- Moving the information you’re working with for a chapter or an article into long-term memory frees up your working memory to focus on other writing tasks.
- Consciously engaging with the content of the content you select as relevant from your sources earlier rather than later has multiple benefits that lead to better thinking and better writing.
- A brief period of wakeful rest after you’ve learned new material will help encode it in long-term memory faster.
- Minimizing distractions when you’re learning new information will help you move it into long-term memory.
- Recent research suggests that retrieval learning is a more effective and efficient way of moving new information into long-term memory than re-reading and studying.
Long-term memory is the permanent storage of facts and memories. Scientists have identified two types of long-term memory: episodic and semantic. Episodic memory is sometimes called autobiographical memory; it’s the set of memories you have that are attached to experiences you’ve had. This essay focuses on semantic memory–your knowledge of the facts, definitions, and concepts you’ve learned over the course of your life. Semantic memories are created when you have repeated exposure to information (Slotnik 2017).
New information gets stored in long-term memory through a process called consolidation. Scientists aren’t sure what the exact mechanisms are that store a memory in long-term memory such that it is easily retrievable. Right now there are competing theories of how this happens and the scientific method will eventually sort it out. We do know some things about how long-term memory operates, though, and this information is relevant for you as an academic writer because in your writing work you manage huge amounts of information as you construct texts. What follows is information about better ways of working that will help you store information in long-term memory and retrieve it when you need it.
There are specific changes you can make when you take notes that will help you store information in long-term memory faster. Taking the time to engage intellectually with the content and then think about (and make notes about ) how that content relates to your thinking about your topic will help you move new information from short-term memory into long-term memory. Don’t underestimate the value of writing notes to yourself about your immediate thoughts about new content. You think that of course you’ll remember your brilliant insights, but you probably won’t. Your brain will be very busy doing other things. You need to write down what you’re thinking, even if it’s only words and phrases. You’ll thank yourself later when you are ready to write.
The process of taking notes has changed so much in just the last decade. Now much of what we read, certainly in the article literature, is online. We no longer photocopy articles and highlight relevant sections and write notes to ourselves in the margins. This has big implications for how much we store in long-term memory. In the pre-PDF days, we engaged with the content at a fairly deep level at first read. The action of selecting particular sentences and paragraphs for highlighting, a note in the margin, or perhaps a Post-It note meant that we were processing new information and linking it to the ideas we were building for our own writing projects at the earliest stage of a project.
Now it’s possible to select text from a PDF during a skim-read and paste whole sections in a document without seriously engaging with it. That’s a very different process from handwriting or typing notes about what we read. We’re doing only one of the many tasks we used to do when we processed an article: our mental effort is limited to the task of selecting relevant text. We can process ten or more articles in this way during a work session. That feels like we got some good work done, and it’s true that this copy-and-paste work is moving us forward. But we haven’t truly engaged with that text. Perhaps we haven’t even read all the words in the text we copied and pasted. We saw a few key ideas and identified a passage as relevant, then moved on to the next article.
A better way of working is to return to the texts you’ve copied and pasted before the end of that work session to read all the words and use boldface or highlighting for key concepts. Then make some tentative notes about your earliest thoughts about how you can use this information in your text–why it’s relevant, how it connects to the ideas of another author you’re using in your project, what the ideas of this author make you think about. As soon as you have a tentative outline, you can move your notes (with the citations) into the relevant sections of your outline. I like to process all the articles for one section of my outline before moving on to a new section. I may need several work sessions to get through all the articles for that section, but that’s actually good, because with each session, I review new knowledge from previous sessions and think about how the ideas of various authors relate to each other and how they relate to my own ideas.
This level of cognitive work–engaging with new ideas and immediately thinking about how new ideas connect to each other and to your own thinking–helps your brain move new knowledge into long-term memory. That frees up space in your working memory to do all the tasks it does when you’re writing. The important element here is the thinking work as you engage with texts that have new knowledge for your project.
There’s another advantage to doing this level of thinking at this very early stage of your project. Researcher Anke Wischgoll (2016) has found that pairing a metacognitive skill (in this case, thinking about how content relates to your project) with a cognitive skill (selecting text from your sources for relevance) improves the quality of both first drafts and revised drafts. In other words, investing effort in doing metacognitive work at the early stage of notetaking can improve the quality of your writing throughout the process.
