and shadows cast around the room, the feel of fabric covering the chair you’re sitting in, the smell of peppermint tea in a cafe.
All this fires up your neurons and enhances your memory, creating more associations with what you’re studying and building more neural scaffolding. And making it easier to recall what you were studying in a test.
Change your background
You can have fun with this one and get creative. Just as changing where you study helps, changing the format of what you’re learning also helps.
The same trio of psychologists mentioned above demonstrated benefits of this. They got two groups to learn twenty Swahili words. The first group saw a series of video clips with the Swahili words set against the background of a train station. The second group was presented with the exact same words but set against five different backgrounds: a rainstorm, a desert, a traffic jam, a living room and yes, a train station.
Can you guess the results?
The second group did much better in tests, remembering an average of sixteen Swahili words compared to nine or ten words that the same background group achieved.
To give you another example, a friend of mine recently took a class on British literature. During lectures on Jane Austen there were lots of green and pastoral scenes in the background of the slides, like rolling fields and trees. In contrast, lectures about Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner contained slides with lots of blue and seafaring imagery. The effect? It made things much easier to remember.
So, the next time you’re studying, choose a variety of locations and get creative with the background. Your test scores will jump.
I know that if my Latin teacher had taught us in a cave during a rain storm, I’d have been much better at Latin poetry.