Study skills
By Gregory Mitchell - Copyright © 2003
Chapter 11 - Defeating the Decay of Memories
The decay of memory capacity is such that an hour after trying to memorize, approximately fifty percent of the facts may have been forgotten. A day later nearly everything related to the memory exercise may have evaporated. A graph drawn to show the way in which people forget would show a sudden, dramatic downward curve starting about five minutes after the attempted memorization. This assumes that full attention was given to the spoken or written materials, with understanding; obviously if little attention was paid or the material was not understood, there would be little to be remembered! The amount of forgetting passes the fifty percent mark at one hour and falls to 90% after a day. The curve then levels off at about 90 - 99%. 

memory loss

Suppose instead one could turn this curve around and increase the amount of remembered facts with the passage of time. Studies have been carried out by Dr Matthew Erdelyi of New York University, which showed that volunteers trying out his ideas, found themselves remembering twice as much information the day after the learning had taken place than five minutes after. From these studies practical techniques have been evolved which enable anyone to reverse the usual forgetting curve and remember things better as time goes by. 

The method is as follows. Suppose you have to attend a lecture or meeting where it is not possible to take notes or make a recording, yet it is vital to recall the salient points which were discussed. To ensure effective recall you must set up a program in your mind which will act as a store for information. Therefore, as the session proceeds make a mental note of key points that are raised by repeating these subject headings to yourself in numerical order. Repeat this list from the beginning as each new heading is added. In this way you can keep a running total of all the successive points that have been raised. This is possible because your inner thought-stream is much faster than the vocalized speech that you are listening to, so you can fill in the gaps with your review programming. It also helps to accompany each heading with a visual representation of the subject matter, particularly if that image is striking or humorous, i.e. memorable. 

Five or ten minutes after the session ends, find a quiet place where you can sit down and relax, then go through these key topics in your mind. Do not worry if in this short space of time quite a lot of the material seems to have been forgotten. Spend a couple of minutes on this exercise and never strain yourself to recall elusive items. Just make an educated guess about anything you cannot recall at that time. Repeat each of the topics to yourself just once and make a written note if you can. This helps the initial neurological consolidation of the memories from short term to permanent long term recordings. 

About an hour later, have a second recall session, exactly as before, going through all the topics without undue strain, repeating them to yourself. New aspects and data will reappear by association. The third session should take place about three hours later, the next after six hours, preferably before going to sleep. This makes maximum use of the consolidation occurring during the dreaming process. Repeat the recall procedures three or four times on each of the second and third days, spacing the sessions out evenly through the day. 


Matthew Erdelyi found that his subjects recalled information most easily if they were able to call up mental images associated with a particular topic. It seems that the mind handles images, especially vivid and unusual ones, far more effectively than it deals with words, numbers, or abstract concepts. You can make use of this fact by briefly forming a picture of each major topic when it is initially described and later as you review the topic; this will enhance retention and recall. 

If you get stuck at any point make use of the picture association to jog your memory. Remain relaxed and think of the first thing that the previous item you were able to remember reminds you of. This should produce an association of some kind that can be used as a trigger, leading on to the next link in the chain. 

After perhaps up to ten such links have been pulled out of your mind, one of the missing topics will reappear, like a rabbit out of the conjurer's hat. 

Try this review system as an exercise at the earliest opportunity in a real-life situation. Compare the gain in remembered facts with what you were normally able to hold in your mind over a period of three or more days. Your memory and your ability to learn are much, much greater than you may have supposed. The effect of such a review program is to reduce greatly the rate of forgetting. Instead of the memory dropping off rapidly by about 80% over the first 24 hours, it can be reinforced by reviews at the critical consolidations periods and at subsequent intervals, and it can be raised back towards and then above, that which was initially retained. 

The same technique can be applied whenever you study materials that you intend to remember. It may be thought that with continued study of a subject, the reviews would accumulate and take over most of your study time. Actually, this is not the case. Supposing a person studied every day for one hour a day, and in addition set up a review program for this study. On any one day he would need to review the work from the study session just finished (immediately after, a few hours after and before going to bed), and also material from one day, one week, one month and six months before. 

Review of work done:Time taken:
Same day
1 week before
1 month before
6 months before
5 minutes
3 minutes
1 minute
1 minute
Maximum review time
on any one day:
10 minutes

Thus a person spending one hour a day on study would need to spend only a maximum total of 10 minutes a day to complete all the necessary reviewing, and improve his memory many times over. Thus a few minutes devoted to review makes the hours spent studying effective and worthwhile. 

To summarize: keep going backward! Make time to stop and reflect. Go back to what you learned yesterday, the day before, last week, and so on. You still need all of this. Don’t just go surging forward, letting all your learning evaporate in your wake. Your success will be measured by how much you’ve consolidated - not on how much you once learned and then forgot. When you have acquired the discipline of organized review of previously studied materials, and received the benefits, the procedure will become automatic and easy. 


1. Introduction
2. Barriers to Learning
3. Setting Objectives
4. Reading Techniques
5. Key Word Noting
6. More on Note-Taking
7. Associative Networks
8. Asking Questions & Listening
9. Thinking Clearly
10. Word Definitions
11. Defeating the Decay of Memories
12. Physical Learning
13. Sight, Sound, Action...
14. The Decision to Fail
15. What's Next?


Copyright © 2004 Gregory Mitchell - Published by Trans4mind

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