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How to Study: 4 Tips to Remember Boring Definitions

Updated on July 25, 2014

Whether you are in high school, college, or grad school, you have been subjected to the daunting torture of learning some really boring definitions. Here are some methods that have helped me, however bizarre they may seem.

1. Look for Associations or Make Them Up

Some terms are pretty easy and straightforward, such as "variable", which means "factors that can change in an experiment". But others, such as "zeitgeber", which means "a cue such as a change in temperature or light that is given by the environment to reset the internal body clock", are a little harder to memorize. So what is the difference in the word "variable" and the word "zeitgeber" that makes "variable" easier to remember? It all amounts to the way a word sounds and relates to other words that we already recognize. In short - word association.

To explain a little further, the word "variable" is easy to remember because we can associate it with the word "vary". Since "vary" means "to differ or change from one form to another", it is not a far cry to remember that "variable" means "factors that can change in an experiment". The word "zeitgeber", however, has no obvious connection to a recognizable word. This is usually the case with those hard to learn definitions. The word is totally foreign sounding, so there is no easy way to remember it via association.

In the case of the word "zeitgeber", to remember the definition, I had to get creative. First, I looked at the source of the word (German) and found that "zeit" means time and "geber" means giver. So if you have a German background, or can remember "time giver" in association with the word "zeitgeber", this will simplify the memorization process. "Time giver" will prompt you into the full meaning of this word - a cue given by the environment to reset (or give time to) the internal body clock.

Another example, using a term that has no obvious translatable source (to my knowledge), is the term "Alaungpaya Dynasty", which refers to "the last ruling dynasty (1752–1885) of Myanmar, also referred to as Konbaung". First I try to find memorable or funny word associations. Here is what I came up with - King Kong has long arms at last in Myanmar. OK, don't laugh at my insanity. I'm just trying to be creative and have something memorable to associate with this term. King Kong(because the word "Konbaung" reminds me of Kong) has long arms (gorillas do have long arms, right? and this reminds me of Alaungpaya Dynasty) at last in Myanmar (the place where the last dynasty is). So now when I see the term "Alaungpaya Dynasty" I will think of my bizzare saying and the words "Kong", "long", "last", and "Myanmar". "Kong" can be lengthened to "Konbaung", "long" connects my answer with the term "Alaungpaya" so I know I've matched up the correct definition with the correct term, "last" is associated with "the last dynasty", and "Myanmar" for obvious reasons, since it's a word actually in the definition itself. It sounds like a lot of effort, but it's a method that has worked for me so many times. I've created a small brain puzzle where I can fill in the blanks by knowing part of the answer already. It's kind of like one of those annoyingly stupid but memorable t.v. ad jingles that you just can not get out of your head, except I'm making my own to serve my own purposes.

To go a little further, if I would need to know the actual time period of the Alaungpaya Dynasty, I would try to look for associations to help me with that too. The dates of this dynasty are 1752-1885. I could use ages or birthdays of friends and/or family to assist me with remembering the dates. If I have a 17 year old younger brother, for example, that would be a start. It wouldn't be hard to associate your little brother with a monkey (Konbaung). Or I could alter my crazy jingle from "King Kong has long arms at last in Myanmar" to "King Kong (insert brother's name here) has 52 long arms at last in Myanmar". That leaves me to only having to memorize "1885". When memorizing dates, another way to rid your brain of the unneeded stuff is to remove the "1" from the dates to be memorized. For example, I would now need to memorize or find associations with "752-885" instead of "1752-1885". The one is obvious enough to remember, as long as all the other terms you are memorizing can be treated this way as well. It would be confusing to do this if you were also trying to memorize three digit BC and AD dates along with the four digit dates.

2. Visualize It

Some people just learn better when they have visuals. Visual learners retain more information when they can see an image of what they are learning.

If you are a decent stick figure drawer, consider drawing out an easy visual for your term that will click and trigger the definition. For example, next to the term "Granicus" which is a river in Turkey, a small drawing of a turkey (the bird) next to some waves would probably be enough for you to get it. When you associate the word "Granicus" with a wet turkey, the correlation between the two becomes like the check swoosh symbol associated with Nike, or the logo and mascot associated with your favorite sports team. Same thing, except you are trying to pass a test with your "logo".

Other examples are as follows: For the term "Okhrana" (the secret police of Russia's tsar), draw a small police car with a "Shh!" written on the side. For the term "Gabelle" (salt tax in France), draw a rectangle with the word "salt" on it, followed by the "$" symbol.

I know that there will be terms that are just impossible to create a visual for, but for the ones that have some possibility there, consider trying it. It certainly can't hurt!

Another tip that does not require drawing: If you are working with flashcards for art history and need to know what the artwork looks like, along with the artist, date, and title of the piece, write the textbook page number on the flashcard (along with the artist name and other written info) for an easy visual reference guide. The same goes for molecules, body/plant parts, maps/battle locations, and chemistry formulas. It will save you time if you know exactly what textbook page to flip to. Color coded or numbered sticky notes work well too. Match the color or number of each tab on the textbook page with the same color/number on the corresponding flashcard for another quick reference guide.

3. Call It Out

This is something you have probably done before. First make flashcards, then have a friend or relative call the definitions or terms out to you until it sinks in. Alternate between having to say the term to having to say the definition until you can easily remember both.

Use a recorder in class, or record yourself or a friend reciting the terms and play it back as much as you need to.

4. Write It Out

It seems like punishment, but some people learn better when they write something down. Do your own "lines". Write out your terms and see if it helps you to remember them better.

After you think you know your stuff, and if you have any energy left, make a test for yourself to see how you do.

If I haven't bored you away by now, and if you have a method of your own that really helps the study material stick with you, please help your fellow sufferers ...ahem... scholars by leaving a comment below.

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