How to Learn Faster Using Prior Knowledge
Memory competitions can be pretty insane. You can’t help but be impressed when someone memorizes a deck of cards in exact order in under a minute.
While most of us will probably never compete as a memory athlete, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a few things from their impressive feats.
I’m not just speaking about how to quickly memorize pieces of information. But how to apply their methods to help you learn faster and more efficiently.
Making the Unfamiliar More Familiar
So how do memory champions memorize huge lists of random words with seemingly little effort?
The method they employ is called a “memory palace”. It’s a common strategy used to associate new information with very familiar, personal locations. They make a strong association between the new piece of information and the location. Thus making it easier to remember when they try to recall the information.
Memory champions aren’t the first ones to pick up on this. Scientists are familiar with this method as well. For you, it’s a quick glimpse into how you can learn more effectively.
While these memory champions aren’t necessarily learning, they are committing information to memory. An important first step in learning. So let’s take a look at what’s going on.
Research from Carnegie Mellon noted an interesting relationship between working memory and the strength of information at hand. Their study found that it is easier to learn new information when it is composed of concepts that you are already familiar with.
Here’s what they did.
They took their favorite guinea pigs – 20 undergraduates – and had them learn something that they were completely unfamiliar with. In this case it was 64 Chinese characters. They learned the characters in 3 hour long sessions, once a week, over the course of a month.
The experiment gets a little more complex than that. In these sessions they were trained to do a visual search for the symbols among similar characters. The scientists selected half of the Chinese characters to pop up more often. 20 times more often, in fact. This was an effort to make some characters more familiar than others to the participants.
There was an additional task. Each week the students had to memorize an association between a pair of the symbols and a random English word. The pairs were always new, and made up of either the low frequency or high frequency characters.
Results Are In!
Can you guess what happened?
The scientists found that people remembered the novel character symbols more easily when they were composed of the more familiar Chinese characters. In short, new information was easier to learn when it was associated with information that was already familiar.
This same concept has been used by the memory athletes for years. But is has important lessons for both teachers and students. Reder – a lead on the study – had this to say about the results:
“This work has implications for how to optimize instruction, specifically that concepts should be introduced to students in a way that they have a good grasp and familiarity with those concepts before trying to combine them into more complex informational structures.”
There’s some other solid evidence to back this up. More than just memorizing some Chinese characters.
A 2014 study that was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found a which part of the brain helps in this process. The – brace for it – medial prefrontal cortex. It’s basically the front part of your brain that helps you link new information to ideas and concepts that you’re familiar with.
This study, as well, went to the go to guinea pigs of the research world. Yes, more college students.
Marlieke – a neuroscientist from Radboud University in the Netherlands – took students in their second year from two different areas of study. The first being biology and the second pedagogy.
While measuring brain activity with an fMRI scanner, the students learned information that either related to their chosen area of study or the one they weren’t familiar with.
The following day, those students were tested on the new information. Not surprisingly, the students remembered the new information better if it was related to their area of study.
Links, Bridges, and Gaps
They found that the front part of your brain signals the firing of existing information. This in turn makes the memories for the new information stronger when learning. Van Kesteren points out this importance in education:
“…if we know exactly how our brain uses prior knowledge, we could try to address that knowledge more selectively before we start learning new information. For example, you could consider how the new information is related to what you already know.”
There’s still some questions to be answered, but the takeaway is pretty clear. Whatever you can do to associate new information with familiar memories, concepts, and ideas, the easier it’ll be to remember and learn.
Association is also related to another great study tip.
Space out your study sessions.
This concept – called distributed practice – will do you more good in the long run than a one time cram session. Giving time for your memories to consolidate will help you familiarize yourself with new information. Thus, it will make newer incoming information easier to learn. Also….it’s a lot less stressful.
So when you’re sitting in class, or learning any kind of new information, do this:
Take a quick second and think about how this new information is similar to what you already know. The more concepts you can relate it to, and the stronger those associations, the better.
Svein Halvor Halvorsen