Oftentimes, people will attempt to memorize a word before learning its definition. This effort usually involves an attempt to consciously automate the definition, or to not even initially bother with the definition at all. Take the word sequacious, for example. Many students might simply stare at this word, reading it over and over again, in an effort to cement the knowledge that, yes, sequacious is in fact a word into their memory banks. Some students might simultaneously attempt to summon the definition for sequacious to mind, but if they did not previously bother to learn that sequacious means “disposed to follow another” or “persisting in a continuous intellectual or stylistic direction,” they will in all likelihood not summon the correct definition to mind. For most students this approach to memorizing vocabulary is an exercise in futility because “word first” approaches most often result in students recognizing a word but not being able to recall its definition. In terms of the SAT, and really just generally speaking, there is no value in simply knowing that a word is a word; for a word to be valuable to you, you must know its corresponding definition(s).
Recognition Vs. Recall
Recognition and recall are the two primary methods by which we access our memory.
Generally, when you know a meaning or definition, or even understand a given context within a situation, you’re usually able to label such a thing with a particular word. For example, if you’re driving a car on a crowded highway with each car moving no faster than twenty miles an hour, you would be stuck in what? Traffic!
What happens, though, when you are presented with a particular word with which you are unfamiliar, or when you have only a limited understanding of the context in which a given word is used. For example, what if someone ran up to you incredibly upset and said, “My girlfriend just excoriated me!” Chances are, if you don’t know what excoriate means, your imagination is running rampant with possibilities of what this guy is talking about. This is just my point.
With the traffic example, you were able to assess the situation in front of you, and label the situation. But, in the second situation, if you don’t know what the word means, then you can’t really infer what’s wrong with the guy in question. This is why it’s best to know the meaning of a word before the word itself. Remember: It’s more important to learn that there’s a word for something, rather than knowing a word that means something and not knowing or remembering what that something is. Also, for the record, excoriate means to verbally rip apart, criticize, or abuse. It is usually applied to expose or describe someone with a lack of being thick-skinned. (So, if you’re thinking of the example I used at the beginning of the article, it might be entertaining to picture someone like Dwayne Johnson or Channing Tatum as the guy who’s crying.)
If this strategy doesn’t work, then you can try the exact opposite, learning the words first. However, you should be mindful that there is a certain way to go about learning the words first. Instead of the usual strategy of looking at each word with their definition immediately, JUST look at the words and familiarize yourself with them. Keep in mind that this does NOT include learning the definition as you read through them. In fact, you should avoid looking at the definitions at first. Unorthodox, I know, but bear with me. When you look at just the words, especially when you see one for the first time, your mind automatically wants to fit a meaning to it. But, if you let the words digest in your mind, you automatically create a curiosity about them. This makes your brain grows hungrier for the definition, so that when you do in fact learn the definition, the chances of you remembering it soars.
Either one of these strategies could work for you, but keep in mind that if one works, the other will most likely not.
We’ll be talking about the best ways to study and retain vocabulary over the next few weeks, so be sure to return soon to College Compass.
If you’d like more information on how to study effectively, consult this popular article.