Finally, this method of taking and working with notes will enable you to see patterns in your data sooner rather than later. This has two effects: first, you’ll be mentally organizing which source belongs in which section of your chapter or article. The huge amounts of data you’re dealing with will seem less overwhelming. Second, associating the new knowledge you’re encountering with patterns benefits your short-term memory; it makes it easier for short-term memory to manage larger volumes of data. The sooner you can see patterns in your data, the sooner you’ll be able to use it to serve your developing analysis (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000).
You’ll be very happy to learn that it’s important to rest your brain after learning new information. I’m not talking about naps; wakeful rest refers to unplugging mentally. In one experiment that tested the value of wakeful rest, researchers asked study participants to close their eyes in a darkened room for 10 minutes after they heard a story. Then the participants were asked to recall as many details of the story as they could. When their recall of the story was tested seven days later, they remembered much more than usual. The researchers theorized that a resting brain was much better able to consolidate new data than an active brain (Dewar et al. 2012).
Two years later, the same research team did another experiment to test whether rehearsing new knowledge during wakeful rest could be an intervening variable that explained their 2012 findings about wakeful rest. This time instead of telling study participants a story, they asked them to look a lists of non-recognizable words–words that couldn’t be memorized or rehearsed during the rest period. They found the same results: after wakeful rest, participants recalled a higher percentage of words than was expected and the same was true seven days later. This time the research team theorized that the brain was able to consolidate new memories more efficiently because no new information was coming in to compete with the knowledge being encoded. So good news–after processing and sifting through new information, all you need to do is power down for a few minutes. Your brain will do the rest (Dewar et al. 2014).
Minimizing Distractions While Learning New Information
Distraction comes in many forms. It could be a bird flying outside the window, a barking dog in the yard next door, the sound of the photocopier down the hall, or a child asking over and over when you’ll be done with your work. Distractions have a clear effect on how much we remember and how confident we are about what we remember. Think of being in the grocery store while you’re striving to remember an item that got added to the list at the last moment but isn’t written down. While you’re walking up and down the aisles, you hear the sounds of snippets of conversation, Muzak, and periodic announcements over the loudspeakers. Your chances of remembering that last-minute addition are quite low in this circumstance. I always ask my partner if I can get anything for him as I go out the door, but I usually forget to get what he asks for. (Do I get any points for good intentions? I don’t think so.)
One pair of researchers has concluded that “any concurrent task that diverts resources necessary for conscious apprehension of that material prevents it from being encoded and becoming part of a memory trace, leading to very poor memory” (Fernandes and Moscovitch 2000). Auditory distractions seem to be more difficult to block out than visual ones when we’re learning new information. When I’m working, I slap on a pair of Peltor Optime 105 industrial-strength earmuffs–the best $20 I ever spent for office equipment. I just don’t have the mental focus to ignore the sound of lawnmowers and garbage trucks.
What about using white noise to block out auditory distractions? The evidence on this is complex. Studies show that introverts don’t do as well with reading comprehension and mental arithmetic in the presence of white noise. The background noise distracts them enough to impair their brain functioning. However, background noise can help children with ADHD retain information. And one study has shown that if white noise works for you while you’re taking in new information, you’ll do better at recalling that information if the same white noise is present when you’re working to recall the stored data (Klemm 2017). So your mileage may vary with white noise. I’m an introvert, so it’s the Peltor Optimes for me on the days when my work requires me to process new information or edit texts.
And here’s a completely non-science-based observation. I find that if I’m doing lower-level cognitive tasks, such as collecting articles, typing citations, or editing endnotes in a manuscript, white noise helps pass the time. Without the white noise as I do tasks that don’t engage higher-order cognitive processes, I’m very sensitive to all kinds of whiny sensory messages from my body. “I’m hot.” “It’s too humid today.” “My feet are cold.” “My stomach is growling.” “My ear hurts.” “I need to cut my fingernails.” “A bug just bit me.” The chatter from my body is constant and becomes distracting if I don’t do something to block it out. Those are the days when Amazon Music or Pandora come to my rescue.
Retrieval Learning: The Best Way to Store Information in Long-Term Memory
When I was in fourth grade in the late 1960s, I was identified as a superior reader for my age group and was introduced to a learning method called SQ3R, which stood for “study, question, read, recite, review.” I used color-coded flash cards as I moved through a self-directed course of study. This method was intended to help students prepare for tests, and it was cutting-edge stuff at the time. So for years I’ve believed that studying and review is the best way to cram information into long-term memory.
