Over 30 things you can learn from all my failed and successful memory experiments

I often talk about what effective learning methods are all about but I have almost never mentioned all the memory experiments I have run which have failed miserably. It might give you the impression that this is the knowledge which came to me easily. On the contrary.

It was like wading through the puddle of crap to pick up something which seemed to be the gem of wisdom. Only to realize later that it was actually a fossilized chunk of crap. Only to realize a couple of months down the road that it was actually a beautiful diamond hidden beneath the dry shell.

I think you get my point. It was a confusing process where I had to rediscover time and time again different truths in different contents.

 

 

Of course, my process of reasoning wasn’t very rigorous at the beginning. Neither were my memory experiments. I was kind of going with my gut and trying to notice whether I remember more or less.

 

Only later did I start to actually construct hypotheses and test them. Everything got even easier when I started learning more about memory and reading studies related to this area of knowledge.

Before I share with you my conclusions and failures, let’s start with how my experiments were run.

What was the framework of my memory experiments?

 

 

This is a simple blueprint which I have used to run my memory experiments:

1. come up with hypotheses

2. set yourself a suitable deadline to test the idea (ideally, at least 3 weeks – 1 month)

3. test it

4. measure the results at the end of your memory experiment

5. draw conclusions

6. rinse and repeat

 

How did I choose words for my memory experiments?

 

This is a very important question. Some people think that any words will do. That’s far from the truth.

 

If you want to run a meaningful memory experiment you need to make sure that the words tested are as different from any other words and concepts you know as it’s only possible.

The reason is that your current knowledge modulates the new knowledge you want to acquire.

If you know English and you’re learning French your results will be immediately distorted. Depending on a source, 40-50% of English words originate from French.

 

 

If you want to get unbiased results you need to test the words from languages you know nothing of.

 

In my case, I frequently tried to memorize words from languages like Basque, Finnish, and Hungarian. They were absolutely foreign to me and I couldn’t associate them in any way with my background knowledge.

 

 

“Collectively, these findings provide strong evidence that pre-experimental stimulus familiarity determines the relative costs and benefits of experimental item repetition on the encoding of new item-source associations. By demonstrating the interaction between different types of stimulus familiarity, the present findings advance our understanding of how prior experience affects the formation of new episodic memories.” – Pre-experimental stimulus familiarity modulates the effects of item repetition on source memory – Hongmi Lee, Kyungmi Kim, Do-Joon Yi, 2018

 

Also, it’s worth noting that a typical batch of items which I tried to commit to my memory was 20. Typically, I tried to memorize between 3-5 batches.

 

What did I test?

 

Over 30 things you can learn from all my failed

 

Time to get to the nitty-gritty of my memory experiments. As you already know, I experimented almost exclusively with words which were completely foreign to me in order to minimize my background knowledge interference.

Another important part is the methods I used to test my knowledge. I always tested my recalls using the following methods:

Free recall + cued recall

Free recall

 

 

Free recall describes the process in which a person is given a list of items to remember and then is tested by being asked to recall them in any order. Free recall often displays evidence of primacy and recency effects.

Primacy effects are displayed when the person recalls items presented at the beginning of the list earlier and more often. The recency effect is when the person recalls items presented at the end of the list earlier and more often. Free recall often begins with the end of the list and then moves to the beginning and middle of the list.

For that reason, I always tried to recall all the batches at once in order to minimize the number of learning sessions. That gave me the certainty that my results were warped.

 

Cued recall

 

 

Cued recall is when a person is given a list of items to remember and is then tested with cues to remember the material.

 

 

There are two basic experimental methods used to conduct cued recall, the study-test method, and the anticipation method. In the study-test method participants study a list of word pairs presented individually.

Immediately after or after a time delay, participants are tested in the study phase of the experiment on the word pairs just previously studied.

One word of each pair is presented in a random order and the participant is asked to recall the item with which it was originally paired. The participant can be tested for either forward recall, Ai is presented as a cue for Bi, or backward recall, Bi is presented as a cue for Ai.

In the anticipation method, participants are shown Ai and are asked to anticipate the word paired with it, Bi. If the participant cannot recall the word, the answer is revealed.

During an experiment using the anticipation method, the list of words is repeated until a certain percentage of Bi words are recalled. – Wikipedia.

 

 

The learning curve for cued recall increases systematically with the number of trials completed. This result has caused a debate about whether or not learning is all-or-none.

 

(un)succesful memory experiments

 

Why did I use both methods? Because they both show you different things.

“Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009). However, transfer tasks, such as the written fill-in-the-blank activity and the problem-solving task are perhaps better measures of true learning (Mayer, 2009).”

Many people have argued with me that just because they are able to recall words after using some method, it surely means that it’s effective. As you can see, it’s only a part of the story.

That’s why it’s also so important to test any method for the prolonged period of time. Always give yourself at least 3 weeks to test your hypothesis. Then measure the results (here are examples of the things you can measure in language learning).

 

 

“There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.” – Enrico Fermi

Why even measure it at all?

 

Measuring your results certainly doesn’t sound sexy but it’s absolutely necessary. You can’t know for sure that one method is better than the other if you don’t verify it and you don’t control your variables. 

What’s more, if you don’t measure, you can’t improve. And that means a great deal in the world of language learning.  Using ineffective methods can literally mean that you will have wasted thousands of hours by the end of your life.

I am not that loco and I was never willing to take such a risk. And I am pretty sure you also don’t want to be the guy with a tombstone saying, “It took him 20 years to learn a language to an A2 level, what a moron. Love, family.”

Whenever you’re in doubt – measure your results. It will help you get to the truth.

What does it mean that the experiment failed?

Under every experiment, you will find an explanation of why a given experiment failed or not. 

What do I mean by that?

Most of the time it means that it either didn’t provide me with the results I expected or it wasn’t more effective than the method I tested it against.

Of course, in a sense, none of them failed. They all helped me to understand the science of memory better and to improve my memorization skills. Or in more elegant words of Thomas Edison, I can say that:

 

 

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison

 

The list of methods I have tested

 

Below you will find a long list of methods I have tested throughout the years. I can’t vouch that I have included all of them. I have a nasty habit of throwing away everything I don’t need. Unfortunately, in many instances, the victim of my habit was a bunch of notes documenting my experiment.

All my experiments are accompanied by the main conclusions and complementary articles when needed. Enjoy!

 

Chapter 0 – The typical school stuff

I guess this is the type of learning which is a baseline for many people. All you do is what they tell you to during a class. You read something, do some grammar exercises, write an essay and so on.

Experiment status

It failed.

Why did it fail? What you give is what you get. I think I simply didn’t apply myself to learning hence my results were just terrible.

The main takeaway:

Apply yourself? Learn regularly? Take your pick. 

 

Chapter 1 – Using a notebook

 

 

The first learning system of my own devising was fairly uncomplicated. Ready for it? Every time when I used to encounter any English words I didn’t know, I jotted them down.

 

Next, I rewrote ALL their meanings, collocations and such from an Oxford Dictionary into my notebook. Then I read my notes on my way to school.

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t just mark these words in a dictionary and read them there, huh?

Well, maybe because I was fed with a lead spoon as a child. Or it has something to do with repeatedly falling down headfirst from a tree.

I don’t know. But these are some of the excuses I use. If it wasn’t bad enough I used this method for at least 3 or years when I was about 18-22.

 

Things you can learn from all my failed and successful memory experiments

 

Experiment status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

The method was clearly unsustainable. It took me a lot of time to rewrite all the words I needed. What’s worse, there were so many of them that I couldn’t review them in any regular way.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

This was my first system. It was really bad but it also taught me an important lesson. You will always progress, no matter how slow, if you have any kind of learning system in place. Sure, this one sucked but at least it gave me a systematized way of learning new words and their meanings.

 

Chapter 2 – SRS programs

 

I must have been about 19 or 20 when I discovered Spaced Repetition Software.

The first program of this kind which I bought was called SuperMemo Advanced. It was a brilliant creation which ushered in the new era in the world of my personal learning.

 

SRS Programs

 

Back then, I already spoke quite good English. Or at least that’s what I thought. To my surprise, it quickly turned out that out of over 10k words which this program contained, I knew almost none.

My grind started. I started slogging through all these words with dogged determination. I was terrified by the number of reviews I soon amassed but somehow I pulled through. I think it took me about 18 months to cover all the words.

What about the final result?

My vocabulary certainly expanded. Initially, I could recall a lot of words but after some time, the novelty effect wore off. I soon found myself forgetting more and more words despite working my butt off every day.

And thus, I decided to keep on searching for my Holy Grail.

Experiment status:

it kinda failed

Why did it kinda fail?

 

 

The main reason why my experiment failed to some degree is that I didn’t create my own sentences. Most programs of this kind give you ready-to-learn sentences.

 

Unfortunately, if you don’t actively encode words on your own, they will slip your memory anyway. The optimization algorithm which programs of this kind use is an extremely powerful tool.

