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Teaching Skills Teaching Skills > How to Teach > Theory of Learning Series > Part 4 Mental Processing
Summary: Does your pupil find memorizing difficult? - In order to memorize something we need to process it mentally.

Mental Processing

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Have you ever watched a show where one of these Memory Magicians takes several packs of playing cards, gives them to members of the audience to shuffle, then after looking at each card briefly one at a time proceeds to read back the exact order the cards are in in each pack from memory - quite a feat!

What these guys are demonstrating is not so much magic, as simply the practised and refined methodology of quite ordinary everyday memorizing. It may surprise you that we all have the ability to do this - but few of us learn consciously to utilize it.

In order for any piece of information to 'stick' in our memory we have to make a point of mentally processing the information. It doesn't much matter how we do this - it can be complete nonsense. It just matters that we take the information and do something with it mentally.

In the case of the Memory Trick this is usually done by some sort of graphical association of ideas. To illustrate this lets say that I want to memorize a particular phone number:


I start by spotting an instant and lasting association which most Englishmen will identify with I'm sure - the date 1966 was when England Won the World Cup (Soccer World Cup). That takes care of the first four digits. I'm left with 09. Well Bobby Charlton was my hero in that match and he wore a number 9 shirt. Also, even at that age he was quite bald - so the 0 reminds me of the shape of his head!

So I then put all these elements together in a strong graphical image. It's actually best if the image is a bit wacky. So I have Bobby Charlton sitting inside a Giant replica of the World Cup trophy having a bath and in my mind's eye he's washing his head and making it all shiny!

Finally it would be necessary to link the image to the person whose phone number it is. Lucky if their name's Bobby or if they happen to be a football fanatic, but failing that I would have this person running round the stadium on a lap of honour carrying aloft the trophy complete with its bathing occupant. Again - the ridiculousness of the image only serves to help stick it in mind.

So how does all this relate to the Theory of Learning? Well the first stage of learning something is often to memorize it. It should be stressed that this is often a transient stage, because if you end up using the information often enough, you will simply know it. You will no longer be required to dig it out of memory.

Try teaching someone the names of the notes on the open strings of the guitar for example. Supposing you just told them :

"Bottom string's E, Fifth string's A, Fourth string D ..." ..etc

Chances are they won't remember more than the first couple - if that. What if you write them out? They'll say "Thank you very much" and file away the diagram to look at every point in future time when they need to know the note names. Writing things down actually makes it LESS LIKELY people will learn things!

You have to get them to PROCESS the INFORMATION: Tell them:

"Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears"

Get them to repeat that back to you. Then immediately get them to put it to use:

"Okay" you say "Play the 'G' string, good, now the 'A' string, okay, the 'B' string...." and so on.

Do this until they give you the right response each time without hesitation. That's a fine example of using 'Mental Processing', and there are several other such examples using Mnemonics. A skillful tutor will use a similar methodology for each point they teach. They will learn to make up mental processing methods as they go along.

The trick is to always try to lead the student to discover things rather than simply telling or explaining them. So I want to get my student to appreciate that the chord change C - F has the same relationship in the key of C as A - D has in the key of A. I get them to play C - F and hum or sing a tune that fits the change. Then I tell them to play A and try out other chords to fit with A that would fit the same tune in the new key. If they fail to stumble on the answer by this method I switch to using a theoretical approach. I ask:

"How many letter names from C - F?"

"C, D, E, F - 4" they reply

"Okay, so if A is 1, which letter would be 4?"

"A, B, C, D -- it's D!"

"Okay - lets put that to the test and play it"

This takes a lot more time than just explaining or telling your student stuff. But the time is well-invested because if you adhere to this approach you will only have to teach each point once!

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Related Pages
.   How learning got a bad name for itself
.   Motivation Moves Mountains
.   Contact with the Subject
.   Assimilating
.   Relative Importance
.   Information Overwhelm
.   Information Retention
.   Making and Breaking habits
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