By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
Multiple studies like this one and this one suggest that our working memory can only hold small chunks of information at a time. Exactly how much information our working memories can hold varies with which study you read, but it’s universally understood that there is some kind of maximum capacity.
What does this mean for students?
When studying new information, it’s best to learn small amounts of material at a time. Again, the reason is because our working memories literally cannot store indefinite amounts.
I argue – based on experience – that the magic number is three. In other words, the study hack for remembering information is to learn only three new things at a time.
You can use this study technique in various scenarios, across various subjects, for all different types of content.
For example, if you’re learning new vocabulary words, here’s how that would work:
- Pick three vocabulary words to start with. If possible, pick three words that are somewhat related; you’ll have an easier time learning this way.
- Study these three words over and over using this technique or this study technique.
- Gradually, you’ll begin to learn the words. As you learn one word (like, totally learn it), add another new word (just one) to your pile.
- Study those words until you solidly learn another one – then add one more new word to the pile.
- There should never be more than three words in your stack that you don’t know.
- Keep the words that you’ve learned in your rotation.
- Keep going until you’ve added each new word to your pile, one at a time, and you’ve learned all the terms.
You could also use this study hack and the power of three to learn body parts for an anatomy class, for example.
For something like this, you could take a blank diagram of the body (or whatever diagram you have to label) and focus on just three parts. Label these parts over and over again until you solidly learn one of them. Then add a new part into the mix, slowly adding one new term each time you learn one. Again, make sure you never work with more than three “unknowns” at a time.
To recap, there are two significant keys to making sure this power of three study hack actually works:
- Never work with more than three new pieces of information (or three “unknowns”) at a time.
- Each time you learn one item, keep it in your rotation. Yes, you’ll add a new item at this time as well, but be sure to keep reviewing the “learned” items at the same time you’re studying new ones.
Alternative for studying with the power of three
There’s an alternative for using this power of three to study new material, and it can be just as effective as the previous method. I suggest you play around with the two methods and see which one works best for you, or use a combination of the two.
Here’s how the alternative study hack works:
- Pick three new items to start with (vocab, dates, etc. – whatever you’re studying).
- Study these three items until you know them 100%. Then, put them aside.
- Pick three entirely new items to begin learning. Study just these three items until you know them 100%. Add them to your first pile of three – we’ll call this your “learned pile.”
- Pick up your learned pile and briefly review all 6 items.
- Pick up another three new items to learn. Study just these three items until you know them 100%. Add them to your learned pile.
- Pick up your learned pile and briefly review all 9 items.
- Continue in this manner until you’ve learned all your items.
- This process could take twenty minutes or a week – depending on how much material you have and how complicated it is.
The title of this article is “Study hack for remembering information: How to use the power of three.” As you might notice, I’ve made an attempt to frame this study technique as a “hack” — but in reality, there is actual science behind the role of our working memories in the learning process.
It’s always my goal to teach how to learn – without weighing the student down with the details of how it all works. As with this study technique, many of the other study techniques I share in my videos and blogs are based on a combination of cognitive science and my personal experience privately tutoring thousands of students one-on-one.