Cramming words fast and efficient

This post is also available in Dutch.

Back in high school I used to detest French class. The reason? Every week we were given a list of vocabulary to study. There was no avoiding it – there would be unannounced tests. Many frantic nights were spent going over lists of words, again and again… Of course ‘Fromage’ is cheese, and ‘voiture’ is T…  or was it a car? There were always some words that slipped my mind. What could I have done differently to cram words in no time, and make them stick?

studyingPicture by Thinkstock (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licentie)

My studying strategies were hardly sophisticated: I would read the list for a while, and then cover up the translations with my hand, and test myself.  At the time, little did I know about the many ways in which one could efficiently learn (foreign) words. Testing your knowledge, as with covering up the translation, appears effective but requires persistence and repetition.  Another way to improve your memory is to put increasing amounts of time between repetitions of a word.

The method of loci is yet another method to learn words or items.  It requires you to think of a mnemonic, for example an object that is related to the word, and imagine the mnemonic along with the translation in a vivid spatial context.  For example, to learn the word “Fromage”, you would first divide it up into “From Age” and picture a very old smelly cheese. Then, mentally place this image into a well-known spatial context such as your living room. In this way, at a later stage, you can easily recall these words by mentally traveling through your house.

Despite using these methods, many students struggle to learn vocabulary. Is there a way to make word learning easier for all students?  

Memrise prize
Finding the optimal learning method is the mission of a company called Memrise, founded by a former memory athlete and a neuroscientist.  Last October, Memrise set up a competition, challenging researchers across the globe to find the best method to learn 80 Lithuanian words within an hour. Memory researcher Marlieke van Kesteren was intrigued, and quickly assembled a team of curious minds including some of us at the Donders, to take on this challenge. Together, we combined many ideas into a learning program that better resembled a fun word-learning game than a memory test.

The team tested their learning program on participants and noticed that the learners enjoyed memorizing vocabulary more than ever before. Their memory scores clearly reflected this; some even remembered nearly all 80 words on the test a week later. These results took the team to the finals of the Memrise competition! Now, this is where you come in.

Want to try?
Want to find out which techniques we used? Are you curious to discover how much your learning can improve? In the final, the approaches of the finalists will be put to the test. By YOU! You can sign up now here. There are five different programs for you to try, each with a different approach.

We hope our program turns out to be the best, but most of all we hope you will learn to enjoy studying vocabulary so that cramming words becomes less tedious and more enjoyable!

More information
How not to cram last-minute for your exam
Test the five methods developed to study fast and efficient here

This blog was written by Ruud Berkers and Marlieke van Kesteren, members of one of the teams participating in the final of the Memrise Prize, together with Anke Marit Albers, Gesa van den Broek, Nils Müller and memory athlete Boris Konrad.

Edited by Lieneke.

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