A common question among those preparing for the SAT: Is there a quick and easy way to learn vocabulary? This is a bit of a tricky question because it is in fact TWO questions jammed into one:
1. Is there a QUICK way to learn vocabulary?
2. Is there an EASY way to learn vocabulary?
Lets take these questions one by one shall we?
Is there a quick way to learn vocabulary?
In order to address this question, lets talk a little bit about short term and long term memory. Short term memory you can think of as working memory, or, if you are technically savvy, like the cache of a computer. This is information that you are experiencing right now, or at the very least quite recently. If you get at pretty young guy or gals phone number and desperately try to remember it until you can find your phone or a scrap of napkin on which to scribble it down or you are trying to learn names of Revolutionary War battles seconds before a test, this is all using short term memory. It is useful for, well, the short term. You can retain information in your short term memory for about 30 seconds, then it fades. Ever wonder why you have trouble remembering those same battles on the test? Short term memory, the kind of memory involved in cramming for a test, just isn’t that useful if you might need that information in the long term, or if you are taking a test that is three and a half hours long.
What we want to activate when studying vocabulary is long term memory. Long term memory is activated in a couple of ways, but the big ones are repetition, and by associating experiences with other senses, ideas, or emotions. The quickest way to learn vocabulary is to use these methods to activate your long term memory and store the words for later use.
What is the easiest way to learn vocabulary?
Repetition really is the easiest way to build long term memory. You can think about the brain as a dense forest. I need to get from point A to point B so I blaze a little trail and I have a arrived! There is a connection in the brain and this connection is the memory. If we never use that path again it will become overgrown and covered up and we wont be able to find the trail again; we will have to blaze a new memory. If, however, we use that trail sporadically then the trail grows more visible. The more we use it, the more it becomes a distinct pathway until it is etched into the wood permanently. The brain works similarly.
Take a word and a definition that you don’t know. Look at it once then wait one minute. Now look at the word and try to think of the definition. Its tough right? Now take that same word and repeat the definition seven times. Now wait one minute. Maybe a bit easier? Did you get it? If not try it again. Repeat the word seven times. Now wait two minutes. I bet you can still recall the definition! You can do this with groups of words (not too many, but maybe ten at a time) and in just a few minutes you have created a fairly defined pathway in your brain. The good news is every time you review these learned words you are strengthening it further. Over the course of a few weeks you can learn hundreds of words without having to spend hours staring at a sheet of definitions.
As a final note, memory does a funny thing when you sleep. Every day you experience so many things which create countless connections in the brain. This means that every night your brain takes ALL the new paths and weakens them a little. For most paths, this weakening reduces them to nothing, but for the paths we create using repetition, they remain. More importantly, the brain can focus on this pathway more effectively because all the less useful stuff has been removed. This means, however, that it is REALLY important to review new words the next day. It will really work to strengthen that pathway and get you going towards a permanent memory. Download the Veritas Prep SAT 2400 iPhone app and review vocabulary when you are tired of playing “Angry Birds”. You’ll be very surprised at how quickly you retain these words.
David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy.