This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Ultralearning" by Scott Young. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Why do we forget information over time? How do you improve memory retention?
While there are only theories as to why we tend to forget information over time, there are methods we can use to improve memory retention. The top techniques are overlearning, spacing, proceduralization, and mnemonics.
Continue on to learn how to improve memory retention.
How to Improve Memory Retention
To truly become proficient in a skill, you need to retain what you learn long term. Skill and comprehension are also important, but neither of these things is valuable without proper retention. Whether or not you retain something is dependent on your recall strategies. This article includes tips on how to improve memory retention.
Why We Have Difficulty Recalling Information
Researchers know that forgetting information after learning is a common issue for anyone in an environment that requires retrieving complex information. For example, the farther a doctor gets away from his medical education, the more likely he or she is to forget what was learned, even when working long practical hours in the same field of study. This is because of the forgetting curve, which suggests that the rate of retention initially increases after information has been learned, then plateaus and tapers off.
There are three primary theories for why we have difficulty recalling information.
Theory #1: Decay
This theory suggests memory inevitably weakens over time (though, there is evidence to indicate this isn’t the case across the board, considering how many people have memories from when they were young children). Additionally, there is ample evidence that less prominent memories decay faster than more vivid ones.
Theory #2: Interference
This theory hypothesizes that memories that are similar compete for dominance in your mind. This is a result of both proactive and retroactive interference.
Proactive interference occurs when things you’ve already learned impede your ability to learn new things with similar characteristics. For example, the psychology term “negative reinforcement” refers to the attempt to influence positive behavior by removing the incentive for a negative behavior (like if your partner stops buying ice cream to help you with your healthy eating goals), but because the word “negative” is often associated with the word “bad,” people tend to confuse the concept of negative reinforcement with the concept of punishment.
Retroactive interference occurs when the new information you’re learning takes the place of an old memory. For example, if you study Italian for four years and then learn Spanish, if you go back to practicing Italian later, you might accidentally speak Spanish when you’re trying to speak Italian.
Theory #3: Forgotten Cues
This theory suggests that anything we can’t remember is just hidden away somewhere we can’t consciously access. We access most memories when they’re cued by certain mechanisms or associations in the brain. If we can’t access a memory, it’s possible the cue has somehow been removed or disabled. For example, it’s common to have the experience of trying to remember something that is “on the tip” of your tongue, which indicates that given the right trigger, the information would rise to the surface.
Though the full explanation for long-term memory mechanisms is still unclear, all three theories give us valuable pieces of the puzzle.
How to Improve Memory Retention
Memory loss isn’t necessarily preventable, but ultralearners can use a number of methods to reduce loss. When it comes to recall, focus on two goals:
- Creating a successful learning strategy for the early stages of learning so information is not forgotten by the end of the project.
- Learning in such a way that you still retain the information years later.
To achieve these goals, use a retention strategy that is easy to commit to and supports longevity. The most effective strategies for this are overlearning, spacing, proceduralization, and mnemonics.
Strategy #1: Overlearning
Overlearning is practicing something more than what is necessary for proficiency. Once you practice something enough to do it correctly, you may not improve performance with additional practice, but you do increase the likelihood of storing the skill in your memory. Studies show that even just a small amount of overlearning practice results in 1-2 weeks of further recall.
How it works in practice:
- Select a moderately simple learning task for yourself (for example, changing a tire).
- Practice this task until you are able to do it correctly once. This is the “learning” stage.
- Practice the task multiple additional times. This is the “overlearning” stage.
Overlearning works in tandem with the principle of directness, as directness asks you to intensively practice the core skills of whatever you’re learning (in the most applicable environment). There are two main approaches.
Approach #1: Core Practice
This is the standard form of practice, focusing on improving a skill’s core aspects. The approach is most effective after the first stages of ultralearning have commenced and when utilized in tandem with an immersive (experiential rather than intellectual) project. The shift is from “learning to doing.” For example, if you want to become a good soccer player, after you learn the rules of the game, you might play a practice game with other beginners at your level.
Approach #2: Advanced Practice
Once you’ve gotten the hang of a core skill, upgrade the level you’re practicing it at. This automatically facilitates overlearning of the lower level of the skill. For example, if you’ve learned some basic conversational skills in a Spanish class, start practicing with native speakers in organic environments. Not only does this improve the skill, but it also increases the likelihood of retention.
Strategy #2: Spacing
Spacing is engaging in multiple learning periods with significant time gaps in between. This strategy discourages you from cramming to learn information. When you learn over spaced-out time periods, you may initially see discouraging results, but spacing will ultimately support long-term retention and overall better performance. For example, if you need to learn something in 14 hours, it’s more effective to spend one hour a day for 14 days, or two hours a day for seven days, than 14 hours in one day or seven hours in two days.
