Basic Memorizing - Three "Look-Away" Methods

Study Tip #3

Outline of "look-away" methods
1. Why "look-away" methods work so well.
2. Read a passage, look away, make a summary, reread, and check your summary. (For easy studying while reading.)
3. Teach and test yourself. (For serious studying.)
4. Build sets of newly learned facts one-by-one. (For serious studying of a lot of material.)

1. Why "look-away" methods work so well.
When students read some information and then look away from the book or flash card and try to say it to themselves without looking, they are using what I will call "look-away" methods.  These are effective methods of studying, and many students use them a lot.

Look-away methods of studying are simple to do and they work well because you actually give yourself practice recalling your new knowledge. Also they give you definite feedback as to how well you are learning, and they save lots of time because you recall information that was just recently in your short-term memory.  That means you don't have to keep rereading and relearning forgotten material.

2. While reading do easy studying. Read a passage, look away, make a summary, reread to check the summary and move on.
Do this technique of making a summary and checking it right while you are reading, even while you read a book for the first time. Do not set the goal of perfectly remembering the main points. Your only goal is to try to make a summary and to check it. Keep reading onwards even though you can't summarize perfectly. Later, after you have completely read the material for the first time, when you want to study for memory, you will study again and try for more perfection. Here are the details:

  1. Read a passage. Choose enough to cover several ideas or facts, but not so much that you can't recall a lot of it. Read perhaps a half-page, maybe one, maybe two. If you are working with a dense two-column textbook, make it shorter.
  2. Look away. Try to summarize the key points. Summarize the main ideas, key facts, the line of argument, or events that happened.  Adjust your summary to the nature of the book or article.
  3. Next, go back to the beginning of the passage and read it again very rapidly and look for what the key points really are. Don't read too slowly.  Neither should you read so fast you can't extract the key points.  Search for the key points, both the ones you summarized and the other ones in the book that you missed.
  4. As you pick out the key points from the passage, consciously check whether you had put them into your mental summary. Had you remembered each point? If you had remembered a point, let yourself feel good.  If you had forgotten it, let yourself feel the emotions that go with making a minor mistake.
  5. Move on to the next passage even though you don't remember it perfectly.  You move on because you are primarily reading, not studying.

Summarizing helps you in a different way than simple reading does. When you summarize ideas in your mind, you group ideas together. That's different than what you do when you do straight reading. When you read in ordinary ways, you encounter the ideas separately, one at a time, and if you keep reading on, they often stay separated. Our minds cannot remember separated ideas as well as ideas that we have associated together. So you can help link ideas together by summarizing them.

This summarizing method also uses the natural power of your short-term memory. Our short-term memory can remember several new bits of information for a short period of time.  After that they fade out. If you choose passages that are short enough and if you review immediately, you will remember many of the ideas even when looking away. That saves time.

Also by trying to summarize right then, you are recalling information out of memory, which is exactly what you need to do to build memory. You cause learning both by putting ideas into memory and by pulling ideas out of memory.

Finally, by comparing your mental summary to what's in the book by quickly rereading, you will detect what you did right and did wrong. You help memory by detecting a mistake and correcting it. When you discover you omitted an idea, your natural feeling bad will add an emotional zing and increase memory. You will notice what's right and remember it. This works the way it works when people take an exam and later discuss it with someone and discover they made a mistake. Once they learn the right answer, they almost never make that mistake again. This technique of checking your summary against the contents of the passage will let you learn by making a mistake and correcting it. And when you discover a success, your natural positive feelings will reinforce your learning and increase memory.

3. Serious studying: Teach yourself and test yourself. When you find specific facts or ideas that you want to remember, use this self-test method.

  1. Read the fact carefully so that you understand it and it is meaningful to you.
  2. Then stop reading, think of one or more logical questions that this idea is an answer to, and do the next 5 steps (steps 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7).
  3. Look away from your book.
  4. On your first try, ask yourself the question as soon as your eyes are off the book. On later tries as you have begun to learn the fact, make a gap between looking at the book and asking your question.  Distract yourself for 5 to 10 seconds.
  5. Ask yourself the question.
  6. Say the answer to yourself clearly.
  7. Check the book and compare what you said to what the real information is.
  8. Repeat steps 3, 4, 5, and 6 until you get the fact right several times.

Notice the key steps: You link the information to a question, you distract yourself for a few seconds, you actively recite the answer, and you compare your answer to the right answer. These ingredients are essential.

The purpose for asking a question first is to tie your fact to the question. That makes your practice match what you do in a test in which you will also see questions and recall answers.

The purpose for distracting yourself is to let the idea fade a bit from your memory. You are forced to recall it when memory "is cold" as in real life. That strengthens memory.

The purpose for you actively reciting the answer is give you practice in stating the fact or idea and to let you know in truth whether you learned it. Reciting leaves nothing to chance.

Finally, when you compare what you said to what the book says, you get feedback. You will feel good when you get it right. You will feel bad when you get it wrong and you will now notice what the right answer is with some emotion. Your memory grows stronger.

4. Serious studying: Build sets of several bits of information by studying them one-by-one and adding them to the set.
You can successfully study many related pieces of information by adding them into sets of facts.
Follow these steps:

  1. Learn one fact. Use either the method described above or any other method that works. Test yourself.
  2. Learn a second fact. Test yourself.
  3. Now test yourself on the first fact again. When you've got it, test yourself on the second fact again. Go back and forth between the first and second facts until you understand their differences and know them both.
  4. Now learn a third fact and test it.
  5. Return to the first two facts and check them. Check the third fact. Keep working until you know all three facts.
  6. Now add a fourth fact. Learn it and integrate it into the set of four facts.
  7. Keep adding facts, one at a time, to the growing set of facts.  When you reach 10 to 15 facts or come to the end of a logical group, start again with a new set.

This method works well. One psychologist told his teenage son about the method, and the boy immediately used it to study German vocabulary words. He told his father that he learned his words faster than ever before and could remember all of them for the first time.

Do not study many facts separately one at a time before you study the first ones again. That has bad results, because you will take a long time going through your list, and the long time leads to forgetting them before you get back to them. You will waste time relearning them.

Note: Many students use flash cards poorly. They look at one flash card, then the next, and the next and so on. Then they start in again. They find they have to keep looking at the answer side because they never learned the information the first time. By using the method of building up sets, you can learn them thoroughly.