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New research supports 'unforgettable' Education Week course

Like many professionals, Brigham Young University psychology professor Kenneth Higbee prepared presentation notes while flying to teach a seminar on how to improve memory. Unlike memory experts who claim perfect recall, he absent-mindedly left the notes in his seat-back pocket upon leaving the plane.

Upon realizing his mistake, Higbee applied memory tools he has studied over 35 years of research to help him recall and rewrite the notes. The episode highlights what Higbee says are the benefits of his approaches – they work even for people who are otherwise forgetful.

Higbee, who is reprising his popular BYU Education Week class on improving memory next week, published a study this summer in the journal Psychologia assessing why people want to improve their memories. Past research findings showed the most popular reason is to remember names. The new study, which used a college student sample, showed that remembering facts and recalling information to perform well on exams was the most influential reason in seeking memory improvement at the university level.

"If we understand the motivation behind the desire to improve memory, then we can better develop tools and techniques to aid in recall," said Higbee, author of Your Memory: How it Works & How to Improve It..

According to Higbee, names tend to be harder to remember than other words. He suggests this occurs because names are not as meaningful as most words. Whether seeking to remember names and faces or perform well on an exam, tools like recitation, repetition, organization and association will help.

Higbee provides this system for remembering people's names:

1. Make sure you get the name.

2. Make the name meaningful.

3. Focus on a distinctive feature of the person's appearance.

4. Associate the name with the distinctive feature.

5. Review the association.

To "make sure you get the name," focus during personal introductions and use your new acquaintances' names during conversations. This may include repeating the name, spelling it aloud, asking about its origin or writing it down. According to Higbee, last names like Holland or London, Hershey, Dodge, Barber or Cook already carry meaning and making such an association helps to recall the name later. Next, focus on the first physical or character trait of your acquaintance that catches your attention and associate it with her name. For example, "Noelle has a large nose," or "Barry is balding." Finally, review and repeat. Higbee suggests going over faces and names after you have left the setting in which you met the people. Research has shown that using these steps can improve name recollection up to 80 percent.

Higbee also makes suggestions for effective study habits: reducing interference, spacing out study sessions and reciting material learned.

Studying in different rooms and diversifying subject matter helps students to better learn and recall information. He also asserts that spacing study sessions a few hours or a day apart helps in retention of information.

"The culture of cramming before an exam does not help students learn or remember the material nearly as well as spaced study sessions," Higbee said.

In Your Memory Higbee cites a study of students who 50 years earlier completed three years of Spanish language study. Those who studied continually, or in spaced sessions, retained 72 percent of the vocabulary in comparison to those who crammed. The procrastinators retained less than 10 percent. Higbee attributes the inefficiency of cramming to various factors including people's inability to concentrate for long periods of time and their inability to consolidate or absorb information while cramming. Spaced study sessions, on the other hand, increase the likelihood of studying in a situation similar to an exam, which allows for better recall. Spaced study also decreases the amount of study time needed to learn the material.

Mnemonic devices, named for Mnemosyne, the ancient Greek goddess of memory, also aid in recall. These include rhymes, acronyms or mental images. The sentence "My very excellent mother just served us nine pies" helps students to remember planetary order: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Likewise the name Roy G. Biv prompts students to recall the colors in the visible spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

All devices aside, according to Higbee there is one linchpin in any effort to improve memory.

"You must focus. Tricks and tools won't serve their purpose if you're not giving proper attention to these tasks."

Writer: Noelle Nicolai

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