When you are studying, how do you know if you are really learning? How can you tell if what you're memorizing is short term purely for last minute cramming, or long term actual memory making?

Many students spend their study time memorizing information. While this can lead to some effect, memorization does not really equate to actual learning. To learn, you must study to make memories. The basic steps of memory making usually involves receiving information, processing that information, storing it properly so you can retrieve it for use whenever you need.

The Groundwater Theory

Groundwater is the water that exists beneath the surface of the earth. There is a similar process that occurs between storing and retrieving of groundwater, and storing and retrieving of information in your brain. 

If you can understand how the groundwater system works to sustain and grow life on the planet, you can better understand how memory making works and use that knowledge to foster healthy learning habits. 

How Groundwater Works

1. Precipitation falls as rain.

2. Some water seeps into the ground through varying types of soil. The type of soil in a certain location will effect how much and how quickly the water sinks in.

3. The ground becomes saturated with water. The upper layer of this saturated area is called the water table (a mix of water and soil), and bottom layer is called the aquifer.

4. In the aquifer, water is stored for long durations in the large spaces between rock.

So what does all this groundwater talk have to do with learning? Let's take a look at how memory making works as a comparison: 

The Memory Making System

Have you ever heard someone say "let that sink in for a minute" after they've told you something new or surprising? The process that occurs when our brains soak in new information and the process that occurs when the ground "soaks in" new water is very similar.

1. Information must be absorbed.

2. Too much information flooding us at one time is not a good thing. Some of it runs off and goes to waste.

3. Once the information is allowed to sink in by being processed in a gradual and intentional way, it can be stored deep beneath the surface as memory.

Groundwater sinks in at different speeds, depending on the type of soil. Ground that contains a lot of clay tends to be tightly packed and water has a tough time "sinking in." On the other hand, ground that contains a lot of rocks allows water to sink in quickly and in large quantity.

Comparing the two.

Different types of soil allow different rates of water to seep in. Similarly, some types of brains allow information to sink in rapidly when dumped with a lot of information at once, but other types of brains need time to process new information in a deliberate way. We all learn different things in different ways and speed.

This means that some students can benefit from cramming, but some students cannot. Some students can wait until the night before the exam and review notes and actually retain information the next day, just like how rocky soil absorbs and retains water.

Most brains are not so "rocky" however. The crammed information stays on the surface for a short period of time, but this information "runs off" or evaporates after a few short hours.

Building an aquifer of memories

Remember when we mentioned the upper layer of where groundwater is stored is called the water table (a mix of water and soil), and bottom layer is called the aquifer? The aquifer is where water is stored for longer durations. Similarly, by collecting and taking the time to process and store your memories, you build a deep aquifer of information in your brain. This is called learning!

Memories are made when we receive information in manageable quantities and allow time for the information to sink in. How can we do this?

You can start by receiving information in manageable amounts over an extended period of time. This is why studying for an exam should always start 2-3 weeks before the date of the paper. One week before the exam, try to work the information in some way such as practising past year's exam papers. This act of testing yourself, much like dipping into a well of water to pull out small samples to drink, will nourishe and reinforce your memories.