You might be learning things the wrong way

How to learn anything more efficiently

The good old student habit of “cramming” everything the night before an important test is a very common ritual in Western countries. It is also something which many non-Western cultures look down upon.

Knowledge learned by cramming is sure to leave your head just as fast as it entered it. This is common sense. Yet sometimes we choose to overlook this because we still want to get a good grade. Of course. Yet most of us won’t take a single look back at that knowledge after we’ve accomplished our goal.

In an ideal world, there would be no need for cramming. As long as somebody is diligent, all necessary information would run right in and stay permanently. Yet this isn’t always the case.

Obviously, we’re interested in bettering our learning when we are being diligent. That’s the goal.

As you might have considered, the good ol’ tactics of re-reading notes with highlights all over them and flash cards next to you might not be working as well as they should.

If that’s the case, then what does?

The Forgetting Curve

When you cram for following day’s test, you’re using your short-term memory. But ideally we want information to be retained in our long-term memory. As much of it as possible.

That’s why repetition is employed in most studying strategies: we think that being exposed to some content repeatedly will help us retain it better. Some strategies go a little further than just re-reading notes, though. Using flashcards and testing yourself is a perfect example.

This is where the Forgetting Curve comes in. It was devised by Herman Ebbinghaus when he was studying the amount of time he could remember pieces of information. He repeatedly tested himself after various periods of time and plotted the results on a graph.

Many other researchers have built upon this concept and hypothesized about its workings. Some believe that memories will be remembered based on their strength, with important events (such as JFK’s assassination) being imprinted in people’s memory but more trivial events being forgotten.

One thing is for certain, though: we forget most things incredibly fast when we fail to revisit them again. That’s why we make use of repetition to help things stick. Most of us know this, but fewer people know that repetition works because of the effort it takes to retrieve the information. This is known as active recall, and it’s one of the most proven methods to learn information effectively.

When you attempt to figure out answers to flashcards, you are actively recalling the information you want to learn. Since your brain recognizes that you are being exposed to this information repeatedly, stronger connections are created and your recall is improved.

Research on memory consolidation has shown active recall to be one of the most effective, if not the most effective way to learn new things. Yet many of us stick to the old habits of taking another look at our notes, or watching one more of those YouTube videos.

In contrast to active recall, doing this is a form of passive recall. Needless to say, passive recall is a much inferior way to remember anything long-term, which is unfortunate because passive recall is the default when it comes most people’s studying habits.

In fact, other researchers have posed that traditional methods of studying such as re-reading might actually be detrimental. One research study claimed that, when rereading their textbooks, students might get “illusions of competence”, even though they might not have learned the material.

Thus, the transition to active recall strategies has great potential to benefit anyone’s learning. Tools for exerting active recall such as Anki, Quizlet, and others, make it very simple to utilize this strategy.

A very interesting technique that takes advantage of active recall is the Feynman Technique. It simply consists of choosing a topic/concept and describing everything about it in simple language. This technique also ensures that you truly understand what you have learned by making you describe it in simple terms.

Embracing the visual side

So far, we can be certain of two things:

  1. Spaced repetition ensures we don’t forget things we learn as quickly. The forgetting curve shows us why this is important.
  2. Active recall is superior to passive recall for memory consolidation.

Active recall is a fantastic method for learning things, but it is by no means the only worthwhile one.

There are ways to make the active recall process even easier, such as making use of mnemonic devices. Using acronyms to remember things (think SOHCAHTOA), visual cues, or any other type of associations that make it easier to remember something.

These can be very helpful, no doubt about it, but there is a limit to how scalable these are. Remembering co-workers’ names by associating them with their personalities might not be too hard, but learning bigger and more complex things is where it starts being less reasonable.

Imagine trying to learn all the different concepts in chemistry using only mnemonic devices. It doesn’t sound fun. A little imagery is required.

Mind maps make something like this much more doable. They are diagrams that use “branches” to organize information in a hierarchical way. For our chemistry example, a mind map could look something like this:

The great thing about mind maps is that you can go into as much detail as possible by just adding more branches. This also exercises your active recall as you (hopefully) will be drawing it from memory.

Used in conjunction to mnemonic devices (for remembering what goes in which branch) mind maps can be a very powerful tool for retaining information.

Nevertheless, you should not give up active recall strategies in favor of visual ones such as a mind map. Although they are both effective, active recall is still likely to be better for retaining information.

Putting it all together

As they say, the more the merrier. Using all these strategies in conjunction is certainly very merry.

Memoria magni: The System

  1. Learn about a topic.
  2. Use tools such as Anki, Google Spreadsheets, or any others that might help you revise the content in spaced repetition intervals.
  3. For everything you remembered, use the Feynman Technique to make sure you truly understood what you learned. If not, study it again.
  4. Use spaced repetition to revisit content until you’re satisfied with your learning.
  5. Repeat.

Happy learning!

Might I say, an skeptic?

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