Memorizing Raw Data

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The Mind Is a Connecting Organ.

Storing masses of unrelated data is impossible.

If the nonconscious mind doesn’t see relationships, bits of data float  loosely around and can’t be summoned for trivia tests.  The mind doesn’t know where to look.  The bits and pieces probably are in there somewhere, but there’s no way to find all those isolated pieces.

Normally, in our real life – the life outside of school –

We learn the things we love.


Here’s a way to get  all the senses into the mix .  It’s  from a reflection a student of mine from Puerto Rico wrote after she had spent a day on Mt. Diablo near our college. You can do this with raw data, too.  Just let yourself get the feel of the facts.

Dear McKowen:  I have spent a Sunday up on the mountain of Diablo: Motorcycling up and down, looking at the scenic view. . . .  I brought back all the world on my face — cheeks set aglow by sunset sky, planes, hawks, people, woods, horses, spring flowers and wind.

It could be pinball machines, bluegrass, auto mechanics, the internet, ballet, oceanography.  After sailing around awhile in that sea , we realize we’ve amassed hundreds of terms – without even trying.  They’ve become interwoven in a pattern our nonconscious mind has generously created for us.

Terminology follows interest.  It doesn’t  precede it.

Unfortunately, in way too many school courses, you  are expected to memorize the vocabulary first. That’s backwards.  If students had a chance to fiddle around with a new subject first, they would absorb the language and ideas automatically.

An Example of Natural Memorizing

A colleague of mine, Karl Staubach, had been a forester on Mt. Adams in Washington.  When I was working on the first edition of my college skills book, I decided to give Karl a little memory quiz.

Karl, what’s the height of Mt. Adams?406

Oh, it’s 12,326 feet.

What about Rainier?  (Which you can see from the west side of Mt. Adams)

That’s 14,444

And Mt. Hood?  (visible to the south)


OK.  How about Fujiyama?


All right.  Everest, the highest mountain in the world?

It’s 29,002.  It’s really 29,000, but that doesn’t look scientific, so they added 2 feet.

One more.  Mt. Diablo (That’s a mountain near the college where we taught.)

The biggest mud pile in the United States: 3,849

The point is Karl never tried to memorize those elevations.  Knowing them is a by-product of his interest in nature.  No doubt he could tell the elevation of just about every other major mountain in the world.  He knows all sorts of things about trees, too, and spiders and rocks and snakes. But he did not study these things; he would consider such behavior undignified.

This encyclopedic knowledge is the result of fascination, absorption and love.

Fall in love with something, and you won’t need to memorize it.

Before bar codes, the checkers at my supermarket learned hundreds of new prices every week.  A student of mine who served cocktails in a bar could remember the drinks of a dozen people at a table and automatically bring a second round, getting each person’s drink mixed exactly as ordered.  When I was a division chairman, I knew the office numbers of all 37 division members, most of their phone extensions, their schedules, all course numbers and titles. I never tried to memorize any of that information.  Some nonconscious ally of the cocktail server, the checker, and the division chairman knew how to store the data and make it accessible for retrieval.

An Example of Making Raw Data Meaningful

But then you could find yourself in a required course and a teacher who demands that everyone memorize the elevations of six mountains – or 12 or a 100 – without your ever setting foot on any of them, or smelling the air or swimming in an icy mountain lake or seeing paw prints of a cougar on the trail.  That situation is fairly typical of schooling, isn’t it, and it happened to me.

Since I was not very interested in mountains at the time, I thought this would be a good chance to try out a memory strategy, to commit raw data to memory long enough to pass a test, even though I couldn’t care less about the subject.  Here’s a description of how it went – at least for the part of the process I was conscious of.

First, I jotted down the data I needed for the quiz.  Since they meant nothing to me, there was no order.

Adams  12,326

Diablo  3,849

Hood  11,245

Everest  29,002

Fuji   12,365                                Rainier  14,000

I started playing around to see what I might notice, light and easy and not really trying.  Right away I noticed Rainier: 14,444 – a 1 and all those 4s.  And look at Everest: so much higher than any of the others – 29,002, a little over twice as high as Rainier.  (And the 2 at the end seemed so odd that I doubted I would forget it.)

Wait a minute!  Look at Fuji: 12,365, a natural memory device built right into it – 12 and 365, the number and months in a year and the number of days in a year.  (I’ve never forgotten the height of Fuji since I first saw that.  How could I?)

Then I put Fuji and Adams side by side: 12,365 and 12,326 – a 39-foot difference, practically no significance at all.  Look again at Adams: the digit sequence is almost the same as Fuji, and four of the five digits are indeed the same.  Move the 6 to the right and stick in a 2; it boils down to the last two digits, and one unchanged and moved to the right.  Only the 2 is new.  So if I could retrieve Fuji (and who couldn’t?), Adams was duck soup.

Now look at Hood: 11,245, about 1,100 feet less than Adams or Fuji.  That a good look at the digits: 1, 1, and 2, then doubled to 4, plus one for a 5 – 11,245, a nice pattern of digits.

280px-View_of_Mount_Diablo_and_CA_Highway_24_from_Lafayette_HeightsAs you can see, Diablo doesn’t come up to even half the elevation of the least of the others.  It’s about one-third the height of Fuji or Adams.  And look at the digits.  Three-eight, four-nine; 3-8, 4-9.  Take the digits of the 38 and add 1 to each: 49.

Continuing to play, I remembered that I had backpacked on Adams. Looking north I could see Rainier.  Hood could be seen to the south.  You go “up north” and “down south.”  Rainier is “up” and higher.  Hood is “down” and lower.  Rainier is about 2,100 feet higher than Adams.  Hood is about 1,100 feet lower.

Get Involved

Your senses are a powerful aid to connecting up the bits and pieces. 

When you try to recall something, summon where you were, the setting, and all sorts of support you didn’t even realize becomes available.  So, draw pictures, get the feel, whatever senses you can throw into the mix.  Here’s a drawing we put into Get Your A Out of College to show how you could do this.  But there are all sorts of ways to connect up the pieces.  Be my guest.












Look what happened.  Merely by playing, messing around, I began building relationships.  Starting with Adams as the kingpin, I was able to retrieve all the other elevations or come close enough to get them all correct on a multiple-guess test.

No one has yet nailed for sure  what the process really is that stored this information for me, but we do know some of the circumstances that accompany such good storage.


Guess what happened to me while I was storing trivia?  I started getting interested in mountains, especially all those beautiful volcanic mountains that dot the drive from California to Canada. In fact, I’ve spent days and days on some of them and the theme picture for this website is Mt. Shasta. That’s education — so different from schooling!

In my next post I’ll point out some of these natural aids to memory.


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