How to Learn Facts

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Ancient Wisdom

I had a student a couple of years ago who asked to borrow a rock for her Native Religions class. Nothing fancy. Just ... a rock. I was curious enough to attend the class. The student explained that in many native traditions, the more ancient things are, the more wisdom they were felt to possess, and the rock symbolized this. (Now for years I had been hearing unkind comparisons of students to boxes of rocks, and though I never for a moment suspected these remarks were true, still, this incident made me wonder....)

The instructor (an Oneida Indian) went on to discuss the tradition of the Vision Quest, a process of meditating for spiritual guidance. A student asked if, once the guidance or insight had been gained, the seeker would write it down. The instructor answered "That would make sense in your culture, but" -- and here she put out a tremendously powerful piece of wisdom -- "we are taught to remember."

Not memorize, remember. Do you see the difference? Memorizing is storing information as disconnected fragments. Remembering is integrating information into the rest of your life.


Take a few moments and recall, in as much detail as you can, something that you found especially memorable: a recent film, a major sporting event, a trip someplace. Now, did you stay up until 3 A.M. last night boning up for this? Did you have a stack of index cards handy? Yet you probably found this fairly easy to do.

I say "probably" because I have met people who just do not remember, period. They can go to the most exciting, fabulous movie ever made and next day recall maybe a few snippets of detail plus the fact that they had a really good time. I'm not talking about people like the hero of Memento who have brain injuries that keep them from ever forming new memories, but people who just let their lives slide past into oblivion without a fight. If you are in this category, this is your life I'm talking about. You're letting it dribble away without a fight. It's like knowing someone has your credit card number and not doing anything about it. The only cure I can suggest is to practice remembering. Try recalling what you had for breakfast, where you were on 9-11, what you just saw on TV, and keep it up until you don't have to think about it anymore. Your goal should be to remember everything that ever happened to you. If you forget it, it may as well never have happened.

Nobody can remember everything. A marathon runner can't run 100 miles an hour. But he'd like to - he tries to run as fast as physically possible. He'd gladly run 100 miles an hour if it were physically possible, and be trying for 200. And you should try to remember everything that's physically possible.

Your body doesn't need to think to turn snacks into fat. If you're not there already, trust me, you will be. Your mind should not have to think to turn sensory data into memory. Actually, it doesn't. Judging from the random and trivial memories that occasionally surface given the right stimulus, some psychologists suspect we remember everything. The problem isn't so much remembering, but retrieving.

The Problem With Index Cards

You've probably seen your computer hesitate occasionally before your latest keystrokes appear. Where did the keystrokes go in the meantime? Your computer has a small storage space called a buffer where keystrokes are stored before being acted on. It's not very big, but it's huge compared to the temporary storage in your brain. Immediate inputs go into your short-term memory, which typically can store seven pieces of information. Seven. That's all.

This is why you can stay up all night before a test going over note cards and still flunk. Let's say you're memorizing the Presidents:

 Washington Adams
J. Q. Adams
J. Q. Adams
Van Buren
J. Q. Adams

Oops! Where did Washington go? If all you do is cycle stuff through your short term memory, as soon as you store factoid number eight, factoid number one drops out the bottom. Or let's say you're memorizing lists for finals: 

Most Abundant Elements:
The New England States:
New Hampshire
Rhode Island
Historical Periods:
Roman Empire
Middle Ages
Age of Exploration
Industrial Revolution
Important Composers:

Okay, you study the cards until you can rattle off each list flawlessly. Now what was on the previous list? Each of these lists is within the capacity of your short term memory, but if all you do is practice so you can quickly store the list in your short term memory, you don't retain anything.

Here's something many students don't think of. If you insist on studying from index cards or a test bank, expect to get the same percentage on the exam as you get when you quiz yourself. I once had a student lament that she studied and studied and only got 75% on the exam. I asked her how many questions she got right when she tested herself against the question bank. "Oh, about three quarters." And she was surprised to get 75%! If you prefer the memorization approach and you want to get 90% on the exam, you have to get 90% of the questions ccorrect when you test yourself.