Your practice needs to be evenly spaced and consistent, and you must balance efficiency and retention. If you don’t space your practice sessions far enough apart, you won’t learn efficiently. However, the more space you have between study sessions, the less information you will retain, so if you space your practice sessions too far apart, your retention rate will be lower. Experiment to find the right spacing for each task.
Many ultralearners balance efficiency and retention with a spacing process called SRS, or spaced-repetition systems. Essentially, spaced-repetition systems are study periods (often automatically integrated into the technology of online programs like Duolingo and the flashcard-like Anki) that are spaced in such a way that you’re able to review information at the perfect moment—right at the cusp of forgetting the information, but before you’ve actually forgotten it. The space between review intervals can also be increased over time, as your memory of the information gets stronger. For example, reviewing flashcards at increasingly longer intervals is a low-tech version of SRS.
SRS are most effective when used to study questions and answers (trivia, vocabulary, word definitions, and so on). As an alternative to flashcards, you might type out a document with questions on one side and answers on the other. Or, you might create spaced out mini-projects that allow you to refresh your memory on prior learning. For example, if you want to maintain your Spanish studies, periodically write a short story in Spanish and read it to native speakers.
Strategy #3: Proceduralization
Proceduralization is the process of committing a skill to muscle memory. Procedural knowledge is knowing the “how” of something (for example, skills like riding a skateboard). The goal for most learning is to develop procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge is knowing the “what” of something (for example, facts and intellectual information). Most learning starts out declarative and evolves to procedural with enough practice. For example, when you first learn piano, you memorize the locations of each key and their corresponding note. This is declarative knowledge. With practice, you no longer need to think about where to place your fingers (this becomes procedural skill). Additionally, when you try to play a previously learned song, you may have trouble remembering the tune or the lyrics, but once you actually place your fingers on the keys, procedural memory kicks in. Declarative knowledge (the conscious memory of the song) is lost, but procedural knowledge (how to play the song) has been stored in long-term memory and is retrieved intuitively.
This suggests that it may be valuable to practice certain components within a learning project more frequently than others in an attempt to evolve that knowledge from declarative to procedural. That being said, it’s likely that there are some things you cannot fully proceduralize. There will always be skills that require deliberate recall strategies (for example, when learning complex topics like physics or trigonometry). This means you retain some knowledge easily over time, while other knowledge is less likely to stick. Set goals to proceduralize specific knowledge by the conclusion of a learning project, or commit to more practice upfront for certain tasks for the purpose of creating cues for later review (or building of new knowledge). For example, if you’re learning karate, which has many levels, spending extra time proceduralizing foundational karate techniques supports you to better learn and retain advanced techniques later.
Strategy #4: Mnemonics
Mnemonics is an area of study focusing on memory improvement. There are countless approaches to mnemonics, but they all share two qualities:
- They help you remember patterns of information, such as lists, acronyms, numbers, and poems.
- They generally involve translating information into images, which are easier to remember than words or numbers.
One method of mnemonics, called the “keyword method,” uses a word from a language you’re learning and associates it with a similar-sounding cue word in your native language. Then, you take that word and create an image that associates the cue word with the original word. For example, if you’re learning the Spanish word “comer” (which means “to eat”), you might use the phrase “come here” as a mnemonics cue for recall. Then, you might create an image of a mother sitting at a dinner table stacked with food to eat, and a speech bubble above her saying, “Come here!”
While it seems complex, this approach is especially effective for memorizing abstract, random, or seemingly isolated information. It converts a complicated recall maneuver into one with fewer steps by using abstract associations as cues for your memory.
There are a couple of drawbacks to mnemonics.
Drawback #1: Requires Upfront Investment
The process of building mnemonic associations is elaborate and may not be worth the time necessary to effectively create. It depends on what you’re attempting to memorize. For example, if you’re memorizing the periodic table of elements, the amount of time it takes to create associations for each element might not be worth it when you can just keep a copy of the periodic table with you for consultation (or Google it).
Drawback #2: Recall Is Indirect
Mnemonics creates a bridge to recalling information by creating indirect memory cues, but it doesn’t support you to recall the information directly, which may not be helpful for long-term retention. Use mnemonics to memorize complicated information, structured in a very specific way, that you will need to use over a short to moderate length of time (weeks or months). You might also use it as a bridge to recall information that is difficult to memorize, but that you plan to master more directly later. For example, learning a new language, or dense medical terminology.
While forgetting is inevitable, each of these strategies go a long way in supporting the ultralearner to reduce memory loss and maximize long-term retention.
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