Principles of learning and memory: meaning

Psychologists recognize several principles the can help learning and an efficient use of memory. Among these principles the following seem to be particularly significant:

  • Meaning
  • Organization
  • Association
  • Visualization
  • Attention

In this post I want to focus on the role that Meaning has on learning and memorization. Why when we have to chose a password or a secret code we often end up using a familiar birth date? Simply because the birth date has a meaning for us and it is therefore easier to memorize and later to recall for use than a random sequence of numbers. If meaning can help us to retain information what can we do when we want to learn something that is, at least apparently, meaningless? Think about a telephone number but also a word in a language that is not related to other languages you know. In the first case the number is certainly meaningless, in the second case the word is meaningless for us because we lack the knowledge to make it meaningful. In both cases we can improve our ability to memorize the new data by imposing to them an arbitrarily meaning. For example, if the number we want to learn is 84630 we can look at the pattern of the first four numbers and remember that the second and fourth number are the half of the first and third respectively. In the case of a word in a foreign language we can think of a a word that has a similar sound in our native language and then by means of visualization attach a meaning to it. We could also find a rhyme with the new word to give it some meaning or we could learn the word as part of a sentence, in this case the unknown word would have meaning because it would be embedded in a meaningful sentence. This is the reason why I think that learning new vocabulary by using single-word flashcards is less efficient that using, for example, flashcards with sentences. In sum, the main idea is that when you want to learn new information it helps to make the information as meaningful as you can and that you can use several ways to impose meaning where this is not in place. This is the point where you can use your creativity to improve your learning. Peter

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