M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.
Perfect for you if:
- You’ve always wanted to be better at remembering things.
- You’ve heard of or tried Spaced Repetition but aren’t sure what’s next.
- “Why would I memorise things when I can look anything I want up in two seconds?”
Memorisation is a powerful learning technique that is often misunderstood, misused and misrepresented.
In fact, there are at least four compelling reasons why making time each day to memorise new things will change your life:
- It works out your brain: Memorisation is hard. Practising it trains discipline and focus.
- It improves mental speed: Looking things up is powerful but slow and limited by working memory.
- It creates meaning: More information improves our ability to identify and connect ideas in the world around us.
- It unlocks creativity: Memorisation gives our creative subconscious access to information that stimulates creative insight.
So, in today’s article and with those points in mind I’d like to:
- Break down a recipe for faster learning with a story about the construction of the great city of Amsterdam;
- Introduce you to some powerful techniques in memorisation, knowledge maintenance and understanding; and
- Show you not only “What” to learn but also “When” and “How” to get started right away.
Whether you want to:
- Nail an exam;
- Learn a new language;
- Memorise a monologue;
- Understand more about the world around you; or
- Become more proficient in your work;
You’ll find find something in here that helps. And by the end of our journey I hope you’ll:
- Have some clear ideas of “When” and “How” to implement memorisation in your own life.
- Understand how to avoid common pitfalls in memorisation and spaced repetition; and
- Feel excited about the impact of a few simple tools in helping you reach your own goals.
For now, though, what better place to begin our story than a deserted marshland that would one day give rise to a bustling metropolis.
HOW TO BUILD A CITY ON A SWAMP
The city of Amsterdam is a marvel of engineering. Not for its cobbled streets, postcard perfect houses or infamous red-light district. Not even for its many canals, bridges or grand buildings.
Amsterdam is a marvel of engineering because, like a surprising number of cities, it is built almost entirely on a swamp. And swamps, as I’m sure you can imagine, are not the easiest places to build cities. Not least because things have a tendency to sink and disappear into them.
So how do you build a city on a swamp? The answer, of course, is on stilts; and Amsterdam is built on millions of them.
The Dutch discovered that if they drove long tree trunks deep enough into the swamp they would eventually hit firm ground. Sink enough posts and eventually you can even build a house on top of them.
Today, Amsterdam is home to roads, homes, museums, parks, palaces and cathedrals – all built on stilts. From this simple technique rose a powerhouse of trade that was, at one point, the wealthiest city in the world.
But there’s a catch: you’re still in a swamp!
Eventually, the posts begin to rot; and when the posts rot, the buildings start to sink, distort and lean on their weakening foundations. To this day, Amsterdam needs a clever maintenance system to keep their city above water. A system that regularly checks and maintains not only all the posts, but also the right posts at the right time.
So what does Amsterdam have to do with an article on learning and memorisation? Good question: the answer is that the analogy is just too good to pass up.
- Our brains are a lot like the swamp that sits under Amsterdam;
- Facts are like the posts we need to create stable platforms for learning;
- Memorisation is like the act of driving those wooden posts deep into the swamp;
- Spaced Repetition is like the process used to check and maintain them; and
- Understanding and fluency are like the houses that we build on top.
Your brain is a marvel of engineering. Not for its neural highways, beautifully evolved structures or billions of interacting cells. Not even for its unlimited potential or incredible plasticity.
Your brain is a marvel of engineering because everything you known is built on a swamp; and, with the right tools, you too can turn that swamp into one of the finest cities on Earth.
THE ART OF MEMORISATION
Before we launch into practical tips it’s worth noting quickly that not all subjects benefit as much from memorisation as others.
Can you think of any subjects where the concepts don’t need much support from facts? The early stages of math, physics and most sports are good examples. These subjects are like little patches of firm high ground in your swamp: there’s not a lot to gain from fortifying their foundations. Instead, you’re probably better moving straight on to building understanding and fluency. Of course you may want to e.g., memorise proofs or complex new formulae as you advance but this is usually overkill early on.
Other subjects are located on swampier ground: Languages, History, Medicine, Geography, Chemistry, Biology, Law and games like Chess are all good examples. In these fact-based subjects, memorisation is fundamental to understanding and fluency. Time invested here is well worth the effort.