It turns out that this isn’t true. Cognitive psychologist Amy Smith reports that “rereading is a poor learning strategy” because the memories it creates are “relatively weak” (Smith et al. 2016). Study after study has shown that the best way to move knowledge into long-term memory isn’t reviewing information; the best way is to test yourself on new information as soon as you’ve learned it. The process of putting something into long-term memory and then immediately retrieving it embeds a memory, and the more times you retrieve the new memory, the more content you’ll remember.
Cognitive psychologist Jeff Karpicke, a pioneer in research on retrieval learning, did a study that asked college students to read from passages from nine selected texts on scientific topics. One group read the texts a second time (the study method). A second group was asked to recall as much as they could about what they had just read and then read the passages again. A third group alternated recalling and re-reading eight times (four times for recall, four times for re-reading). One week later, all three groups were tested on their ability to remember the material in the passages they had read. The participants in Group 1, who re-read the new material but did no retrieval work, were able to recall less than 20 percent. Those in Group 2, who had retrieved the new knowledge one time followed by re-reading, were able to recall almost 40 percent of the new material. Those in Group 3, who had practiced retrieving the new information four times, were able to recall over 80 percent. That’s a 400 percent in improvement over the method of simply re-reading new material. Karpicke theorizes that retrieving new learning increases the strength of the cues that aid accurate retrieval by excluding other potential candidates in long-term memory. He concludes that “active retrieval has powerful effects on long-term learning” (Karpicke 2012).
James Antony and colleagues (2017) theorize that “retrieval learning stabilizes memories via mechanisms similar to those that occur during sleep and offline consolidation periods” (i.e., wakeful rest). For decades, scientists have been telling us that the consolidation of new memories takes years and that sleep is an essential component of that process. However, retrieval learning seems to be a shortcut; it “promotes the rapid development of neocortical representations without time and sleep.”
In addition, the retrieval method of learning protects memories from the deleterious impact of stress. It has long been known that stress impairs our ability to retrieve memories. However, people who practice the retrieval method of learning encode new memories that are robust. One theory is that this method of encoding memories create multiple routes for accessing them. Encoding memories in this way “inoculates” them against the harmful impact of stress, Amy Smith writes. They are “immune” to forgetting due to stress. Put another, more scientific way, “stress may not impair memory retrieval when stronger memory representations are created during encoding” (Smith et al. 2016).
As an academic writer, particularly if you’re in a humanities discipline, you encounter vast amounts of new information during a writing project. You have a solid base of domain knowledge that you draw upon to create hypotheses and analysis. But you collect lots of information that’s new to you as you find support for your ideas. The research on retrieval learning suggests that as soon as you read and take notes on new information, you should test yourself on how much of it you can recall, then review the material. This simple intervention will encode new information in long-term memory more robustly, even if you’re working under stress. (And who among us isn’t?)
Antony, James W., Catarina S. Ferreira, Kenneth A. Normon, and Maria Wimber. 2017. “Retrieval as a Fast Route to Memory Consolidation.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 21, no. 8: 573–576
Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Dewar, Michaela, Jessica Alber, Christopher Butler, Nelson Cowan and SergioDella Sala. 2012. “Brief Wakeful Resting Boosts New Memories Over the Long Term.” Psychological Science 23, no. 9: 955–960.
Dewar, Michaela, Jessica Alber, Nelson Cowan, and Sergio Della Sala. 2014. “Boosting Long-Term Memory via Wakeful Rest: Intentional Rehearsal Is Not Necessary, Consolidation Is Sufficient.” PlosOne 9, no. 10. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0109542.
Fernandes, Myra A., and Morris Moscovitch. 2000. “Divided Attention and Memory: Evidence of Substantial Interference Effects at Retrieval and Encoding.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 129, no. 2: 155–176.
Karpicke, Jeffrey B. 2012. “Retrieval-Based Learning: Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 21(3) 157–163.
Klemm, William R. 2017. “Does White Noise Help You Learn?” Psychology Today, June 13. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/memory-medic/201706/does-white-noise-help-you-learn-0.
Slotnik, Scott D. 2017. Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, Amy M., Victoria A. Floerke, and Ayanna K. Thomas. 2016. “Retrieval Practice Protects Memory against Acute Stress.” Science 354 (6315): 1046–1048.
Wischgoll, Anke. 2016. “Combined Training of One Cognitive and One Metacognitive Strategy Improves Academic Writing Skills.” Frontiers in Psychology, February 23, 2016, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00187/full.
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