Do you believe in The Magical Number Seven?
At least where your memory is concerned.
Way back, in 1956 the cognitive psychologist, George Miller, published a paper in which he stated that we have limits on our capacity for processing information.
Talk about stating the blinkin’ obvious!
He was talking about the working memory, and reckoned from his research that we can manage to process and use 7 (plus or minus 2) bits of information at any one time.
This has become known as Miller’s Law, and he also observed that memory span extends to approximately seven items; sometimes one or two more and sometimes one or two fewer. It all depends on on the type of information, whether you are familiar with the topic and also your state of mind. For example, none of us does anything better after a bad night’s sleep.
He also discovered that our memories don’t really handle so much bits of information, as chunks, i.e. the largest meaningful units that we recognise within the material.
What counts as a chunk depends on the individual’s knowledge and experience, and accounts for the varying amounts that our working memory can cope with.
And this has given rise to the concept of The Magical Number Seven, hence my opening question.
When it comes to revision, if you believe in The Magical Number Seven, you will take care to divide what you have to learn into very small chunks, and pick them off one at a time.
You will know that it’s a mistake to attempt to learn by merely reading and rereading your course manual. It barely engages the brain. whose attention will drift off to some comfortable dreamy place! While it’s nodding off, it won’t be actively manipulating information, making a pattern of it and sending it to your long-term memory. I’m assuming you would prefer that!
Knowing what we do about The Magical Number Seven, it makes sense then to concentrate on one small chunk of information at a time; to actively manipulate that information by making brain-friendly revision notes, and to decide as you go what keywords to extract and how to arrange them on the page.
Logic tells us to set them out in a pattern, putting similar ideas together and separating them from other ideas.
But crucially, you’ll take pains to make sure that you never put more than seven bits of information on one sheet of your revision notes.
That will mean that the information will go into your memory banks that much more easily, because you’re working with information in the way that your brain is designed for.
Study sessions will be easier, more effective and fun.
And yes, this will mean using a lot more paper. Any particular topic is likely to be spread over very many separate pages of revision notes. That’s how your brain likes it, so don’t fight it.
So when you devise a test question for each chunk, and write it on the reverse of your revision notes, you will be checking that you know each of those chunks. Therefore you’ll be doing a thorough job of learning your subject in detail, building up a genuinely comprehensive knowledge, which you’re far more likely to remember long-term.
In other words, you’ll become a real expert, justifying the time and effort that you have made to pass your exams.
And you never know – you might even enjoy it!
So… how good’s your working memory? Leave a comment and let us know.