But time isn’t the only important factor in memorisation; quality is important too. Sure, you can throw a house up quickly taking shortcuts – sometimes you may not have a choice. Just remember: rush-jobs result in low quality or poorly sunken posts that rot faster and need way more maintenance. If you’ve ever crammed for a test only to find almost everything has sunk back into the swamp within the week then you know what I mean.
So how can we improve the quality of memorisation? Here’s a few tips to get you started:
Every building starts with a plan, whether it’s a quick sketch or an architect’s drawing. The same goes for memorisation.
So, before you jump in, always take the time to:
- Sketch a full picture: Make sure you can follow and understand the overall structure of the topic that you’re memorising.
- Fill in any gaps: Take the time to plug any gaps in your big picture sooner. They will become much harder to work around later.
- Break it up: Structure your thinking as much as possible into clear, bite-sized chunks. If your big picture is hard to follow it will be hard to memorise.
Once you have a clear and structured overview of the topic you want to memorise it’s time to…
Take a look at the following list of 15 random items: dog, chair, car, cow, wall, bottle, key, plate, king, phone, cup, ball, clock, carpet, window.
Now, take 30 seconds to try and remember the list – no tricks. Now try and recall them. Difficult right? We’ll come back to the list at the end of the section.
In the meantime we’re going to quickly learn about “mnemonics” (silent first ‘m’). A mnemonic is just a “memory trick”. and whatever their shape or size they all work in the same way:
- By connecting many small bits of information together in a single new chunk.
- By anchoring that new chunk as deeply as possible to existing knowledge in the brain.
If you’re not used to using mnemonics then this section may feel like overkill. You may even be tempted to skip it. Don’t. Why? There are two very good reasons:
- Time invested now will save you a ton of time in the long run (trust me); and
- These tricks will become easier and easier as you get used to them.
Some well known types of mnemonic include:
- Music: e.g., Learning to sing our ABCs
- Names: e.g., “Mrs Gren” to remember the seven characteristics of life.
- Phrases: e.g., “Richard of York gave battle in vain” for the colours of the rainbow.
But most powerful of all are a number of way to tap in to our sizeable visual and spatial memories: E.g.,
- Chaining: Creating a vivid mental image of two items in a list interacting with each other.
- Peg System: Chaining items with nouns that have themselves been chained with numbers.
- Memory palaces: Chaining items to places or objects within a well known space (like your home).
- Journey method: Chaining items to places of objects on a well known journey (like your commute).
Whatever Mnemonic you choose, they will have much more sticking power if you make them:
- Personal: by including as many of your own experiences and personal connections to people, places and things as possible.
- Emotional: by creating or using examples that trigger an emotional response like anger, fear, curiosity or arousal.
For more detail on the above methods and a run down of even more, check out:
- The Wikipedia page on “Mnemonics”; or
- This superb memorisation tricks overview from AcademicTips.org
I would strongly encourage you to try out one or two of the methods and examples of these techniques. Anyone can master them and they become very powerful, very quickly. (Curious to learn more? check out this guide on how to memorise a monologue)
What’s more, you can use them for almost any imaginable memorisation task: from learning facts or vocabulary to names, telephone numbers and entire speeches.
As an example, let’s take another look at our list of 15 items: dog, chair, car, cow, wall, bottle, key, plate, king, phone, cup, ball, clock, carpet, window.
Now take 30 seconds to try and remember them, but this time, I want you to create a clear mental picture of each item interacting in some weird way with the next item on the list.
The weirder the better: you might picture a dog sitting like a human on a chair, then a chair with four wheels that are cars etc.. whatever, go crazy.
Now try and recall them. Chances are that this time you remembered every single item on the list. Not only that, I bet you could remember it backwards! Why not have a go?
At this point we’ve carefully selected our posts from only the best tree trunks in the land and we’ve driven them deep into the swamp.
Now it’s time to talk about maintenance…
If mnemonics answer the question of “How”, spaced repetition answers the question of “When”.
Spaced repetition is an every day phenomena. In fact, as we go through our lives we are naturally exposed to important concepts over and over again. We constantly reinforce ideas and knowledge through e.g., personal experience, practice, reading, problem solving, discussion and teaching.
And, so long as frequency is a good predictor of (a) objective accuracy and (b) importance, all is well and good in the world.
But there’s a well documented and studied problem with this assumption. It turns out that frequency, at least in today’s world, is often a very bad predictor of both:
- Partly because of the biased way we process information;
- Partly because we tend to seek out biased information; and
- Partly because the information itself is often already biased.
