This blog is the fourth of six installments in the “Learning and Memory” series that investigates the science behind learning. Each blog is a bite-sized version of articles written by Amplifire’s chief research officer, Charles Smith. To read the full article, follow the link to “7 Cognitive Triggers for Learning.”

Imagine you’re sitting down for a big test, having studied for hours the past several nights. You’re staring at a question and the content looks familiar, but you can’t quite figure out the right answer. You cannot remember crucial information in the middle of an important test — but you could recite all the words to a random song you liked years ago.

If only there was a way to ensure you’re committing information to memory. Well, as it turns out, there are seven neuroscientist-approved “hacks”! The Amplifire platform was developed based on these learning methods, researched by some of the world’s leading neuro- and cognitive scientists. We’re here to help you learn smarter, not harder. So, that’s why we’re sharing our tried-and-true techniques with you!

Tap into your three selves

Before we jump into the learning methods, it’s essential to understand where these techniques originate. These learning methods aren’t pulled out of thin air — they appeal to the core of human biology and nature.

The first concept of the three-part self was crafted long ago in 380 BCE. Plato is credited with first proposing that the complexity of human individuality can be described in three parts. In Plato’s best-known work, “The Republic”, Socrates discusses the nature of the soul as three integrated parts:

“The one with which a man reasons we call the rational principle of the soul, the other, with which he loves and hungers and thirsts and feels the fluttering of any other desire, may be termed the irrational or appetitive soul…. And what of passion or spirit?… You remember that passion or spirit appeared at first sight to be a kind of desire, but now we should say quite the contrary, for in the conflict of the soul spirit is arrayed on the side of the rational principle.”
—Plato, “The Republic, Book IV”

Plato Three Selves

In the 21st century, perhaps neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux expands Plato’s theory:

“The cognitive revolution brought the mind back to psychology, but thinking and related cognitive processes were emphasized (and for the most part still are) at the expense of emotion and motivation. Thinking cannot be fully comprehended if emotions and motivations are ignored.”—Joseph LeDoux, “The Synaptic Self”

The three pillars of selfhood describe who we are psychologically and can inform what we know about the how the brain works. Today, we understand the three parts of selfhood to be cognition, emotion, and motivation. In this blog, we’ll focus on cognition, which allows us to focus on information and circumstances so that we can then make decisions and act. Cognition both creates and pulls from memories while operating in the present.

How to learn better and remember more…

…or as we like to say at Amplifire, “how to make learning stick” — as Science Advisory Board member Henry Roediger writes in his book “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.” Among a number of other learning triggers, these seven cognitive triggers are derived from the way the brain codes and interprets incoming information. In this case, we’re talking about the prefrontal cortex region (PFC).

The PFC is like a general receiving information from commanders in the field. He thinks about their advice and then sends orders back for action. This flow of information from the PFC (general) to lower regions (commanders) is called top- down executive control. Try this example of how this works:

Stroop Test

This task demonstrates information intake and the decisions your brain makes on the fly in the PFC. When you read the word red you automatically think of the color red. This is bottom-up processing at work, and it does not require active decision making. When you see the word red, it takes executive top-down control to override the signals coming up from regions lower down in the sensory hierarchy. You are forced to pay attention and resolve the conflict, drawing information from other regions of the brain to contribute. The flow looks like this:

We can now picture how the PFC integrates the information entering the brain in the present moment. And we can understand that it both sends information into long-term memory storage (LTM) and retrieves information from LTM. But how is that information organized? Is there some kind of structure that is optimal for long-term memory? The answer is yes!

The network model, as proposed by Loftus et al, shows that information in memory is stored as a network of highly associated units of information called nodes. Each node represents some aspect of a thing or idea.

Semantic Hierarchy

So, with the learning and information intake and retrieval process in mind, as well as the visualization of how memory is stored, we have the framework to lay down our best memorization methods.

Maximize learning potential with these memory hacks:

1. Repetition

The rehearsal process is one of the most effective ways to create long term memory. Science has shown time and time again that repetition is an effective way to commit information to memory.

Psychologist Herrmann Ebbinghaus demonstrated that a first learning attempt creates a memory trace, but that trace is vulnerable to rapid forgetting. He also discovered that memory improves through repetition and flattens the rate at which we forget things.

