Imagine how much you already know. Just contemplate everything you have learned and experienced during all the years that you have been alive. Everything. Seems pretty vast, doesn’t it?
Your brain is full of knowledge gathered throughout your lifetime. Storing all this knowledge is beneficial because it can be used to predict future occurrences. For example, you have seen so many chairs that you instantly recognise a new one for what it is, even when it has a slightly different appearance.
This predictive power allows your brain to process everyday occurrences quickly and efficiently – you need to store only the things that are new. In the chair example, your brain records the way this particular chair deviates from previously encountered ones.
Something different happens when we encounter things completely outside of our usual experience. If your brain is surprised, it finds that memorable – and this is known as the “novelty effect”. The element of newness helps your brain form a strong memory.
We do not always consciously make use of what we already know when we try to learn new information. But evidence is piling up that suggests this is a smart thing to do.
So how can you make the most of your prior knowledge to prepare for acquiring – and retaining – new knowledge?
1. Remind yourself about what you already know
Always recall related knowledge actively when you’re learning new information. For example, if your task it to learn about the current situation in a certain country, recall what you already know about its history.
Don’t be tempted to look everything up immediately – even though Google has made that so easy. Take some time to retrieve what your own brain has stored about the topic first, even if it doesn’t relate directly to what you’re studying.
This act of retrieving knowledge has been shown to be very beneficial to learning, strengthening both the stored and the newly learned knowledge. If you’re unsure you’ve got the facts right, or find there are gaps in your knowledge, you can always check online afterwards. This is a good way to help identify and correct misconceptions as well.
2. Make use of the novelty effect
Imagine you’re trying to learn that “cheese” in French is “fromage”. Nothing in your prior knowledge would help you make that link. But you can still use both prior knowledge and the novelty effect to help you remember the word.
First, link the information artificially to your prior knowledge (you could say to yourself: “fromage” = “from age”) and then try to make this association as novel as possible.
You can do this by mentally placing the cheese in a weird spatial situation, optimally involving as many senses as possible (imagine a truly aged cheese in your bathroom, a cheese that smells strongly and is sweaty).
The trick being used is called the method of loci: arbitrary information is connected together by linking it to locations within a familiar environment. It helps if you make the memory as bizarre and vivid as possible.
The ancient Greeks cottoned on to this method and they used it to remember their famous lengthy speeches. Nowadays, it’s often used by memory championsto recall frighteningly long lists of facts or numbers.
3. Get an overview of the study material
Before starting to study, make sure you get an overview of the study material by browsing through a study book, looking through the table of contents, and trying to answer questions, even if you have no clue what they are about.
Preparing for what you’re going to learn can help you to take in the knowledge as it comes your way. Skim through the chapters in your set texts so you can see the direction you’ll be taking. Keep repeating this procedure throughout the learning process; it is useful to have an overview in your mind at all times.
4. Take your time and be patient
Time itself will help you learn. Building structured knowledge takes a while – it requires effort and a lot of repetition over several days, weeks, even months.
Most of the knowledge that has stuck in your brain is a result of active recall, repetition, and – not unimportantly – unconscious lingering brain processes thatorder and generalise your knowledge.
These lingering processes occur after learning, while you’re resting, or even sleeping, and will influence future memory performance. A short nap or resting period after studying can help you remember better.
On the other hand, last-minute cramming is unfortunately only helpful in the short term. It will not give you strong long-term retention, and that in turn hampers the integration of future knowledge.
These tips will help you to be more consciously aware of your prior knowledge and how it relates to learning new information when studying. When you’re at school, curriculums are carefully designed to build on previously acquired knowledge. But once you’re an adult, at university or at work, you come across new information all the time in a random order.
Recapping your older knowledge – by actively making yourself recall what you already now – will not only help you add on new bits of information, but will reinforce and refine the knowledge you already have.