“What is the name of the capital of Bulgaria?” the teacher asked Tobias, who had prepared far too little for this geography exam.
Perplexed, Tobias looked around the class and tried to read his classmates’ lips. In vain. He couldn’t detect a name in the lip movements.
“The name was even on the calendar a few days ago!” the teacher tried to jog his memory, because the Ice Saints had just passed with the cold snap common in May.
Tobias understood only station, because he did not understand what the name of a capital should have to do with the calendar.
“It is also a rather rare female name today” the teacher tried one last time.
In principle, the clues were correct, however, they came from the teacher’s store of knowledge, who knew that one of the ice saints*) was “Cold Sophie” and that the name of the city is a rather uncommon female name today.
Tobias would have been much more helped if the teacher had reminded him of his paper on Sophocles, which he had given two weeks ago, since his name has the first syllable in common with the city name he was looking for.
When people learn, they never learn in isolation, but always in a context or in a concrete content “environment”. This environment is automatically learned as well, whereby the new content is linked to what already exists. To the existing belong the earlier stored knowledge contents, to which the new content “attaches” itself so to speak.
Remembering works the other way around, by going into this “environment” in one’s mind and dissolving the learned links in reverse order. When remembering a subject matter, it is ultimately a matter of placing oneself in the right environment.
In everyday life, too, people remember what they have experienced or learned in the past if they receive a hint of the environment that was present at the time when they memorized it. For example, they remember a long-forgotten experience with an acquaintance when they happen to see him again years later. Sometimes it is enough to see someone who only looks similar to this acquaintance. People remember their own unpleasant experience with the police when they see a police officer writing tickets.
When we study for school, something similar happens: first, we study a paragraph in a textbook, for example, in which there are perhaps five or six tidbits of information that we want to learn. In our case, these morsels might be: Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, located on the Iskar, a tributary of the Danube (Bulgarian Dunaw), named after St. Sophia’s Church, destroyed by Huns, belonged to the Ottoman Empire, has been the capital since 1879. This information is linked in our brain mostly by repetition, but also by links with other previously learned information (for example, if the name of the city “Sofia” has the first syllable in common with “Sophocles” or that Sophia is the name of an ice saint). The goal of learning in our example would therefore be to remember “Sofia” or the name of the Danube tributary Iskar in response to the cues “capital” and “Bulgaria.” Some information links more easily in our brains during learning, some more difficult, and some, unfortunately, not at all.
When students are later tested on the material they have learned, each question asked by a teacher already contains clues to the answer, just unfortunately in some cases too few or even the wrong ones to immediately remember the correct answer.
We can support learning by writing the morsels of material to be learned one below the other on a sheet of paper, and then covering one of these portions with a strip of paper and trying to remember the covered one from the visible ones. Later, we can cover two or three of these morsels of knowledge and deduce the invisible ones from the visible ones. Then, when such a morsel is thrown at us during the exam or at all later in life, we remember more or less well the rest that we had associated with it.
It can also be useful when learning to add known information that is already stored in our brain to that which is to be learned. In our example maybe the names of the bordering countries or the old name of the Danube “Ister”, which sounds a bit like “Iskar”. Tobias was “inwardly” thinking of his Sophocles paper while learning, while the teacher was therefore thinking of Sofia, since he had caught a cold during the Ice Saints that was still bothering him. So everyone builds their web of personal clues that will help them remember what they’ve learned later.
Sometimes it’s like a jinx, because you can remember exactly where the page in the book said what you learned, but the penny just won’t drop (see the learning tip “What is the name of the capital of …“).