How to Learn Facts

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay

This page has been translated into Estonian by Johanne Teerink and can be found at: Johanne Teerink's Estonian page

Ancient Wisdom

I had a student a couple of years ago who asked to borrow a rock for herNative Religions class. Nothing fancy. Just ... a rock. I was curious enough toattend the class. The student explained that in many native traditions, the moreancient things are, the more wisdom they were felt to possess, and the rocksymbolized this. (Now for years I had been hearing unkind comparisons ofstudents to boxes of rocks, and though I never for a moment suspected theseremarks were true, still, this incident made me wonder....)

The instructor (an Oneida Indian) went on to discuss the tradition of theVision Quest, a process of meditating for spiritual guidance. A student askedif, once the guidance or insight had been gained, the seeker would write itdown. The instructor answered "That would make sense in your culture,but" -- and here she put out a tremendously powerful piece of wisdom --"we are taught to remember."

Not memorize, remember. Do you see the difference? Memorizingis storing information as disconnected fragments. Remembering isintegrating information into the rest of your life.


Take a few moments and recall, in as much detail as you can, something thatyou found especially memorable: a recent film, a major sporting event, a tripsomeplace. Now, did you stay up until 3 A.M. last night boning up for this? Didyou have a stack of index cards handy? Yet you probably found this fairly easyto do.

I say "probably" because I have met people who just do notremember, period. They can go to the most exciting, fabulous movie ever made andnext day recall maybe a few snippets of detail plus the fact that they had areally good time. I'm not talking about people like the hero of Mementowho have brain injuries that keep them from ever forming new memories, butpeople who just let their lives slide past into oblivion without a fight. If youare in this category, this is your life I'm talking about. You're lettingit dribble away without a fight. It's like knowing someone has your credit cardnumber and not doing anything about it. The only cure I can suggest is to practiceremembering. Try recalling what you had for breakfast, where you were on 9-11,what you just saw on TV, and keep it up until you don't have to think about itanymore. Your goal should be to remember everything that ever happened to you.If you forget it, it may as well never have happened.

Nobody can remember everything. A marathon runner can't run 100 milesan hour. But he'd like to - he tries to run as fast as physically possible. He'dgladly run 100 milesan hour if it were physically possible, and be trying for 200. And you should tryto remember everything that's physically possible.

Your body doesn't need to think to turn snacks into fat. If you're not therealready, trust me, you will be. Your mind should not have to think to turnsensory data into memory. Actually, it doesn't. Judging from the random andtrivial memories that occasionally surface given the right stimulus, somepsychologists suspect we remember everything. The problem isn't so much remembering,but retrieving.

The Problem With Index Cards

You've probably seen your computer hesitate occasionally before your latestkeystrokes appear. Where did the keystrokes go in the meantime? Your computer has a small storage space called a buffer wherekeystrokes are stored before being acted on. It's not very big, but it's hugecompared to the temporary storage in your brain. Immediate inputs go into your short-termmemory, which typically can store seven pieces of information. Seven.That's all.

This is why you can stay up all night before a test going over note cards andstill flunk. Let's say you're memorizing the Presidents:

 Washington Adams
J. Q. Adams
J. Q. Adams
Van Buren
J. Q. Adams

Oops! Where did Washington go? If all you do is cycle stuff through yourshort term memory, as soon as you store factoid number eight, factoid number onedrops out the bottom. Or let's say you're memorizing lists for finals: 

Most Abundant Elements:
The New England States:
New Hampshire
Rhode Island
Historical Periods:
Roman Empire
Middle Ages
Age of Exploration
Industrial Revolution
Important Composers:

Okay, you study the cards until you can rattle off each list flawlessly. Nowwhat was on the previous list? Each of these lists is within the capacity ofyour short term memory, but if all you do is practice so you can quickly storethe list in your short term memory, you don't retain anything.

Here's something many students don't think of. If you insist on studying from index cards or a test bank, expect to get the same percentage on the exam as you get when you quiz yourself. I once had a student lament that she studied and studied and only got 75% on the exam. I asked her how many questions she got right when she tested herself against the question bank. "Oh, about three quarters." And she was surprised to get 75%! If you prefer the memorization approach and you want to get 90% on the exam, you have to get 90% of the questions ccorrect when you test yourself.