Beyond Index Cards

Remembering Versus Memorizing

Somehow we have to get stuff from your short-term memory into long-term memory. The reasons you probably didn't have a lot of trouble remembering the plot of a favorite movie or the events of an enjoyable trip are, first, you found the experiences meaningful and second, the events were interconnected, so that each one triggered memories of the next.

Back in the days before printing, when literacy was limited and writing supplies not easily available, memory was the only information storage medium available. A widely-used method was called memory theater, in which a person would imagine himself walking through a room full of things that helped recall items he was supposed to remember. You'll still find books on memory improvement that suggest variations on this technique. If it works, it's not dumb. If you find this an aid to better memory, be my guest. You're welcome. More commonly, we use less elaborate memory clues. We might recall someone's name by linking it to the memory of where we met the person, or some pun based on the name, or whatever.

Back in high school I memorized pi to 70 digits and can still rattle it off. But I don't recall all 70 digits at once. The digits were printed in clusters of five, and I developed a rhythm in reciting the numbers. There are memory contests in which people compete to see who can memorize a deck of cards the fastest or long strings of numbers. Some people can recite a deck of cards after seeing the cards dealt once. What these people are good at is building hierarchies. They memorize small clusters of data, and group those clusters into clusters, and so on, so that each cluster has a link to the next. Things like sing-song repetition, clustering, mnemonics and so on are useful for getting data from short-term memory into long-term, but they're only stop-gaps. You won't retain that information very long unless you take steps to cement the linkages.

The reason cramming works, sort of, is that you probably construct hierarchies that enable you to retrieve packets of information. This might, marginally, help you on an exam. But a week later, when you need some of that information to understand a new concept in class, you can't recall it. And when the final comes, you're back to square one. All that time, and nothing to show for it.


The way to retain information long-term is to build connections. Unlike a computer disk, where information is stored in static form, information in the brain is stored as moving nerve impulses. Every time you retrieve something from memory, it appears that the brain makes a copy to process while the original goes on its merry way. The more a piece of information is used, the more copies there are and the easier it is to retrieve it. 

Use it or lose it. Repetition is a widely known key to memory, but mere repetition by itself is pretty useless. The repetition has to be in context. You can remember that anteojos is Spanish for "glasses." and repeat it a hundred times with no effect. But if every time you lay your glasses down you say "donde estan mis anteojos?" you will learn the word pretty effectively (I do it several times a day. If you're not there already, trust me, you will be.)

Relevance helps. Can you recall the plot of the Terminator movies? If you've seen them, you probably can, because they're relevant. Oh really? When's the last time you were attacked by killer robots from the future? When do you expect to be? Maybe "relevant" isn't the word we're looking for here. Well, the movies are relevant in the sense that they were fun to watch and therefore memorable.

Mnemonics are gimmicks that are often used to remember lists. The classification scheme for stars, "Oh be a fine girl/guy, kiss me" recalls the classes O, B, A, F, G, K, and M. Their relevance hook is that they are usually funny, suggestive, or outright politically incorrect. The color coding used on resistors in electronics gave rise to a mnemonic that can get an instructor in serious trouble today (although you can bet it's still used).

It is not my job to make things relevant. That's not sloughing off the importance of relevance, or my obligation to try to foster the process. If you visit the rest of my site you'll see I have invested a huge amount of effort into trying to make my subjects relevant. But it's your brain. Nobody else knows what connections are already in place. Whenever you get a new piece of information,  you need to try to find a connection to whatever you already have.

And you need to build new connections. You need to learn to see everything as relevant and interesting. This is probably one of the main problems people have in school, especially in college. You're confronted with an entire subject area where you have few or no connections, so that not only do you have to learn the material itself, you have to build connections to what you already have. 

