Creating a Knowledge Network – the Secret of Studying Success

Dr David Lewis BSc (Hons), D.Phil. FRSM. AFBsPS, FISMA. C.Psychol. (

Have you ever come up with the right answer after apparently forgetting the question?

You want to remember a name or a quotation, and although it’s on the tip of your tongue you just can’t bring it to mind. Then, some time later, that fact suddenly surfaces. If so then you have experienced your ‘Knowledge Network’ in action.

This Network contains the sum total of everything you have ever learned. Once instructed to find a piece of information memory diligently hunts through the ‘files’ in search of it.

Every fact in your memory is linked to every other fact. Sometimes the links between two facts are very short. If I ask you what colour a canary is, for example, you would reply almost immediately that it is yellow. Other links are longer and much more complex. If I ask whether a canary is an animal, for instance, you may need more time for reflection.

To ensure fast, error free, recall during exams, you need to organise what is learned into small and precise Knowledge Networks. By doing so you will ensure that the links between key facts are short and direct.

Creating a Knowledge Network

The first step is to extract all the key information about a subject from textbooks, lecture or lesson notes, and all other relevant sources and write it down on index cards. Do this very carefully since, from now on, you will be revising from these cards rather than your original texts. Use one card for each fact, keeping all your notes brief and to the point. Where suitable use abbreviations, drawings or sketches. Limit yourself to a single topic. No card should contain more than around 140 words.

Break topics down into smaller and smaller units until this can be accomplished. Next select up to 25 cards containing facts relating to a single topic or subject. If you were revising biology, for instance, you might pick cards containing information about the digestive system.

Select any card, it doesn’t matter which fact you begin with, and place it face up on the table. Now select a second fact that links, logically, to the first. In the biology example, a card containing notes about the first stage of digestion, mixing food with saliva in the mouth, might be followed by a card explaining how food passes down the gullet and into the stomach.

After placing the second card below the first, select a third fact which links to the second. Continue in this way until you have placed all the cards on the table in the shape of a circle. This ensures that the last card put in position is beside to the first card you laid down. By creating a circle you transform a list of facts into a knowledge network with neither a beginning nor an end.

Your next task is to transfer that information into long-term memory.

Starting anywhere you wish on the circle, and moving in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, read the information contained on each of the cards in turn.

Travel around the circle until you are back at your starting point. Repeat two or three times. Now read the facts again but this time turn each card over once you have done so.

The time has come to attempt to recall that information.

Turn over any card and read the information it contains. Now try and recall the facts on the card either above or below it in the circle.

Remain relaxed and just allow the information to come into your mind. Should you get stuck, and this is very likely on the first few trips around the Network, turn over the card and read the information it contains.

Now attempt to recall the fact on the next card along the circle. Having begun moving around the circle you must, of course, continue to travel the same direction way for the remainder of that recall session. When you have remembered a fact, turn the card over to check the accuracy of your recall. After all the facts have either been recollected, or the cards turned over and the information read, repeat the procedure by turning all of them face down again.

Don’t always start on the same part of the network, and move in different directions, sometimes clockwise and sometimes anticlockwise, around the circle. In only a short while you will find that remembering any one fact from that network is sufficient to jog your memory for all the remainder. Boost your memory still further by creating visual images of the facts, and by making quick written notes of the information as you bring it to mind. You may also find it helpful to record yourself reading out the facts, and play this back at convenient moments.

By storing facts in your visual, sound, and muscle memories your brain remembers the hand, wrist and arm movements used when writing something down you will significantly enhance your capacity for retention and recall.

The more actively you work with the material, the easier and more interesting studying becomes. So constantly ask yourself questions about the topic.

What are its key points or issues?
How did certain things occur?
Where, when and why did they happen?

Who was present?

Once you can answer such basic questions without reference to your notes, you have a sound grasp of the topic.

Depending on the complexity of a subject, and the depth to which you must know it, there could be from three or four to ten or more sets of cards. Place the cards containing topics within a specific subject in an envelope and store these in a larger envelope or small box.

Once your cards have been prepared, there is no need to refer back to the original source material.

Knowledge networks may be used for most, but not all, subjects. Exceptions are foreign languages and chemistry, physics or mathematical formulae which can only be mastered by frequent practice.

Never try and commit to memory a fact you don’t understand. Not only is attempting to memorise incomprehensible facts or figures very hard it is also a self-defeating one.

If you don’t understand a topic try to pinpoint the reasons for your confusion. Perhaps you have failed to grasp a vital fact at a much earlier stage in the studying and this gap in your knowledge makes it impossible to understand the later information. Check back over the notes and references, ask teachers or lecturers for guidance and explanation. Do not be afraid to do so. The time to say you don’t understand is while studying not when sitting the exam.

When taking the exam, you can recreate knowledge networks on scrap paper. Having read the question very carefully, jot down anything you can recall about the subject. Don’t worry if your mind goes blank. This is perfectly normal. Remain calm and focus on the subject. Imagine yourself laying out the network cards during revision. Because of the structured way in you organised that knowledge, recalling a single fact from the relevant network will allow you to remember all the rest of the information it contained. Use the reconstructed networks as a blueprint from which
to create your exam answer. Locate a suitable fact with which to begin and number this
1. Next identify a second fact which follows logically from the first, number it 2. Continue in this way until you have ordered all the facts you want to cover in your essay. By spending five minutes in this preparatory work you will ensure that no key information is missed out of your essay and that your ideas are logically developed and clearly presented. Effective presentation, which provides evidence that you have thought about the subject instead of simply regurgitated the facts will add significantly to your marks.

If you are allowed, or required, to hand in all rough notes with the finished answer papers then be sure to include these networks, having first crossed them out clearly to indicate they are working notes.

This has the advantage that, if you included facts in the network but, for some reason, left them out of your answer, you may still gain an extra mark because it is clear to the examiner that you knew that information. However any mistakes on the working notes, provided they did not occur in the actual answer, will not cost you any marks. So you can’t lose anything and might gain a great deal. Key Points When Creating a Knowledge Network

  • Obtain index cards.
  • Write a key fact of no more than 40 words on each card. Use one side only.
  • Select up to 25 cards relating to a topic or subject.
  • Choose any card. Turn it face up and read the contents.
  • Pick a second card whose fact links to the first. Continue with remaining cards, placing them toform a circle.
  • Starting anywhere you like, go in either clockwise or anti-clockwise around the Network andread each card in turn. Repeat 2 or 3 times.
  • Choose any card, turn it over and read the note. Try recalling facts on cards immediately aboveor below it in the circle. If stuck, turn the card over and read it.
  • Continue until you can go around the circle, either way, without error.You will find further details and visual demonstrations of all the information provided in these articles on my DVD Pass That Exam.