In the 1950s, psychologist Donald Hebb postulated repetition is linked to the strength of the synaptic connections between neurons — memory formation. He pointed out that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The more something is repeated, the stronger the memory pathway is forged.

2. Elaboration

The great American psychologist, William James, describes elaboration, “The one who thinks over his experiences most, and weaves them into systematic relations with each other will be the one with the best memory.” In short, the more associations you can link to incoming information, the better chance it has of sticking in your brain.

For example, imagine a zebra. The PFC activates associated nodes with the meaning of the word — stripes, Africa, prey, horses, grasslands and so on. Elaboration is an active exchange between the PFC and long-term memory. The elaborative process strengthens the existing network of associated patterns that give meaning to the word zebra. When applied to new information, elaboration is a powerful learning technique.

3. Retrieval

Hear us out — assessment can be one of the most effective ways to learn. However, we’re not talking about the brain-freeze moment in the middle of an important test. We are referring to self-testing.

In a study (Roediger and Karpicke) where groups of students were asked to 1) read a passage four times, 2) read the passage three times and test memory once, and 3) read a passage once and test memory three separate times, the third group that prioritized memory testing rather than merely repetition retained 62% of the original information, whereas the first group retained only 39%. This demonstrates the power of activating the brain’s natural retrieval process to commit information strongly to memory.

4. Priming

Psychologists have discovered that pre-testing prior to study effectively primes the mind for information. A 2010 experiment conducted by psychologists demonstrated the potency of priming on memory:

Before studying the material, one group of students was pre-tested on a complicated passage involving the biology of vision. Since they weren’t familiar with the material, they had to guess the answers. Another group of students learned the material in the normal manner — they studied… a lot. When retention was tested three days later, the students who had pre-tested outperformed the students who spent a lot of time studying only. Priming tends to activate the network of memory nodes in our brain, like we saw above. This forms stronger associations than unintroduced new material.

5. Context

Speaking of associations, another effective memorization technique is context. Unexpectedly, context is very important when a student is learning material that will later be tested. In one experiment designed by Smith, Bjork, et al, subjects in either of two rooms were given 80 words to study and remember. The rooms differed in location, color, size, and smell. Subjects who were later tested in the same room could remember 49 words on average. Subjects tested in the different room remembered just 35 words. Context could improve memory by 40%.

This technique draws on the associated network in our brain, forging new material in a pathway that is already strong. There are many ways to retrieve that information other than simply trying to remember facts.

6. Feedback

The Darwinian point of view suggests that organisms that are better at applying learning towards life-sustaining activities and avoiding life-threatening situations will be more successful over time. While memory isn’t always a matter of life or death, tapping into that biological trigger can be useful, even when studying for a test or remembering a grocery list.

Studies have shown that feedback in the form of a correct answer and explanation can improve retention dramatically. We all know the feeling of getting something wrong but having no access to the correct answer — or worse, when the correct answer is given but we have no idea of why it is right. Feedback solidifies the correct answer by paving over misconceptions with confident, detailed, accurate answers.

7. Spacing

Many experiments have demonstrated that long-term memory is greatly enhanced by distributing the learning sessions over time. In psychology this is called either distributed practice or the spacing effect.

The spacing effect shows that “cramming” information in one massed setting is about the worst of all possible ways to learn anything for the long term — much to many students’ chagrin. Here’s how a spacing experiment sets up the gap between two study sessions and the interval before the test:

Spacing Structure

Research reveals that the optimal study gap to test interval is 10% to 20%. That breaks down in the following practical manner:

  • If the time to the test is 1 week, the optimal study gap between initial study and restudy is 1 day.
  • If the time to the test is 1 year, the optimal study gap is 3 weeks.

When restudy takes place too closely following the initial study session, there is little effect on memory. However, learners can achieve 300% memory gain if the proper study gap to test interval is used.

When we tap into the natural processes of the brain, we learn and remember so much better. Ditch the cramming and learn smarter, not harder!

Interested in diving deeper into this subject? Check out the full research article “7 Cognitive Triggers for Learning” for more cognitive science discoveries, theories, and scenarios. Next in the series, we’ll go even deeper into brain function by discussing emotional triggers as powerful conditions for learning.

From the beginning, Amplifire has relied on innovative brain science to guide its product development to create the most effective learning and training solution, perfectly tailored to the way the human brain works. Learn more about how Amplifire helps people learn better and faster by scheduling a demo.