Exams are creeping up on some of you. Time to get studying. When you review for an exam, you’re almost certainly going to rehearse the material you learned, which means repeating the information in order to more securely store it in your memory. This makes sure that what you need to know is easy to remember come exam time.
However, don’t think about rehearsal too simply; psychologists often talk about two distinct types of it. Maintenance rehearsal is when you repeat something over and over without giving any meaning to the information. Let’s say you want to remember the definition of the word “axon,” which is a part of a neuron: maintenance rehearsal would involve saying “axon” over and over until you think you can remember it. This is also called rote rehearsal. It keeps information active in your mind, but it typically has limited value if you want to remember it for any significant length of time.
Elaborative rehearsal involves giving meaning to the information you’re trying to memorize. Research clearly shows that when you want to commit things to long-term memory, like when you’re studying for an exam, you need to use this kind of rehearsal. Elaborative rehearsal isn’t only repeating the piece of information you want to remember, but also making it associated to something else you already know. So, going back to the word “axon”: to remember its definition, you can think that an axon takes a neural impulse “away” from the neuron. “Axon” and “away” both start with the letter A. This makes everything much easier to remember.
Here’s another example of how you can use elaboration to improve your memory. Let’s say that you want to remember the names of all five Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. You could repeat the five names over and over (rote rehearsal) or you can think of a more meaningful way to remember them, like forming a word from the first letter of each of the five names (this is called an acronym). This spells HOMES. Using acronyms makes it much easier to remember than five separate words!
Have you ever used elaborative rehearsal before? If “yes”, how has it helped you remember something?