Sometimes how you approach a problem is as important as the work you do to solve it. A good example of this is vocabulary improvement – you might be making the task much harder than it needs to be only because you aren’t organizing your study program in the best way. Because a very large part of vocabulary development involves memory, you need to know two things: first, how your memory works; and second, how you can optimize your memory skills to support your vocabulary improvement. Here’s what you need to know in order to make your study sessions as effective as possible:
1. Learn how short-term and long-term memory work. Many people make the mistake of trying to memorize long lists of words all at once – they’re often students who left study to the last minute, frantically trying to cram in as much information as they can in the wee hours of the morning. Unfortunately, your short-term memory can only hold a certain amount of information at once. You need to give your brain time to process the information in your short-term working memory and move it to long-term memory before adding something new. Of course, if you train your memory, you’ll be able to both increase the amount you’re able to process at once, and require less time for that processing. On average, though, most people can only take in between six and eight pieces of information at one time.
2. Help your brain form the vital connections you need to create long-term memories. Memories are formed primarily of connections; the brain automatically tries to create those connections when storing information in the form of memory. You can speed up this process by actively creating connections yourself as you study. For example, don’t just learn one word, learn one or two of its synonyms at the same time. This grouping of information forms a larger unit that makes a more concrete memory. You can also incorporate visual elements into your vocabulary study, associating a word with an image. This activates several parts of your brain simultaneously, which makes a stronger connection.
3. Use all your senses to create the strongest possible web of information and memory. We all learn things by many means: through our eyes, our ears, our sense of smell, and our sense of touch. No matter which method you usually use, if you deliberately use more than one you’ll be stimulating your brain to take in the information in several ways at once, which will create strong memories. Write out words and say them out loud. Use the words in a quick “one-act play” to practice them in context. If you can demonstrate a word with physical movement, as in the game of Charades, it’s a great way to have fun while learning as well.
4. Emphasize the information by repetition. It’s important to review the information you learn shortly after you first learn it. Think of a hammer hitting a nail into a board: usually, it takes several strikes before the nail is all the way in the wood. In the same way, repetition of the half-dozen words you’ve just learned will hammer the information into your long-term memory, and you’ll find it much easier to recall later.
Cross-posted at The Vocabulary Builder’s Blog.