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A Guide to Success in Your Studies

A Guide to Success in Your Studies: Improving Memory and Retention

By Bruce T. Clark, Seton Historian

Since I am a professional historian, I am dismayed when I hear anyone say, “I hate history.” This lament almost always means that the person is as yet unprepared to face history’s challenges, the first and foremost of which is the ability to retain a great deal of data. To succeed in that undertaking, we must understand that retentiveness is a by-product of intellectual exercise.

God provides each of us with a memory, but when we receive our memory, it is blank. To achieve mental prowess, our mental exercises are similar to the physical ones of body builders. Success requires patience, practice, and perseverance. Muscles grow stronger in response to proper training methods; so do the memory and knowledge base.

Let’s examine four stages of learning.

  1. Unconscious incompetence. We don’t know we don’t know.
  2. Conscious incompetence. We know that we don’t know.
  3. Conscious competence. We know that we know.
  4. Unconscious competence. Intellect and retention are at full speed; but, that means more mental exercise rather than less.

Students need to establish a game plan to master the present level and proceed to the next. I firmly believe that studying history is akin to having our own mental trainer. History requires us to know: Who, When, Where, What, and very often Why and How.

Developing an Interest

Studying history requires us to make a vital decision. In the beginning, we can spend seemingly endless hours on memorization, or we can permanently remain at stage 2. Once we are committed to success, however, our hours of study magically decrease, and our retention of knowledge increases. Somewhere along the way, we discover that reading about the world’s most famous history-makers on their most important days is fascinating. As a result, we begin to read more and more.

Many of us develop a lifelong fondness for historical novels that invite our imaginations to be swept away to yesteryear – to the Appian Way, to the Great Wall of China, to Constitution Hall, to the Alamo, or to the dire days of World War II. While we weren’t looking, we moved into stage 3 and have become scholars.

My favorite memory builder is learning a new fact and a new date each day. My grandfather recommended the system when I was six or seven. That was over seventy years ago, but I still do it. Wow! That’s 25,000 facts and dates. That’s pretty handy knowledge for an historian to have.

Grandfather taught me to plan my work and work my plan. Without a sensible, workable plan, we are deluding ourselves if we think we can be successful. Once your plan is in place, and time tested, let nothing less than an emergency interfere.

A Simple and Workable Plan

Many people don’t know how to formulate a simple, but workable plan. The secret is knowing what to include and what to exclude. Here is my proven solution. At the end of each month, compose a list of everything you intend to accomplish during the following month. Arrange these items according to their importance, with the vital items at the top. If any item appears on your list for three consecutive months without being accomplished, delete it from your list since it is either not vital or you are not able to complete it.

Now, let’s help your study with the Recording Method. This system is effective for many people because it employs external and internal senses.

  1. Read the written material into a recording device.
  2. Read it again while listening to your recording.
  3. Listen to the recording and take notes on the Who, When, Where, What, and if possible, Why & How of the topic.
  4. Study your notes.
  5. Just before you take the exam, listen again.

Aiming High

Allow me to share an embarrassing, but very enlightening experience. When I was eighteen, I enrolled in a Jesuit University. On my first history exam I received a grade of 94%. I was elated by the grade and the knowledge that my 94 was the best grade by far. Suddenly, as I sat there beaming in the early autumn sunshine, I was startled by Father Finnegan’s voice.

“Do I detect a Cheshire cat grin on your young visage, Mr. Clark?” asked he.

“I guess you do, Father,” said I, caught somewhat off guard.

“May I asked why it is there?” Father queried. “I trust that it is not occasioned by your grade of 94.”

“I’m afraid that it is,” I admitted protectively.

“A 94,” Father continued, “is 6 points below the God-given ability level that you possess. My duty to you, and the rest of your fellow students, is to erase the distance between your current grade and your God-given ability. I need not remind any of you that failing to use Our Lord’s gifts in a productive way is an extremely serious matter.”

I have always tried to rise to Father’s challenge, to achieve my God-given ability, although I have not always succeeded. I now throw down the gauntlet to you, just as Father Finnegan did for me.

Final Points

Begin by setting reasonable short term goals, then working toward them with vigor. Your short term goals should be designed to move you forward and eventually lead to your major goals, which at times may seem to be unreachable. At those times, remember that perseverance does result in success.

Finally, I often hear from Seton students who have read my historical essays or my novels. They tell me they would like to become authors and seek my advice. I tell them to read voraciously, and to develop self-discipline. Writing requires a great deal of discipline. I also encourage them to practice writing every day. I try to share with them the wondrous rewards that are a byproduct of all the hard work that good writing demands: a novel that satisfies and entertains readers; a realistic scene or character that was so difficult to develop; a paragraph that you rewrote seventeen times; a very private memory that makes you remember and smile a Cheshire grin.

About Bruce Clark

Bruce Clark

Mr. Clark, a Who’s Who historian, majored in history at John Carroll University and the University of Alaska before serving two tours of duty as a Green Beret Captain in U.S. Special Forces. He has also been a radio talk show host, as well as a consultant and speaker for a variety of historical and political organizations. A home schooling father of seven, Mr. Clark has been the Seton Historian since 1989.

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