Beyond Index Cards

Remembering Versus Memorizing

Somehow we have to get stuff from your short-term memory into long-termmemory. The reasons you probably didn't have a lot of trouble remembering theplot of a favorite movie or the events of an enjoyable trip are, first, youfound the experiences meaningful and second, the events were interconnected, sothat each one triggered memories of the next.

Back in the days before printing, when literacy was limited and writingsupplies not easily available, memory was the only information storage mediumavailable. A widely-used method was called memory theater, in which aperson would imagine himself walking through a room full of things that helpedrecall items he was supposed to remember. You'll still find books on memoryimprovement that suggest variations on this technique. If it works, it's notdumb. If you find this an aid to better memory, be my guest. You're welcome.More commonly, we use less elaborate memory clues. We might recall someone'sname by linking it to the memory of where we met the person, or some pun basedon the name, or whatever.

Back in high school I memorized pi to 70 digits and can still rattle it off.But I don't recall all 70 digits at once. The digits were printed in clusters offive, and I developed a rhythm in reciting the numbers. There are memorycontests in which people compete to see who can memorize a deck of cards thefastest or long strings of numbers. Some people can recite a deck of cards afterseeing the cards dealt once. What these people are good at is building hierarchies.They memorize small clusters of data, and group those clusters into clusters,and so on, so that each cluster has a link to the next. Things like sing-songrepetition, clustering, mnemonics and so on are useful for getting data fromshort-term memory into long-term, but they're only stop-gaps. You won't retainthat information very long unless you take steps to cement the linkages.

The reason cramming works, sort of, is that you probably constructhierarchies that enable you to retrieve packets of information. This might,marginally, help you on an exam. But a week later, when you need some of thatinformation to understand a new concept in class, you can't recall it. And whenthe final comes, you're back to square one. All that time, and nothing to showfor it.


The way to retain information long-term is to build connections. Unlike acomputer disk, where information is stored in static form, information in thebrain is stored as moving nerve impulses. Every time you retrieve something frommemory, itappears that the brain makes a copy to process while the original goes on itsmerry way. The more a piece of information is used, the more copies there areand the easier it is to retrieve it. 

Use it or lose it. Repetition is a widely known key to memory, butmere repetition by itself is pretty useless. The repetition has to be incontext. You can remember that anteojos is Spanish for"glasses." and repeat it a hundred times with no effect. But if everytime you lay your glasses down you say "donde estan mis anteojos?" youwill learn the word pretty effectively (I do it several times a day. If you're not therealready, trust me, you will be.)

Relevance helps. Can you recall the plot of the Terminator movies? Ifyou've seen them, you probably can, because they're relevant. Oh really? When'sthe last time you were attacked by killer robots from the future? When do youexpect to be? Maybe "relevant" isn't the word we're looking for here.Well, the movies are relevant in the sense that they were fun to watch andtherefore memorable.

Mnemonics are gimmicks that are often used to remember lists. Theclassification scheme for stars, "Oh be a fine girl/guy, kiss me"recalls the classes O, B, A, F, G, K, and M. Their relevance hook is that theyare usually funny, suggestive, or outright politically incorrect. The colorcoding used on resistors in electronics gave rise to a mnemonic that can get aninstructor in serious trouble today (although you can bet it's still used).

It is not my job to make things relevant. That's not sloughing off theimportance of relevance, or my obligation to try to foster the process. If youvisit the rest of my site you'll see I have invested a huge amount of effortinto trying to make my subjects relevant. But it's your brain. Nobody else knowswhat connections are already in place. Whenever you get a new piece ofinformation,  you need to try to find a connection to whatever youalready have.

And you need to build new connections. You need to learn to see everythingas relevant and interesting. This is probably one of the main problems peoplehave in school, especially in college. You're confronted with an entire subjectarea where you have few or no connections, so that not only do you have to learnthe material itself, you have to build connections to what you alreadyhave. 

