When it comes to thinking about how we learn — and how we learn words — it's always good to read science writer Annie Murphy Paul's Brilliant Blog. (Her book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart is forthcoming.) Recently, Paul wrote about the two kinds of memory we have access to in the digital era: “E-memory—electronic memory, the kind that’s available on a computer" and "O-memory—organic memory, the old-fashioned sort that resides in the brain." 

Paul came across the E-memory/O-memory distinction in a study of doctors. The study showed that older doctors tend to rely on personal memory storage (O-memory) while younger doctors are more likely to consult databases (E-memory).

"Looking at the distinction between these two types of memory produces several useful insights," Paul writes. E-memory is good for targeted searches for facts and information that might otherwise be distorted by memory or forgotten. O-memory is best for "building a broad, deep base of knowledge," for knowledge that sparks a series of "elaborated connections," and for "endowing recollection with meaning." 

The E-memory/O-memory distinction is useful for word learners as well. E-memory resources available to us in the form of online dictionaries and thesauruses offer a tremendous amount of information. They're easy to navigate and we can take them with us nearly everywhere. And yet, in order for us to actually use language — to express ourselves using words and to understand words used by others — we must store a good part of a dictionary's information not just in our phones, but in our brains as well. 

Much as the older doctors describe accumulating bits of information that they then apply over the course of a career, word learning comes to us gradually, in fits and starts over time. Looking up a word might help us understand how it's used in a passage we're reading, but we'll need to build a web of associations with that word over time before we can not only learn to remember it, but also understand how to use it properly. 

That's why, when you play Vocabulary.com, you encounter many different questions and question types in the course of learning any single word. It's also why taking the time to read a word's definition page in the Vocabulary.com Dictionary will speed up your progress in the game, even if at first it feels like stopping is slowing you down. What happens when you read through a blurb, or dip into example sentences, or check out a word's synonyms and antonyms? You're using E-memory to stimulate O-memory, building meaning in your brain.