What is the art of remembering?

Helping learners to remember information information is what teachers should be good at.

Teachers are naturally superhuman and so helping others remember slices of information should be a piece of cake.

Except it isn’t. It’s more like a plate of mush and remembering stuff gets messy.

We tell pupils that there are no shortcuts and to make something stick they’ve got to repeat it. The more often they remind themselves of the content, the longer they will remember it.

Sound advice you might think but when do they you repeat it? 5 minutes later, 5 hours, 5 days, 5 weeks?

There is someone who knows and his name is Piotr Woźniak. We have his brain to thank for giving us the SuperMemo model,

This is a learning method based on the science of long-term memory that makes it possible to learn fast and retain memories for years.

Super Memory

This sounds like a big Post-it Note or something but its much better than that.

SuperMemo is based on the awareness that there is a best moment to practice what you’ve learned.

If you practice something too soon then bad news, you have just wasted your time.

Practice something too late and you’ll soon realise you have forgotten it and so you’ll have to invest more time to relearn it.

The right time to practice is just at the moment you’re about to forget.

But when is that? Woźniak realised that computers could work that out if he could discover the right algorithm and SuperMemo is the result of his research.

According to Woźniak, SuperMemo works likes this:

1. Collect learning material

SuperMemo helps you create collections of facts that you would like to remember.

2. Test your memory

SuperMemo tests your knowledge of individual facts and collects information about your memory

3. Make smart repetitions

By understanding your memory, SuperMemo finds the optimum timing for review of the learned material. Each fact stored in your collection will have a unique pattern of review and repetition

4. Save time

With minimum number of repetitions scheduled for you by SuperMemo, you waste no time on repeating material you know well.

The more often you are reminded of the content, the longer you will remember it but the clever part is when you do it. SuperMemo says the best time to improve storage strength is when retrieval strength has faded almost to zero.

Woźniak says that you should be reminded of content when you are in the process of forgetting. After learning something you should ideally refresh your memory after intervals of one, ten, thirty and sixty days.


Image result for Super MemoImage: Super Memo

SuperMemo can make learning easier but its creator makes clear “it is not the ultimate formula for success in learning. The mere personality of the student can often render SuperMemo unusable.”

Woźniak notes that the two main reasons why SuperMemo doesn’t work for some students is a “lack of regularity and perseverance” so lots of willpower and determination are required. He says,

SuperMemo is not only a good therapy for poor memory, but it also helps to develop iron will. The importance of regularity comes from the fact that SuperMemo computes optimal intervals that should separate repetitions.

You can find what his 10 rules of SuperMemo are here.

And finally…

You might be dubious and that’s a healthy mindset to have because education is full of myths, legends and snake oil but the evidence for spaced repetition is good.

Spaced practice strengthens both the learning and the cues and routes for fast retrieval when that learning is needed again. As Brown, Roediger and McDaniel (2014) say in their book Make it stick: the science of successful learning, spaced practice works because the “increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retrigering consolidation, further strengthening memory.”

Spaced repetition mitigates the effects of the forgetting curve.

Not everyone is convinced but the SuperMemo site povides “five fastest arguments to help convince you that SuperMemo is a real McCoy” and points us in the direction of articles that disagree.

Using spaced repetition in conjunction with other study techniques can help you memorise information much more rapidly.

Further references:

Also see the article that appeared in Wired – Want To Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender To This Algorithm

Spaced repetition in learning theory – video

Daniel Gaszewski – Spaced repetition algorithm video

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