The Learning Cycle

James E. Zull, in The art of changing the brain: enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning (Stylus Pub., 2002) has some interesting insights into the links between brain physiology and learning. You may know that your brain is divided into left and right halves. Equally important is your brain's division into front and rear. The rear literally looks back and mostly deals with passive sensory input and memory. The front literally looks forward and deals with exploration and hypothesis generation.

The sketch above likens your brain to a computer system. The rear sensory area is analogous to a mouse, keyboard, or other input device. The forward, integrative area is analogous to the processor. The processor is useless unless it outputs information somehow. Usually the output goes to a monitor, but it can also be used to control something like a Mars Rover (upper right). That's more analogous to how your brain controls your hands, eyes, mouth, and so on.

The interesting thing is that when information is fully learned, it actually travels in a loop in the brain. You get new data in an often passive way (reading, hearing in lecture). Thinking about what it means leads to ideas about what you can do with the information. If the application is enticing enough, you try it out. If it works, the learning has been powerfully reinforced. If not, you have to go back, review what you learned, and try again.

Example: you learn that the German word for "duck" is "die Ente." The integration part isn't all that challenging. Later that day you see a duck in the park, think "I just learned that word" and say to a classmate "Das ist eine Ente." You now have reinforced the learning with a concrete, successful application.

This is the part of the loop that most students concentrate on. Since writing notes and riffling index cards does involve some integration and motor activity, a little of the knowledge sticks, but it should be clear why most does not.

The full loop looks like this. 

The farther around the loop you go, the more of it becomes your responsibility. We can suggest applications and even create exercises that require active use (that's the main reason we have exercises), but all of this is somebody else's ideas. It won't really become your knowledge until you take control of the process.

Bad News, Good News

There are lots of books out there giving you all the inside information on how to succeed in college. You shell out ten or twenty bucks buying them, and guess what? They tell you exactly what your professors tell you: keep up on your reading, come to class and pay attention, review the material while it's still fresh, learn to use the library, and so on. It's all a plot. You think the author is some savvy college student whose life is one perpetual Spring Break and it's really a middle-aged professor who lives alone with his cat.

The bad news is that learning factual information takes a lot more time and effort than just making a stack of index cards and putting in a couple of all-nighters. A credit is about 45 hours of work in and out of class. For a typical three credit class and semester, that's nine hours a week. If you spend three hours in class, that means another six hours of study outside. For a 12-credit load, that's 36 hours of work. That's why 12 credits is called "full-time" - it's the equivalent of a full-time job. Your mileage may vary. Some people can do a good job with less, others need more. Surveys have shown that students who claim to have studied intensively often report spending ten hours studying for a course per semester. Ten hours is what it takes to learn one chapter in a typical textbook.

The good news? If you work continuously at building connections between your course work and other classes, what you see in the newspaper, and other experiences:

Science Isn't as Different as You Think

Suppose you have an exam coming up on the Civil War or Impressionism. What do you study? Chances are, you memorize two kinds of information:

In other words, you learn the broad patterns and overall significance of things, plus enough supporting facts to explain how these events came about, how they are related, and why they are significant. We do exactly the same thing in science

So Why is Learning Science a Problem?

Mostly because a lot of people have to do it all at once. Even if you never had an art or history course, you probably know that Gettysburg wasn't an art movement and that Monet and Renoir weren't Civil War generals. Most people pick up a lot of general cultural information without realizing it.

People don't do that as much in science, and a lot of what they do pick up is wrong. Consider the following:

Some of these ideas are popular folklore, others are reinforced by science fiction, and every single one is dead wrong! Thus, not only do students in science have to enter an unfamiliar realm, but they also have to expend real energy to unlearn a lot of what they thought they already knew.

Why Learn Facts ?

Facts enable you to remember broader concepts. Facts enable you to explain and justify ideas. Different instructors and authors differ on how many and what types of facts to present. My philosophy is that facts are worth teaching and learning only if they have some wider significance. Some of the main reasons for knowing facts are:

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Created 13 August 2003, Last Update 13 December 2011

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