Elaborative Encoding Must Be Part of Any Peak Learner’s Toolkit

how to optimize learning

For homework, my daughter has to learn definitions by heart. Lots of definitions. That’s tough enough for an adult, now imagine for a kid. Fortunately, her dad knows a thing or two about learning.

The trick here is to use elaborative encoding.

To encode means to convert info into code in order to better retrieve it when needed. More concretely, it means to pay attention and organize the information we wish to remember. The encoding is elaborative when it’s deep and broad.

If you’ve ever rehearsed a speech or a presentation, you know that memorizing sentences (memoria verborum) like my daughter does is about as efficient as a holed bucket. This kind of focusing on symbols (words, numbers, etc.) is called shallow processing. What you want to do instead is go for deep processing, that is concentrate on ideas and meaning.

How can you put this into practice?

As the memory expert Joshua Foer explains, our brain doesn’t remember all types of info equally well. Its favorite kinds of data are images and locations; it can store terabytes of those. So the goal of elaborative encoding is to transform the types of memories the brain is bad at (symbols) into the types it was built for (images).

What does it mean for my daughter?

We took her definitions and divided each of them into logical parts; then she drew one image for each part. It worked like a charm. In fact, it was so intuitive that, the next morning, even I was able to recite some of her definitions although I had made no conscious effort to learn them. Her drawings just stuck in my mind. It’s a really powerful method indeed.

Dr. John Medina says that the quality of the encoding phase (the way you learn) is “the single greatest predictor of later learning success.”

So if you wish to improve your encoding process, do like my daughter. Make the info you’re learning more memorable by using images (real or mental). You’ll be amazed at how effortless your memorizing will become.

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