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Research has found that people are most likely to successfully apply appropriate learning and remembering strategies when they have also been taught general information about how the mind works.
The more you understand about how memory works, the more likely you are to benefit from instruction in particular memory skills.
When you have a good general understanding of how memory works, different learning strategies make much more sense. You will remember them more easily, because they are part of your general understanding. You will be able to adapt them to different situations, because you understand why they work and which aspects are important. You will be able to recognize which skills are useful in different situations. Not least important, because you understand why the strategies work, you will have much greater confidence in them.

[taken from The Memory Key]

Knowledge about memory is called "metamemory". There are four broad aspects of this kind of knowledge:

  • Factual knowledge about memory tasks and processes (that is, knowledge about both how memory works and about strategic behaviors)
  • Memory monitoring (that is, both awareness of how you typically use your memory as well as awareness of the current state of your memory)
  • Memory self-efficacy (that is, your sense of how well you use memory in demanding situations)
  • Memory-related affect (emotional states that may be related to or generated by memory demanding situations)

[taken from Hertzog, 1992]

Metamemory is assumed to play a significant role in the development of children's learning and memory performance. It's also — more surprisingly — now thought to play some part in the decline in cognitive performance with age.

Part of the reason for this is, of course, the widespread perception that memory does decline with age, and accordingly, when older adults experience memory failure, they are more inclined to simply attribute it to age, rather than attempt to improve their performance. Relatedly, older adults are less inclined to use new strategies, partly because they don't believe it makes a difference.

But, whatever your age, old or young, your memory can be improved by mastering and using effective strategies. The main obstacle, for both old and young, is in fact convincing them that it's not them, it's what they're doing. And they can learn to do things better.

  • Hertzog, C. 1992. Improving memory: The possible roles of metamemory. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag. pp 61-78.
  • McPherson, F. 2000. The Memory Key. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.