Rehearsal is a term used by memory researchers to refer to mental techniques for helping us remember information. Its technical meaning is not very different from our everyday use of the term. Actors rehearse their lines so that they won’t forget them.
Similarly, if we want to retain information over time, there are strategies for enhancing future recall. There are two main types of rehearsal. The first is maintenance rehearsal, which involves continuously repeating the to-be-remembered material.
This method is effective in maintaining information over the short term. We have all had the experience of looking up a phone number and subsequently forgetting it (or part of it) before we have dialed it. This illustrates the fact that new material will fade from memory relatively quickly unless we make a purposeful effort to remember it.
One of the advantages of a touch tone telephone is that the number can be dialed more quickly compared to the old rotary dial phones, thereby reducing the length of time required to keep the number in memory. Maintenance rehearsal typically involves rote repetition, either out loud or covertly. It is effective for maintaining relatively small amounts in memory for brief periods, but is not likely to affect retention in the long term.
In order to retain information for longer periods of time, elaborative rehearsal is more useful. This second main type of rehearsal involves associating new material with information that already exists in long-term memory. There are numerous occasions on which students are required to remember large amounts of relatively complex information—certainly more complex than a phone number.
In these situations, reciting the information over and over again is not going to help commit it to memory. Such a strategy would be hopelessly inefficient and ineffective. Instead, elaboration strategies that engage the learner in understanding the material are helpful, both for storing information, and for retrieving it in the future.
Elaboration can take a variety of forms. For example the learner can generate personal examples that help illustrate concepts or principles. Enriching the material by concentrating on its meaning not only makes it more understandable, it also helps establish potential pathways for subsequent retrieval. Study groups provide a context for elaborative rehearsal.
Discussions or arguments about various topics will enrich the subject matter and add to its meaningfulness. The most effective studying techniques are those that enhance understanding. Trying to explain a concept to a friend is a good way of testing your own grasp of it, and at the same time engages you in a form of elaborative rehearsal.