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Do You Really Have to Write Things Down to Remember Them?

Posted on the 10 February 2012 by Combi31 @combi31

Do you really have to write things down to remember them?

I was facilitating a session with a group of learners yesterday and we got to talking about memory, and more specifically how we can use our memories and learning styles effectively.

I asked the question to the group, “How do you remember things?” and the answers were pretty standard and generally no real surprises.

All of the learners replied that they wrote things down in order to remember them, which to my way of thinking is both untrue and ineffective as a memory technique.

I don’t dispute the fact that some of us need cues in order to remember things – shopping lists, action plans, to-do lists etc., but what I do dispute, in a learning setting, is the efficacy of constant note-taking – then doing no active work afterwards with the notes.

I say this mainly because I generally notice that certain learners take reams of notes during a training session, which remain in their fils as a sort of life-belt to save them when they need it.

This is great, but the problem is that they do nothing else with them afterwards and their files grow bigger and bigger as the training goes on.

If, on the other hand they then distilled their notes and had a strategy to transform that what is going to be of use, to their long term memory by way of activating the information from passive notes, then that is going to help them.

The whole point of learning is to transform actionable data to a situation where it can be applied, in the broadest sense – to a skill or behavior change for personal or professional development (in this case) – not to amass information that is learnt on the surface.

The point I make with writing things down is that, there are times when we need to and there are times when it is unnecessary and only dictated by habit or routine.

The fact remains that we rely so much on writing things down on post-its or on slips of paper that we rarely exercise our memories in any meaningful way.

Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t write anything down but perhaps we should try to reduce the quantity and give our memories a chance.

There are times that writing things down, on a to-do list or an action plan, actually helps the thinking and planning process as we take a step-out from producing to a more reflective planning and visualisation phase.

When people say that they have a visual memory, this often discounts all other forms of memory – taste, smell, sound, touch.

The people with visual memories who smell a roast chicken and state that it reminds them of their grandmother’s cooking didn’t retain that memory by writing it down, nor did the memory come flooding back because of the look of the roast chicken – it was the smell that triggered it.

The same can be said about certain songs or excerpts of music which trigger vivid memories of places, people and smells associated with the song.

So why do people insist that they have visual memories and can only remember in this way?

I feel that it is because in certain settings, especially in a learning setting, that people channel all their receptive skills into writing things down – it is a learnt habit that is hard to abandon.

The memory works by chunking or grouping things into connectible categories, so taking disjointed notes will never, in my opinion, help people to make links and therefore, effectively remember things in the long-term.

You can probably picture times at school or university when, just before the exams, you did your revision, wading through files of notes only to wonder what you wrote the notes about at the time of writing.

In fact the connection was there, when you took the notes, but was subsequently lost in the depths of space and time due to the lack of connections.

If you have been to a place once and didn’t rely on a GPS to get there, you will have unconsciously mapped-out the path in your head.

If you return to the place, you generally play the film of this memory back to yourself in your head.

You may have remembered landmarks, colours of building, the shape of the road and other things to help you retrace your steps.

What I am trying to say is that we all have many tools to help us to remember and all our senses are used, but we sometimes favour specific senses consciously without being aware of our natural unconscious preferences.

Working memory is very ephemeral and can be as short as a few seconds so information must be processed actively in order that is can be stored in the long-term memory and later recalled.

So, I decided to test the theory mooted by this group of learners.

I split them into two distinct groups and decided to test their ability to remember a string of ten words – they are French so we used English words.

One half of the group were allowed to write down the words using their laptops, then read them back for 30 seconds, the other half of the group were not allowed to write the words on paper or on a computer but wrote them in the air with their fingers.

Interestingly, this group wrote the words very big, in great sweeping strokes of their fingers and hands and had to move at times to finish the word that they ‘wrote’ in the air.

During the 4 hour session I checked at hourly intervals, both groups, and what they had retained of the ten words.

I realize that the scientific value is probably not huge but in terms of self-awareness for the group and curiosity it spawned, it was quite amazing.

By the end of the 4 hour session the group that had written the words on their computers remembered 2 or 3 of the words, whilst the group who wrote the words in the air remembered 7 or 8 of the words after a 4 hour session.

Now, I realize that this is in no way empirical evidence, it is however, interesting to note some of the differences which impacted on the working memory of the group.

The group who had written the words on the computer tried to re-visualise what they had written, whilst the second group went through writing the words in the air again without being prompted.

The question I would ask here are:

  • Is it the fact that we write words and can subsequently see them that helps us to remember?
  • Is it the physical act of forming the shapes of words with a pen that helps us to memorise them?
  • Would the ‘experiment’ have shown different results if part of the group were allowed to write with a pen on paper?
  • Is it the fact that one part of the group were active and the other relatively passive that had an impact?

There are probably more questions that could be asked, but the real value is that, in this particular group, they were prepared to abandon the received ideas that they shared at the outset regarding the way they worked their memory and how they were going to attempt to try new ways of working on other aspects of their memory (Aural, tactile etc.) in order to increase their effectiveness regarding their learning – we will see what happens.

The point is, that a multi-sensorial approach is logically going to help with memory much more effectively than a unilateral approach as we are largely discounting a whole host of ‘weapons’ that we already have in the armoury.

I feel that the second group actually visualised the words that they wrote in the air, forming the words with their fingers, were dynamic and active, in the sense that they coupled imagination with movement, using parts of the brain that is receptive to experiences and therefore retained a lot more due to this.

I will reiterate the fact that this is not a controlled experiment with no empirical evidence, on a small group mostly for fun to raise awareness – and it was good fun!

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Do you really have to write things down to remember them?
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