Your brain is complex, but once you figure out its little intricacies — like that it can only store about seven units of information in short-term memory — you can exploit them to help you remember more things. It’s not just the amount of information present that affects your memory, though. Even the order in which you learn it plays a role, so understanding that can only help you retain more.
What is the primacy effect?
The American Psychological Association defines the primacy effect as “the tendency for facts, impressions, or items that are presented first to be better learned or remembered than material presented later in the sequence.” This can happen when you’re learning on purpose (like studying for school) or for pleasure (like when you meet someone at a party and they tell you about themselves). It can lead to a “first-impression bias,” which happens when the very first piece of information you learn about someone colours how you see them to an inordinate degree.
It’s part of something broader called the serial position effect. Also on that spectrum is the recency effect, which happens when you remember the last thing you went over better than anything else — and refers back to those seven things you can store in your short-term memory. This is likely because the final information you take in is most present in your working memory.
How to use this effect to study
With the primacy effect on one end and the recency effect on the other, it’s clear that whatever you learn in the middle of a study session is unlikely to make the cut in your memory. So if you have to study something, like a list of words or concepts, don’t study them in the same order every time. Make flashcards and study them at different times and in different orders. Shuffle them between every use.
If there’s a concept you’re struggling with, though, try to focus on that at the beginning and end of every study session, maximizing the likelihood it’ll stick in your brain.
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