Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Learning to remember

Mai Samih takes some lessons in the art of remembering

Learning to remember
Learning to remember

A new school year is here, with children racing against time to acquire as much knowledge as possible in short semesters followed by exams. How can they absorb all this information? To answer this question, professor of educational psychology Rabab Al-Sheshtawi held a seminar in the Cairo district of Heliopolis recently entitled “Learning how to Remember”.

“As a rule of thumb, a person does not learn unless it is through love. He does not remember anything he does not like. This goes for all the details of life,” Al-Sheshtawi said. 

She explained the scientific processes behind recalling information. “Everything is stored in the subconscious mind. The problem of remembering is summoning the information when it is wanted. If a person is stressed, he will not be able to do so,” she said. A stressed person will be unable to concentrate in order to recall the stored information. 

Good general health is important since it improves the memory of both adults and children. If a child is trying to study when he is tired, it will be difficult for him to remember what he has studied. Good health even improves the performance of people with Alzheimer’s disease, according to studies. Elderly people with Alzheimer’s suffer from the decay of the memory cells in the brain, though this can be combated with some simple remedies. A cup of coffee per day may help, as may coconut milk. 

“If a person wants to remember something, then coding the information may help,” Al-Sheshtawi said. “If I want to learn a phone number, for example, I may tie it to a birthday date so I will not forget.” The trick is to seek the correlations between things. 

Memory can also work even if a person is tired or about to go to sleep. “What happens here is a sort of programming of the subconscious mind. For example, if I go to sleep when the Holy Quran is on the radio, I may find that I can more easily learn it since the subconscious mind has been programmed — the material is still entering my mind even though I am asleep.” The same thing may be true for learning languages. 

All the senses can be used to assist in recalling information. Students can use yellow-coloured paper to write notes on since the colour yellow “stays in the memory”, she said. If a student wants to learn something off by heart, he may select the most important facts and write them on yellow paper. “For me, if I want to remember something and I spray a certain perfume while reading it, this will help me remember when I smell the same perfume again,” Al-Sheshtawi said.

In cases in which children study one hour or so before exams, Al-Sheshtawi said that a student could be lucky in being able to answer the questions in the exam or he might not be. However, in either case he will forget everything he has read right after the exam as if he had never studied it. In some cases he may even lose other information he has studied before.

 “Distributed training is better than concentrated training. For example, if I am studying English every day for only half an hour, this is better than studying over long periods on one day,” she said, adding that the brain cells need time to digest information. 

One reason why children forget the information they study is that they sometimes learn facts which they cannot apply in life. They feel that the material is not important for them in life, so they don’t remember it. But they should also try to learn the principles at stake, not the details. Applying the laws of physics in an exam is what they should focus on, not memorising facts. Remembering is important, like memorising the alphabet, but not everything can or should be memorised.

 “The brain is like a muscle: when you do not exercise it, it stops working. This is why people have to train their memory. When I see a person’s face for example, I tie it to someone I know so I can remember the name and face of the person,” Al-Sheshtawi said.

The problem today is that because so many children are using computers all the time, their reaction to faces is the same as their reaction to things. This affects their social intelligence. 

Among the things that have a bad effect on memory is stress. If you are trying to remember an important number while you are stressed, you will not be able to recall it. However, as soon as you relax or are in a café with friends the number comes to mind. Such stress also has a negative effect on children’s ability to recall information, which is why during exams they may forget what they have learned. 

Children must be told to calm down if they want to remember during an exam. They could start to answer a new question if they are struggling with the first one, and this may be enough to help them to remember after that. “In this case, the subconscious mind has received an order to recall the information, and so when a child is solving the next problem he will recall the answer to the first. The only difference is that a child has removed the stress that was blocking him,” Al-Sheshtawi said, adding that parents who force their children to learn are wasting their time as this is not the way a child learns information.  

On the other hand, learning via love makes the brain grow in the area that concerns each skill, she said. For example, if a child solves a maths problem with love, like loving the teacher and the subject, growth occurs in the area of the brain responsible for calculation. The child will become good at calculation throughout his life. In general, children should participate in any activity they like in order to encourage them to learn more.

To overcome forgetting, you should never say “I forget things” in front of children, since they will think it is normal to forget. Instead, try taking things that activate the memory like coffee, nuts, and honey, a nutrient for the brain. Again, Al-Sheshtawi emphasises the importance of coding. “If I see something I am interested in, I tie it in my brain with something else. People who forget have nothing wrong with their brains: they are just not coding things.”

“I forget things I don’t care about. If I tie things with feelings, I remember them more. This is why women remember more details than men since they put things in emotional moulds,” she said.

Childhood is the best time to learn effectively. If a child under seven years of age learns something, he will often be able to recall it when he grows up. For example, if he has learned French as a child and then stopped learning it, when he goes back to the language in the future he may find he will be good at the language since he already has the “programme” in his brain. An older person’s brain will contain more information, so coding the information will be more difficult, Al-Sheshtawi said. 

“The best thing is to make both sides of the brain work together, for example by teaching children through songs. This makes both sides of the brain active so that a child does not forget,” she said. The same thing goes for teaching children with drawings, mind maps, key words as well as taking notes.

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