The Learning Cycle

James E. Zull, in The art of changing the brain: enriching teaching byexploring the biology of learning (Stylus Pub., 2002) has some interestinginsights into the links between brain physiology and learning. You may know thatyour brain is divided into left and right halves. Equally important is yourbrain's division into front and rear. The rear literally looks back and mostlydeals with passive sensory input and memory. The front literally looks forwardand deals with exploration and hypothesis generation.

The sketch above likens your brain to a computer system. The rear sensoryarea is analogous to a mouse, keyboard, or other input device. The forward,integrative area is analogous to the processor. The processor is useless unlessit outputs information somehow. Usually the output goes to a monitor, but it canalso be used to control something like a Mars Rover (upper right). That's moreanalogous to how your brain controls your hands, eyes, mouth, and so on.

The interesting thing is that when information is fully learned, it actuallytravels in a loop in the brain. You get new data in an often passive way(reading, hearing in lecture). Thinking about what it means leads to ideas aboutwhat you can do with the information. If the application is enticing enough, youtry it out. If it works, the learning has been powerfully reinforced. If not,you have to go back, review what you learned, and try again.

Example: you learn that the German word for "duck" is "dieEnte." The integration part isn't all that challenging. Later that day yousee a duck in the park, think "I just learned that word" and say to aclassmate "Das ist eine Ente." You now have reinforced the learningwith a concrete, successful application.

This is the part of the loop that most students concentrate on. Since writingnotes and riffling index cards does involve some integration and motor activity,a little of the knowledge sticks, but it should be clear why most does not.

The full loop looks like this. 

The farther around the loop you go, the more of it becomes yourresponsibility. We can suggest applications and even create exercises thatrequire active use (that's the main reason we have exercises), but all ofthis is somebody else's ideas. It won't really become your knowledgeuntil you take control of the process.

Bad News, Good News

There are lots of books out there giving you all the inside information onhow to succeed in college. You shell out ten or twenty bucks buying them, andguess what? They tell you exactly what your professors tell you: keep up on yourreading, come to class and pay attention, review the material while it's stillfresh, learn to use the library, and so on. It's all a plot. You think theauthor is some savvy college student whose life is one perpetual Spring Break and it's really a middle-aged professor wholives alone with his cat.

The bad news is that learning factual information takes a lot more time andeffort than just making a stack of index cards and putting in a couple ofall-nighters. A credit is about 45 hours of work in and out of class. For atypical three credit class and semester, that's nine hours a week. If you spendthree hours in class, that means another six hours of study outside. For a12-credit load, that's 36 hours of work. That's why 12 credits is called"full-time" - it's the equivalent of a full-time job. Your mileage mayvary. Some people can do a good job with less, others need more. Surveys haveshown that students who claim to have studied intensively often report spendingten hours studying for a course per semester. Ten hours is what it takesto learn one chapter in a typical textbook.

The good news? If you work continuously at building connections between yourcourse work and other classes, what you see in the newspaper, and otherexperiences:

Science Isn't as Different as You Think

Suppose you have an exam coming up on the Civil War or Impressionism. What do youstudy? Chances are, you memorize two kinds of information:

In other words, you learn the broad patterns and overall significance of things,plus enough supporting facts to explain how these events came about, how they arerelated, and why they are significant. We do exactly the same thing in science

So Why is Learning Science a Problem?

Mostly because a lot of people have to do it all at once. Even if you never had an artor history course, you probably know that Gettysburg wasn't an art movement and that Monetand Renoir weren't Civil War generals. Most people pick up a lot of general culturalinformation without realizing it.

People don't do that as much in science, and a lot of what they do pick up is wrong.Consider the following:

Some of these ideas are popular folklore, others are reinforced by science fiction, andevery single one is dead wrong! Thus, not only do students in science have to enteran unfamiliar realm, but they also have to expend real energy to unlearn a lot of whatthey thought they already knew.

Why Learn Facts ?

Facts enable you to remember broader concepts. Facts enable you to explain and justifyideas. Different instructors and authors differ on how many and what types of facts topresent. My philosophy is that facts are worth teaching and learning only if they havesome wider significance. Some of the main reasons for knowing facts are:

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Created 13 August 2003, Last Update 31 May 2020