If you’ve read the previous tips on memory I’ve given so far, I hope you understand by now that rote memorization is not the way to go. Believe me, it just doesn’t work. That is not to say that reviewing is a bad idea. Rote memorization is essentially memorizing without any technique, simply by repeating again and again a word, an idea, or a name until it just sticks. It’s boring, and, well, not efficient. Reviewing, however, is to be used together with other memory aides to help your brain remember better; after all, forgetting is a natural (and good) thing, so in order to convince your brain that the information you intend to memorize is important, reviewing will work its magic.
As former memory world champion Dominic O’Brien underlines in his book “You Can Have an Amazing Memory”, the “forgetting threshold”—the point at which our spinning memory plates begin to wobble—exists no matter what you’re trying to memorize. Indeed, Luca Lampariello, a well-known polyglot and blogger who speaks 9 languages (and currently learning 2 more), has a great post on a similar concept, and the way to go about memorizing new words. In any case, “whether you’re learning information for an exam or to present at an important meeting,” O’Brien says, “knowing when and how to review what you’ve learned is crucial to ensuring that you minimize any forgetfulness when you’re under pressure. The Rule of Five is my favourite method of review, but there are others.” O’Brien’s rule of Five is as follow: If he has a limited amount of time to memorize a large amount of data, he knows that he needs to be able to review it five times for that information to stick. The more reviews he has, the stronger the retention and the longer he can store the memories, but if time is short, such as during a competition or if he has to memorize a series of names in a room quickly, five reviews is the minimum.
If an eight-time world memory champion needs to review something five time to ensure that it really sticks, believe me, you should do the same. Well, in other words, if time is not a constraint, I would encourage you to review more than five times. So, it’s not because you have gone through a chapter in a book that you can now forget about it and skip to the next. Taking notes of the most important points (or highlighting them) when learning is crucial to memorization, and reviewing your notes is essential. If you are learning a language and listening to, say, podcasts or audio lessons, think about reviewing lessons again and again at regular intervals. I usually listen to about five fifteen minute-long podcasts in Chinese, after which I listen to them two more times before going to another series of five. This works well for me, but any way that you find works best for you will be the way to go. Another thing I love to do is learn skills through the amazing Lynda.com website. For a modest subscription fee, you can learn anything from programming to Photoshop and Photography. The transcripts are available for each video, so when I’m learning something I always copy and paste in a Word document what I find are the most important points, and I then proceed to review these notes a couple of times after having watched the videos.
The most important thing to understand when talking about reviewing information is what is referred to as the “forgetting curve”. In 1885, the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus first described this curve, which charts the rate at which memory loses data after it has learned something new. The curve reveals that the most rapid memory loss occurs within the first two hours of memorization. So, in other words, this means that unless you review and refresh your memory regularly during the process of lengthy memorization, you’ll have to relearn the information that came first at a later date.
O’Brien refers to Ebbinghaus and his concepts several times in his book, and a particularly important excerpt is worth quoting at length:
Ebbinghaus discovered that if we take notes as we listen, and then review the notes immediately following the event, we can retain 80 percent or more of the information we absorbed. The lecture can be short or long, provided that, after it’s finished, the first review of the notes happens straight away. For optimal recall, he concluded that we should then follow this first review with a second review a day later, a third one a week later, a fourth one month later, and a fifth, final review three to six months later (if the content was particularly complex). Ebbinghaus called this the “Distributed-Practice Effect” and noted that “with any considerable number of repetitions, a suitable distribution of them over a space of time is decidedly more advantageous than the massing of them at a single time.
This review strategy is essentially exactly how popular flashcard application Anki works. Once a card is reviewed, you can choose to review it the same day, a day later, or, say, three days later. When comes the time to review the same word/image/information a second time, the review options become progressively more spaced. It’s a great way to learn and remember new words and sentences when learning a foreign language, and I’ve used it to successfully learn (and actually remember) 800 new Korean words within the space of a few months.
This is Memory Tip #6 out of 12. To access additional tips in this series, click on any of the following links: Tip #1, Tip #2, Tip #3, Tip# 4, Tip #5, Tip #7, Tip #8, Tip #9, Tip #10, Tip #11, Tip #12
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