In an earlier post, we shared Mark Shead's interesting approach to memorization, which can be used in preparation for a speech or presentation, for a school test, or possibly to learn song lyrics or a poem:
The act of reading something you want to memorize fires different connections than the act of recalling. This is how you learn to memorize–your practice recalling, not repeating. This means that simply reading a particular piece of text over and over again is going to be the long road to memorization. You need to let your brain practice recalling the data so it can strengthen the same pathways that will fire when you need to remember the information later on.
Essentially, Shead's approach is a very practical form of active recall learning. With an emphasis on the word "active", this pedagogical approach aims to stimulate memory, engaging the brain and energizing the physiology of the brain to learn more quickly and more thoroughly.
Learning activities that promote active recall can include flash cards, quizzes, creative exercises that involve problem solving, or any activity that requires recollection of learning content. The key is that the activity relies heavily on memory, as opposed to, for example, reading or other forms of accessing information outside of memory.
A 2013 academic study evaluated ten learning techniques, and ranked them for effectiveness. Practice testing and distributed practice came out best. followed by elaborative interrogation and self-explanation. Less effective learning methods were highlighting, rereading, and summarization/note-taking. All of the high rated techniques involved strengthening memory along with active thinking.
Notwithstanding the over-reliance on high stakes testing in US public education for evaluation purposes, low stakes practice testing is a highly effective learning strategy. The study authors provide a possible explanation of the mental processes involved:
Attempting to retrieve target information involves a search of long-term memory that activates related information, and this activated information may then be encoded along with the retrieved target, forming an elaborated trace that affords multiple pathways to facilitate later access to that information
Distributed practice involves learning steadily over time, as opposed to "binge learning" or procrastinated cramming. Why does it work? "[One} theory involves reminding; namely, the second presentation of to-be-learned material serves to remind the learner of the first learning opportunity, leading it to be retrieved, a process well known to enhance memory."
Evidence shows, it is best if this practice involves active recall exercises and problem solving. This type of active, distributive memory reinforcement is a way to work with the brain's natural processes to achieve superior learning outcomes.