Thinking : Memory, how to learn


Humans have a great capacity to learn. Like other activities, learning may not be easy and may require dedication and effort. It is clear that a motivation to learn is a good start but motivation itself does not ensure learning. It is attractive to think that we can learn without effort, in our sleep for instance, but there is no evidence to support this belief.

There are techniques that can be employed to improve learning good habits can be acquired. The simplest of rules is still the most applicable, that is, generally speaking:

The more time you spend learning, the more you will learn.


If there are ways to improve learning, then should learning be taught as a significant topic at school? Most students confess that they have had little or no instruction in ‘How to Learn’. This can often result in the application of inappropriate methods such as cramming before an exam.

  • If learning was taught as a separate subject, will it be the case that methods learned suit everyone equally.
  • Are there some globally good ways to learn and some universally bad ways? Or is everyone slightly different?
  • By letting a person find his/her own way to a learning style that suits the individual, is this not actually getting the best out of each person?
  • If learning was taught seriously and from an early age, is it likely that some would benefit whilst others suffered?

Motivation to Learn


Motivation has a strong effect on learning. However, the effect is not a direct one. It seems that motivation has a positive effect on learning because a well-motivated learner spends more time and pays more attention to learning.


A Swedish psychologist, Lars Goran-Nilsson, gave three groups of students, lists of words to remember. The first group were given no encouragement other than being told that they were taking part in an experiment, The second group were given no encouragement before learning but just before recall were told that there would be a cash prize for every correct word remembered. A third group were told about the cash prize before learning took place. There was no difference in the learning performance of the three groups. Subsequent experiments included social pressure as a motivator, but again, there was no difference in learning performance.


There is a great quantity of research information available of the single subject of motivation to learn. This looks at questions such as

  • Why is motivation important in learning?
  • What are the stages of motivation in learning
Adult Learning Methods, by Michael W. Galbraith 1991

Photo :
                Barbara L McOther work looks at the changes that take place in the motivation of younger learners as they mature (Barbara L McCombs)

Repetition and Learning

Before the BBC changed the frequencies of certain radio stations, it undertook a prolonged advertising campaign to ensure that listeners knew how to tune in to the stations after their broadcast frequency had been changed. It was estimated that most listeners had heard the announcement over 1000 times. 84% of listeners knew about the change and the date of the change, but very few knew the new broadcast frequencies.

Learning by simple repetition is unlikely to succeed unless the learner plays an active part and puts some effort into the learning process. The sort of advertising described in the example is a poor way to convey complex information. (Source : Your Memory: A users Guide: Alan Baddeley Penguin 1993)

Rate of Learning

Ebbinghaus' Graph

Diagram :
                Ebbinghaus's Rate of Learning Graph

Ebbinghaus showed that there is a simple, straight line, relationship between the amount learned and the time taken to learn. He demonstrated this by plotting the time taken to remember a list of nonsense words repeated at set intervals against the number of repetitions needed to re-learn the list 24 hours later. The graph shows a set of typical results. Although there are techniques that can improve learning rate, it is still true that the more time you spend learning, the more you learn.


The complexity of the information to be learned will clearly affect the time taken to learn new information. Herbert Simon (in The science of the Artificial, 1996, MIT Press) calculated that a period of ten years is typical to acquire enough information about a single subject, to be classed as an expert.

Simon reckoned that expertise typically requires at least 50,000 chunks of information or knowledge. If it takes about 30 seconds to acquire a new chunk, a dedicated person can acquire about 1.8 million chunks in ten years.

Transfer Rate

It is estimated that it requires about 8 seconds to transfer a chunk of memory from short term to long term store. This may be as little as 2 seconds if the learner already has a stored template for the new information.

Distributed Practice

Phto :
                EbbinghausThe early work of Ebbinghaus showed that dividing learning up into short well spaced periods is the most effective way to learn new information. He showed that learning takes longer if the learner attempts to cram the learning into one session and learning may not be so effective if carried out in this manner. Experiment:

Your Memory: A users Guide: Alan Baddeley Penguin 1993 P 74)

Baddely and colleagues carried out a controlled training programme for post office workers. The workers had to be trained how to use a QWERTY keyboard. Several different types of training session were run that essentially varied in the duration and number of sessions used. Results showed that groups learning for 1 hour per day took about 55 hours to learn the material whilst the groups learning for 4 hours per day took about 80 hours to learn the same material.

Although the general rule concerning the more time spent learning, the more is learned, is true, learning can be improved by distributed practice.

Remember the following rhyme.

"You can get a good deal from rehearsal

If it just has the proper dispersal.

You would just be an ass to do it en masse:

Your remembering would turn out much worsal."

Learning and Arousal

Arousal Levels

The current state of arousal affects learning; in general, a greater level of arousal improves learning.

It is known however, that lower levels of arousal can lead to good learning performance if the learner is tested soon after learning. Under normal circumstances, it is long-term learning that is desired.

There is no scientific evidence to show that so-called sleep learning courses are at all effective.

It is much better to be conscious whilst learning.

Time of Day

Learning ability like arousal, varies with the time of day. It has been shown in experiments that the long term memory of children is better for things learned in the afternoon rather than the morning.

Anaesthesia Experiments

Photo : Zombie
                DawnThere is some evidence that people have a capacity to learn when aneshtetised. Memory, or learning, under these circumstances is implicit. That is, subjects have no conscious awareness of the new information.

One experiment involved giving patients simple instructions during an operation when anesthetised. Such instructions may involve asking the patient to tug an ear if they have registered the instruction. It was shown that such instructions did lead to a greater degree of ear pulling in alert patients.

Another experiment was carried out using anesthetists themselves as volunteers. Using an anaesthetic that does not include a muscle relaxant, anesthetised subjects were asked to raise one arm or the other in response to questions. It was found that response level declined as the dose increased until no response was detected. However, subjects were essentially anesthetised during the whole process.