Effective memorization

Planned repetition and interaction with the material is the key to memorization. Human memory is unreliable. If not maintained, large amount of information stored in our brains will become unavailable. It will not disappear completely, but recollection will become difficult. Fortunately, understanding the process of forgetting allows to slow progressing deterioration of memories.

The first person who conducted a study of human memory in an organized way was the professor of psychology Hermann von Ebbinghaus. In 1894-1905 he was lecturing at the University of Wrocław (then Breslau). In the process, he memorized sets of nonsense syllables and tried to recreate them after pre-defined period of time, e.g. hour, day, or week. His results led to creation of the forgetting curve that visualises how information “evaporates” from memory over time. Apparently, after 20 minutes almost 50% of material gets forgotten. On the next day, about 60% of memorized information flees. After a month, less than one-fifth remains!

Ebbinghaus was a pioneer, but his methods were disputable. He used only one memorization technique and a single subject – himself. Yet, modern research on memory and information recollection confirmed his conclusions. It is now commonly accepted that planned and regular repetitions allow for effective learning. In principle, repeated studying followed by repeated testing allow to store information in a long-term memory. These two activities, though similar, are fundamentally different.

Repeated studying – Repetitions greatly impact the long-term preservation of memorised material. Re-learning fills the gaps that arise over time, which is precisely the reason why regular repetitive sessions are so important. Actually, the first re-learning session should take place the same day the initial study took placeEvery evening it is necessary to set aside some time to review and repeat everything that was studied earlier on that day. Just this one activity, regularly repeated, will significantly improve our ability to learn and memorize. Repetitions should be then scheduled for the following days: the first on the second day, the next one a week later, etc. It is good to experiment a bit to find the optimal time intervals as they depend on the individual predispositions, but also the amount of material to master, the amount of free time, etc.

Repeated testing – one can repeatedly learn the same material in the hope of remembering it, and after a while it will most probably happen. It turns out that it is not a repetition, but it is the activation of memorised information that stimulates the process of perpetuation. To take advantage of this fact, we shouldn’t just review our notes, but rather attempt to use and reflect on the knowledge as much as possible. Repetitive study sessions should be enriched with variety of tests. For example, as often as possible rewrite your notes from memory. Also, with your own words, as detailed as you can, summarize the contents of the article, lecture, or book chapter you are trying to master. When you’re done, compare what you wrote from the memory, with a source material or your own earlier notes to see how much you’ve successfully reproduced, then fill the gaps during the next study session and take another test.

It is important to make study sessions a combination of both described methods. As reported in [1], simple repeating of the material (re-learning) is not enough. Only frequent activation and testing of memorised information allows to store it permanently in the long-term memory.


  1. Jeffrey D. Karpicke, Henry L. Roediger III, The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning, Science vol.319, No. 5865, February 15, 2008

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