Learning to Remember

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often found myself looking up the same words repeatedly. While I understand the meaning of the word and its application in that instance, when that word comes up in the future, I find myself looking it up again. I remember saying to myself during those times if only there was a way I could learn new information for the long term without forgetting.

Here’s the thing: We all have to remember some things, be it in our personal lives, at work, or anything that interests us. The question is how do we go about learning to remember this information without forgetting. Is there a process we can follow? How can we do this in a sustained way rather than haphazard or worse, do nothing? This isn’t about cramming information quickly, but about retaining things in our memory for the long term.

Well, it turns out there is a way to remember information for the long term that requires minimal (but consistent) effort. It’s called the Spacing effect. It was first introduced by a German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885 through his book, which suggested that active recalling of information with increasing time intervals reduces the probability of forgetting it. In other words, we retain more information in our long-term memory by spacing out our learning sessions, known as spaced repetition. Using this technique, we can efficiently organize information to remember things for the long term.

The other part of the equation is the forgetting curve. It shows the amount of knowledge we lose over time when our brains don’t put any effort to remember it. Learning something once doesn’t work. We need to review the information over time in order for it to stick. Unless we do that, we are likely to forget most of what we learned in days or weeks. Put simply, we need to give ourselves the chance to forget if we are going to remember what we learned.

We can use this technique to learn a foreign language, improve our vocabulary, prepare for a test, or remember virtually anything. I use this process to learn many things including words I keep forgetting, foreign words used in English (French, Spanish, Italian, German, Latin), spellings I often forget (such as schadenfreude), phrases I come across (big hat, no cattle), pronunciation of certain words (hygge), internet slang (TIA), and some interesting facts and trivia (such as India once contributed 35% of the world’s GDP (nearly twice that of US now)).

So how does this work? Put simply, spaced repetition uses flashcards organized in a box. We set up a schedule for when we revise the cards. Every time we answer a card correctly, we put it into a pile we revisit less often in the future. For every wrong answer, we move the card into a pile we visit more often. We review the cards over days, weeks, months, and years. Of course, it’s more efficient to do this now using an app because it tracks your response for every card and informs you how often you need to study what based on previous responses. While both frequency and the quality of recall are important, Ebbinghaus says the latter matters more.

This technique is simple and effective because it hacks the way our brain works. Our brains respond to learning the way our muscles respond to exercise. By giving our brain a chance to forget, we are improving the connections between nerve cells, which in turn helps us retain information for the long haul.

This way, we can learn practically anything we want. We can download stacks (decks) for various topics from the web shared by others. This makes it easy to import (open source) because we are not adding information manually into our software, which saves valuable time. This is not to say we can’t make changes to these decks.

Learning information based on a schedule requires us to have some self-discipline. When we use a piece of software to help us learn, it does the heavy lifting for us. All we need to do is show up and review at the appropriate time, which if we are doing it right, we’ll do less frequently over time.

I find it best to save notes on the notebook computer or phone as and when, and then study them on my iPad. Any time I come across a piece of information I might want to remember, I add it to my software. I use Studies (previously Mental Case), but there are many apps out there such as Anki that serve the same purpose. The stacks (decks) on my notebook are always in sync with my iPhone and iPad, so they are always current no matter which device I pick up.

No software can help us fall in love with learning or to be curious about things. That is up to us. But when we know what interests us, we can use the Spacing Effect to our advantage. Not only will it help us retain information, but also help us learn as we get older. There is no limit to what we can learn. As they say, true learning never stops.

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