When it comes to learning and memory this is most obvious in our natural tendency to be lazy at maintenance. For example, we often:
- Focus most on the posts we come across naturally; and
- Prefer to maintain the posts we already know well and which don’t need that much work.
The result is self-delusion. An illusion of confidence where we:
- Know a few things very well;
- Rehearse them often because it is easy and feels good; and
- Take that as evidence for a broader and more stable knowledge base than we actually have.
Meanwhile, the remaining posts in the foundation tend to rot away. As a result, whether we realise it or not, the buildings constructed on them become dangerously distorted or even collapse entirely.
In our analogy, the solution to this problem is a methodical maintenance plan that forces us to confront, check and maintain all the posts in the system. What’s more, to be efficient the best plans must know not only exactly which posts need checking most but also exactly when.
In the brain, it turns out that the most effective and efficient time to review a fact is just before you’re about to forget it. And our the solution to our neural maintenance problem is “Spaced Repetition Systems“.
THE POWER OF FLASHCARDS
There is no better way to maintain knowledge than through complimentary active recall techniques like:
- Testing, testing and re-testing yourself;
- Synthesising concepts in your own words; and
- Teaching others.
(Incidentally, mindless rehearsing, copying and (re-)reading are all commonly used but terrible approaches.)
And yet, when it comes to spaced repetition, there is no tool more powerful, systematic or democratic than a simple, well designed flashcard.
HOW TO CREATE GOOD FLASHCARDS
Flashcards are not an easy shortcut. Creating good flashcards is a skill in its own right and often the end product of the active recall techniques listed above.
Of course you don’t need to do any of this, but, as with mnemonics, taking the time to think about your flashcards up front will save you a lot of wasted time down the line.
The exact formula of a perfect flash card is half science, half personal preference. The best way to learn is just to get started, experiment and discover what works for you over time.
For now, here are a few guiding principles to help you get started:
Keep it simple.
- Keep information to a minimum:
- Test yourself on just one thing at a time.
- Never use 1 flashcard when you could break it into 5.
- Minimise wording: Omit needless words.
Make it memorable.
- Use mnemonics: Combine flashcards with memory techniques for the best effects.
- Avoid sets: Break lists down into shorter sections.
- Make it personal: E.g., link a foreign word for “chair” to your favourite chair at home.
- Use emotion: Use shocking or emotive examples to illustrate points.
Make it unique.
- Lead with context cues: If ATP stands for:
- “Adenosine Tri-Phosphate” make the card “Biology: ATP” not “ATP: Biology”; or
- “Association of Tennis Professionals” make the card “Tennis: ATP” not “ATP: Tennis”.
- Use deletion: Keep cards unique by blocking:
- Words out of sentences (cloze deletion); or
- Sections from images pictures (graphic deletion).
Keep it accurate:
- List a source: To help keep you clear on conflicting e.g., dates / figures.
- Date stamp it: To help identify when a card may need updating.
Perhaps the most important rule of flashcard creation is this:
- Make your own flashcards
Downloading and/or using other people’s flashcard collections (also known as decks) does make things easier. It can even be a helpful way to learn how to make your own flashcards better.
But here are a few reasons it’s worth taking the time to create your own:
- It sense checks your understanding: By not sense-checking your own understanding, you may end up learning other people’s misunderstandings.
- It makes them yours: Your experience and decisions creating the cards as well as your personal connections on them are a big part of what makes them memorable.
- They are easier to learn: Focussing on a specific fact for the short time it takes to codify it is a powerful reinforcement process on its own.
Congratulations! You now have the “What”s in your maintenance system. The question to turn to now is “When”…
SPACED REPETITION SYSTEMS (SRS)
Spaced Repetition Systems (SRSs) is the name given to systems and tools for scheduling flashcard reviews. They come in two flavours: Manual or Automatic.
Perhaps the best known manual approach is the Leitner system. This is physical flashcard territory: it’s low tech, accessible and great for small numbers of cards.
Automatic SRSs are digital tools that specialise in managing flashcard maintenance schedules. Their main advantages over manual systems include:
- Managing customised review schedules for individual flashcards;
- Automatically generating many related flashcards from just a few fields of information;
- Scaling easily up to tens of thousands of flashcards; and
- Embedding mixed media (e.g., pictures, videos, sounds) right into the card.