Maybe even the most universal shield against forgetting we currently have. However, no amount of reviews can guarantee that the words you learn will be transferred into your long-term memory if you don’t encode them (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik & Tulving, 1975).

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

The optimization algorithms are your best friend learning-wise. It doesn’t matter how much you delude yourself into thinking that you can learn faster by reading, listening or other means.

It won’t happen.

 

 

Having a ready-to-use wordlist is extremely convenient and can speed up your learning. You won’t have to waste your time scratching your head and thinking what’s the next word you should learn.

 

A good idea is to start with frequency lists.

Read more:

Here is a fascinating article about Super Memo’s creator, Piotr Wozniak. One of the most fascinating characters I had a pleasure to read about.

 

Chapter 3 – Using a dictionary

 

I enrolled in a language school to master German and after about four years I was ready to sit the Goethe-Zertifikat B2 exam. The last trial before the real thing was a mock exam. I took it, I passed it and life felt great.

 

 

I felt so proud of myself as I was leaving my language school, “Now I know English, German and Polish, there are 7 languages to go”.

 

The life had different plans for me. Just as I was ambling down the street I was approached by an elderly German couple asking me if I speak any German.

“I do”, I replied proudly.

“Do you know any good restaurants around here?”, they asked.

As they were finishing their question something terrible happened. I froze. I couldn’t spew out any coherent answer. I huffed and puffed and floundered until I managed to form some vague answer.

 

 

As they were leaving I felt devastated. I spent 4 damn years in a language school and couldn’t even hold a simple conversation! On top of this, I just passed a B2 certificate.

 

Frustrated by this experience I decided to simply pick up a Polish-German dictionary, mark the works I didn’t know but I found useful and start creating short sentences with them.

I used to take this dictionary everywhere with me. I kept my nose in it and wandered around oblivious to my surroundings.

I definitely looked strange but at least I had my pants on most of the time and didn’t yell “repent sinners” so that’s nice.

Experiment status:

it kinda failed

Why did it kinda fail?

The problem with this method was that it didn’t allow me to review my vocabulary in any meaningful way. I was jumping from one word to another.

Oftentimes, I spent way too much time concentrating on the words I already knew. Considering that your average pocket dictionary has usually at least 15k words, it was the problem of considerable size.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

1. Even though this method didn’t seem like much, I consider it a big success to some degree. It was then that I realized that creating my own sentences with virtually any word can boost my vocabulary retention.

 

 

Contrary to the common wisdom, it doesn’t matter if your sentences don’t sound like something that could originate from the silky smooth lips of a native speaker.

 

You need to encode words on your own and you need many words in order to convey your thoughts.

2. This method further reinforced my conviction that having a ready-to-use word list can positively affect my learning rate.

Up to this day, I remain a huge fan of pocket dictionaries. Even on the days, when I don’t have much time, I can encode and learn up to 30 words in 15 minutes simply by picking them up from a dictionary.

Trust me, no other method comes even close to this.

 

Chapter 4 – Mnemonics

 

My learning false starts

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

I stumbled across the first mentions about mnemonics in an article when I was about 20-21. Even though I was fascinated by the general idea behind mnemonics, I quickly forgot about it.

A couple of months later, by fate, I discovered a small book about mnemonics. It turned out to be a copy of Harry Lorayne’s classic “* How To Develop a Super Power Memory (1957)”.

One week later, I was a full-time mnemonics preacher.

How could I not?

Any person, who tried to learn anything with help of mnemonics can attest to their effectiveness. And that’s true. Compared to your typical “cram and forget” approach, mnemonics work very well.

It takes some time and objectivity to discover that perhaps mnemonics are not as great as many experts like to believe. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Here is a list of different memory systems I have tried.

 

Classic mnemonics

 

If you have never heard of mnemonics, here is, more or less, how they work:

1. Find a word you want to learn.
2. Inspect it thoroughly and try to spot any associations or familiar word in it.
3. Create a funny/absurd picture based on these words or associations.
4. Place the picture in some location which is well-known to you (e.g. your home).
5. Repeat this process for many words and make sure to connect your pictures with each other.
6. Take a mental walk and decode these words.

Example:
Let’s say that you want to learn a Spanish word for “trabajar”. Upon a closer inspection, you notice that:

a) “traba” looks a lot like “drab”
b) “jar”, well, it looks like a “jar”.

 

 

Next, you combine those words into a short story: you work as a slave at the desk in your room producing enormous “drab jars”.

 

Can you see it?

Great.

The only thing left is to retrieve these words by imagining this entire situation.

