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Encoding strategies

Boost your memory with effective encoding strategies! Learn to move information from your working memory to your long-term memory. Discover techniques like rote rehearsal, chunking, mnemonic devices, self-referencing, preparing to teach, and spacing. These methods help you remember more, study efficiently, and ace your exams! Created by Carole Yue.

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Video transcript

Take a moment and try to remember what you were doing last week. Chances are you can remember the general idea of the things you did, the people you saw. But unless you really put effort to encode that information into your long-term memory, you might not remember specifics. However, it's sometimes really important that we remember specific information. So we're going to talk today about encoding strategies and why they can help you learn. Encoding is just the act of moving information from the temporary store in your working memory into the permanent store in your long-term memory. Working memory is where you process anything that you're thinking about right at this moment. However, it has a limited capacity. It can only hold seven plus or minus two pieces of information at a time. If you want to remember more than seven things, you're going to need to process that information in a way that makes sure it gets into and stays in long term memory so that you can retrieve it later. So the first technique I want to tell you about is rote rehearsal. And this is what everybody does, but unfortunately, it's the least effective encoding technique. What rote rehearsal is, it just means you say the same thing over and over again. So you get introduced to someone at a party, and they tell you their name is Bob, and you say, OK, I'm going to remember this person's name by just thinking about it and saying it over and over, Bob, Bob, Bob. And if you've ever tried this, you know it's probably not effective, because after you actually have a conversation with this person and you're not thinking about their name for a while, you try to remember it later, and you can't. The reason for that is that rote rehearsal is not really an effortful technique. It doesn't require you to process the information. You just have to repeat it over and over, so there's nothing that your brain is doing to get it into long-term memory. Successful encoding techniques usually involve tying in the new information into previously known information. And one way to do this is called "chunking." And by chunking, we actually group the information that we're getting into meaningful units. So this ties it into maybe meaningful categories that we already know. So, for example, let me give you a grocery list, just a list of items that you'll need to go get at the store, and you have to remember them. So listen to these items, and then I'll ask you about them. We have bananas, oranges, blueberries, bread, rice, chicken, peanuts, baking soda, flower, eggs, butter. All right, so those are the items you're going to have to go get at the store. Just take a second to think of or write down all the items from that list that you can remember. OK, so there were 11 items on the list. How did you do? If you recognized that those items were in categories-- we have bananas, oranges, and blueberries are fruits; bread and rice, carby, bready things; chicken and peanuts, proteins; baking soda, flour, eggs, butter, baking items-- if you recognized those categories, those 11 items became very easy, because they were in four sets of familiar categories. If you tried to do rote rehearsal and just repeat those items in order over and over, that probably wasn't very helpful, and you probably didn't get as many as you could have. So that's chunking, and it's really helpful when items lend themselves to be grouped in categories or tied together in a certain way. And what's cool is you can chunk them in a way however it makes sense to you. And you might even have chunked those items differently, put them into different categories, and that's totally fine. As long as the categories make sense to you and those chunks will be retrievable, then that's great. Another encoding technique involves mnemonic devices, and these are memory aids that help you link what you're trying to learn into previously existing easier-to-remember information that's probably already in long-term memory. One mnemonic device is imagery, and you might even use this already. It's just creating a vivid mental picture of whatever it is you're trying to remember. So if we go back to our grocery list of bananas, oranges, and blueberries, and we start with that, you can imagine yourself vividly walking through the store. But really, the crazier the images, the more likely you are to remember it. So maybe you picture a big banana who's wearing an orange for a hat, and he's juggling blueberries. So that kind of links it into familiar activities or shapes, but you're also creating this unique combination of those items. The next two mnemonic devices are really good if you need to remember something in order, so a sequence of items. And those are called the pegword system and the method of loci. Both of those really just involve making anchors and linking your new information to those anchors along a specific path. For example, the pegword system is more verbal anchors, so you start with words that rhyme with the number. So you one is a gun, two is a shoe, three is a tree, and so forth and so on. And you have that set list. And say we need to get our grocery items in a certain order, then we can use our pegword system to remember that. So we have one is a gun, and our first item is bananas, so we might say, OK, there's a gun and it looks like a banana. So we have our banana gun, and he's shooting at an orange hiding behind a shoe. And then the orange rolls away and rolls up a tree, where he finds blueberries hanging there. And really, by doing that, you've combined imagery with the pegword system, and the more mnemonic techniques you can use, the more encoding techniques overall, the greater the likelihood that you'll remember this information later. Method of loci is really similar to the pegword system, except it involves using locations instead of verbal anchors. So maybe if you have a familiar walking route or bus route or anything, then you can tie the information that you need to remember to certain stops along that route. So, like, maybe there's bananas raining down at the bus stop I get on, and then in the next stop, an orange rolls onto the bus, and the next stop I see a cat with a blueberry hat or something like that. So again, we're combining a couple mnemonic techniques, which is awesome, and we're connecting information that we already know, such as a familiar route, to the new information that we want to learn. The last mnemonic technique I want to tell you about is an acronym, and this is when one letter of a familiar word stands for the first letter of the new information. So a really popular one is the acronym "HOMES" for the Great Lakes in the US. You have H stands for Huron, O, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. So we have this easy-to-remember, familiar word, "homes," and then we can use those letters as cues to remember what we want. That one's kind of fun, because you can make up your own acronyms, and those can be really memorable. So moving on into increasingly useful encoding techniques, self-referencing is really great. This is just when you think about the new information and how it relates to you personally. So if you're trying to learn something about history, you might imagine yourself talking to the general, or marching into battle with the troops, or anything about how the information relates to you and how you could use it. That involves a great deal of deep processing, and it makes it more likely that you'll be able to retain that information. And kind of related to self-referencing is the idea of preparing to teach. This means that you imagine that you are learning this material in order to teach it to someone else. When that happens, you're actually able to remember it a lot better, because you're putting a lot more effort into organizing and understanding the information you're taking in. The last technique I want to tell you about is spacing. So this is a little bit different than the other ones. The other techniques involved what you do while you're already studying, but spacing involves how you structure that studying. Spacing means you should spread out your study sessions over time rather than cramming them all into one massive study session. This is kind of unintuitive, because a lot of people think that if you have five hours to study, then you should do it all at once right before the test so that it's fresh in your mind to take the test. Right? We've all done that. But what researchers have found is that if you actually space out your study sessions-- so if you have five one-hour study sessions across five days-- you'll actually remember that information long-term a lot better. And this is unintuitive, because if you're studying something for an hour, and then you start your second hour, all that information feels really fluent, and you're like, yeah, I got this. I'm really on top of it. But if you study for an hour, wait a day, and then you start your second hour, it feels a lot harder, and you realize that you don't know it as well as you thought you did. So one reason spacing is thought to be helpful is because it lets you know what you don't know while you're studying, and it also introduces a form of self-testing so you're able to prepare yourself better for that later test. Now, this isn't an exhaustive list of all the encoding techniques in the world, but it is a lot of the more common and more useful ones. And what you might have noticed about the effective encoding techniques is that they do involve a little extra effort, but hopefully now in your studying, you can be prepared to process the information in a productive way so that you can study efficiently and effectively. Good luck.