When it comes to SRSs, the main difference between tools are their self-imposed limitations. Anki is free and by far the most flexible and powerful of the options. And yet that does come at a cost in terms of its initial learning curve – luckily their extensive manual is excellent.
If you’ve never used an SRS before then you’re in for a treat they will totally change the way you learn almost anything you care to think of.
For example, as of today, my own Anki decks contain over 20,000 cards that teach me:
- Languages: German, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish and English;
- History: Important dates and people;
- Philosophy: Important philosophers and terminology;
- Art: esp. taxonomical info for important artworks and terminology; to
- Poetry: English and German for now;
- Geopolitics: Locations, names and details of countries, cities, mountains, rivers etc…; and
- Other: Random facts I’ve wanted to learn like the names for the phases of the moon etc…
Whatever floats your boat: from medicine, politics, music, economics, chemistry or wine to physics, sports and theology; the potential for digital SRSs is basically unlimited.
GETTING STARTED WITH SRS
The best way to get started with SRS is to:
- Get a quick overview: Wikipedia’s article on Spaced Repetition is a good place to refresh what you’ve learned here today.
- Try a few on for size: Memrise and Duolingo (languages only) are great places to start. Or jump straight in to Anki for something a little meatier.
- Read some more: Some great resources include Anki’s excellent manual or SuperMemo’s retro but brilliant articles. For Languages, Gabe Wyner’s “Fluent Forever” is a superb place to start.
- Make it a habit: Set aside 15 minutes or more each day to review your cards. If you get behind for any reason, see the next section.
Decide what you want to learn, implement the tips in this guide and follow the magic formula of “read, test, improve, repeat”.
You are already on a much faster trajectory than I ever was!
COMMON SRS PITFALLS
As your experience with SRS grows you will discover two common pitfalls:
- Review overload: Suddenly finding yourself with a backlog of 1,000+ cards to review.
- Leeches: Cards that you just can’t seem to learn no matter how often you review them.
The first point is not to get stressed about either. These are common issues everyone wrestles with.
Review overload is often caused by either:
- Getting carried away learning new cards; or
- Taking an extended break from your daily reviews.
The best solution is prevention:
- Set an amount of time aside each day that will be consistent and manageable over time.
- Work out how many cards you can generally get through in that time and work to those levels.
- Avoid the temptation to load lots of new cards if you have a quiet review day (this will come back to bite you).
- If you are planning to go away, try and create some space by reviewing ahead (this isn’t best practice but it’s better than nothing!)
- Be patient: We often greatly overestimate what we can achieve in day and greatly underestimate what we can achieve in a year.
If you do get stuck with a huge backlog of reviews:
- Don’t panic.
- Stop adding new cards – there’s no point making things worse.
- Break the backlog down into manageable chunks – e.g., focus on cards in X topic or from Y date range.
- Focus on working for X many minutes, instead of worrying about clearing X many cards
- Be patient: Forgetting is an important part of learning. Everything will come back eventually.
Leeches are a common inhabitant of any swamp. They’re also nothing to worry about. When confronted with leeches simply:
- Identify cards that you’re struggling with (Anki will do this automatically).
- Review your leaches and ask yourself: Why am I struggling to remember this card?
- Use the Flashcard checklist above. What can you include to make it more memorable?
A common cause of forgetting (even for easy cards) is interference:
- Are there any other flashcards that are very similar to this one e.g., snap v.s., snaap?
- If so, can you use contextual cues, personal links or deletion to make the cards more unique?
In a worst case scenario, just delete the card. Chances are your house will still be perfectly fine with one less post.
Memorisation and spaced repetition are part of an incredibly powerful learning toolkit.
Like all tools, they are perfect for some jobs and less so for others. They can be used skilfully or misused horribly.
With luck, you’ll now have some better ideas of “When” and “How” to implement memorisation in your own life.
Hopefully you feel like you understand how to avoid some common pitfalls in memorisation and spaced repetition.
What I hope most of all is that you feel excited about the impact a few simple, powerful tools in helping you to reach your own goals.
But perhaps one of the most valuable lessons we can take away from learning brings us full circle back to the city Amsterdam.
Learning is like building a city in a swamp. It isn’t easy, it isn’t always glamorous and it doesn’t happen in a day.
But if we stick at it, if we apply ourselves thoughtfully, if we can work each day a little harder than the forces that work against us, if we do all of these things with energy and diligence:
There’s pretty much no limit to what we can achieve when we set our minds to it.