This week, I’ve been rediscovering a magnificent memory boost from my student days: the brain dump!
This – admittedly indelicately named – technique shares a lot with mind-mapping. It involves taking a blank page, and simply splurging onto it the entire contents of your brain on a particular theme. And it is invaluable for taking stock of your knowledge, as well as recycling, revising and reinforcing material learnt.
As I’ve been dabbling in a bit of Irish lately, it seemed a good time to give it the brain dump treatment. It was a pleasant surprise:
That ‘wow!’ effect is one of the greatest things about the humble brain dump. It lays bare just how much you have learnt – something we often fail to realise in the thick of it. And if you are feeling the fight, that could be exactly what you need. What a great confidence boost!
What’s more, brain dumping is a wonderful means of information synthesis. If you learn from several resources – for example, apps, podcasts and various course books – the technique allows all that material to flow out and mix together in a single place. That can only help to make connections and beat any contextual limits on your recall. My Irish splurge above, for example, is the product of a lot of Duolingo, much idle book browsing, a bit of Wiktionary hunting, and a fair few words picked up from 1990s Eurovision hosts!
So what makes for a brilliant brain dump?
Brain dump 101
What really recommends this technique is its absolute ease. You can simply launch straight into the fun with pen and paper.
However, like mind maps, it’s even better to have fun with lots of pens, customising with colours and creative doodles. You can use colours logically, coding for categories of words or topics, or just according to taste. After all, this is your brain we’re talking about. Let your splurge represent the contents of your mind in all its colourful glory. Create a real sense of ownership over all those words and phrases in your head!
Brain dump apps
As no-nonsense as old school is, you can still bring brain dumpage right up-to-date with a bit of technology. Note-taking mobile apps in particular offer a degree of finesse and editability that is difficult to achieve with plain old pen and paper. This is especially handy if you are (like me) fickle and prone to changing your mind about how your creation takes shape, or need several attempts to get it all just right.
I use Notability on the iPad with Apple Pencil to create mine. In use, it offers all the freedom and fun of a pack of coloured pens. But the lasso-cut-paste feature is a godsend if you like moving things around, making room for extra items and are a stickler for precision placement. If you can geek and tweak to your heart’s content, you can more readily create something to be really proud of.
There is another helpful advantage to using editable media like a tablet to create a brain dump. If you are a little unsure of a term, write it down regardless. You can always check later, then come back to update your chart with the corrected form. Half-knowing something is still knowledge you can claim as your own. The very process of self-correction will help cement that word in your mind.
Tailor to your level
Of course, brain dumping is perfect for learners at A1/2. Having studied for just a couple of months or so, you can brainstorm all the vocab you know onto a single page. They are the core words that form the foundation of your later proficiency. Displaying them in one place will really help them stick.
But brain dumping is not just for beginners.
If you are more advanced, attempting an outpouring of all your knowledge is a mammoth task. So choose just a single topic instead. Food, travel, politics – a brain dump is an ideal medium for revisiting what you know. And it makes for brilliant prep if you are planning to talk about those topics in a forthcoming class or tutorial.
Want to add an element of challenge? Set yourself a time limit, say, five minutes, and see how much material you can churn out on your given subject.
When you’ve filled a page with learnt material, completed brain dump charts make great cheat sheets or reference guides, too.
Here’s one on the psychology of learning I created during exam revision some years ago. It makes a handy at-a-glance guide to refresh my memory even now, years later. Note how much tidier this is, compared with my more rough-and-ready Irish exercise above – it’s a good idea to spend time making them look nice if you plan to use them this way!
So for confidence, synthesis and recall support, brain dumping can be a simple and effective addition to your learner toolkit. Try building a regular brain dump into your language learning and enjoy the leg-up it gives you to memory mastery. Find natural breaks in your routine where a stocktake makes sense, for example, the end of a chapter or book section, or a section separator in Duolingo.
And stick to the rule that material learnt is never material ‘done with’. To keep it fresh, recycle, recycle, recycle!