If you have never tried this method, it can be quite effective. And, as you can probably guess, that was my initial impression as well.

Status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

1. I have mentioned before that encoding your own vocabulary is extremely important. If that’s true, then why do mnemonics work so badly for long-term memorization and retention?

here are two types of encoding:

a) shallow encoding

Shallow encoding doesn’t help you to connect the piece of information with other meaningful information nor does it help you to further your understanding of it.

It usually concentrates on meaningless banalities.

Example:
You are trying to memorize the word “skada” (Swedish for “to damage”). The prime example of shallow encoding would be to start counting the number of vowels or consonants in this word.

 

 

In our case, it would also be creating meaningless pictures based on abstract associations which has nothing to do with the actual use of the word.

 
b) deep encoding

The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make meaningful information between different items.

 

 

The more the better. In the case of language learning, it’s simply building sentences with the words you want to learn.

 

2. The other reason is fairly simple. Sometimes it takes a lot of time to find the right associations. Needless to say, spending 5 minutes on every word in order to do this is pointless.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

1. Even though this method didn’t seem like much, I consider it a big success to some degree. It was then that I realized that creating my own sentences with virtually any word can boost my vocabulary retention. You need to encode words on your own and you need many words in order to convey your thoughts.

2. This method further reinforced my conviction that having a ready-to-use word list can positively affect my learning rate.

Read more:
The truth about the effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics in learning.
Why is it difficult to recall vocabulary and how to fix it?

 

My system of mnemonics

 

After some time, I decided that the main problem was the time I needed to find my associations. I decided to identify the most important prefixes for any language I was concentrating on at that point.

Example:
The prefix “ent” is fairly popular in German. I decided to substitute it with the word Ent which is a race of tree-resembling creatures from Tolkien’s fantasy world Middle-earth.

 

Learning experiments

 

Every time I encountered some word starting with “ent” I could immediately create a picture involving the Ents.

How did this method affect my learning pace?

 

 

I started memorizing words lightning fast. Partly because I have created my own “mnemonic picture dictionary” which consisted of over 1000 syllables with their respective pictures.

 

And yet, once again.

Experiment status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

Unfortunately, I failed to recognize that quick short-term memorization doesn’t equal successful long-term memorization.

Sure, I was memorizing word quicker but I still had problems using them in conversation and kept on forgetting them anyway.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.

 

Mnemonics and meditation

 

Another brilliant idea of mine was thinking that if I only improve the vividness and clarity of my pictures, I will be able to retain them much longer.

I decided to include a 30-minute meditation session to my learning schedule. During that time, the only thing I did was revisiting my mnemonic stories and making them more vivid.

Experiment status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

No matter how clear your pictures are – if you don’t apply active encoding to your learning, you will inevitably fail.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.

 

Mnemonics with SRS

 

The next step for me was combining mnemonics with SR programs like ANKI.
I figured out that if I only optimize my repetitions, my retention rate will go through the roof.

Even with this method, I was using a lot of variations. Among others I tried to:

a) use google map images to memorize thousands of words at the same time.
b) use  virtual and phantom locations and connect them into memory palaces.
c) shrink my stories to squeeze even dozens of them into one room.

Experiment status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

This is where I gave up on mnemonics. My stats and personal experience were very clear about this method of learning.

It doesn’t matter how much I tweak every tiny element of this method – it will always suck as it fails to encapture the very essence of learning – applying contextual learning and deep encoding.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Please check the main takeaway for classic mnemonics.

Read more:

Optimize Your Language Learning – Optimize Your Repetitions (Part 2)

 

Chapter 4 – Traditional approaches

 

I started looking into passive learning years after I started my language learning/memory journey. I didn’t do it because I believed they are very effective.

On the contrary, I have never been a fan of passive learning and I don’t understand why so many language bloggers promote them.

Passive learning, as appealing as it might be, has been found, time and time again, terribly ineffective compared to active learning. 

The best argumentation for this line of learning I have seen so far is quoting the misbegotten theory of Krashen who was debunked one year after it was published.

As negative as this introduction may sound, I still was very curious how many words I can pick up and activate from passive learning.

 

Extensive reading

 

 

Experiment 1:

I have always been a bookworm so this experiment was quite pleasant to me. In 2016 I decided to read about 60 Swedish articles in the span of about 2 months.

At that time I was already on a C1, or maybe C1 / C2 level. That means I could read without any problems.

 

 

In total, I read 52000 words, mainly from the major Swedish news outlets. At about 300 words/min, it took me about 17 hours to go through them all and about 2 hours to find something interesting to read.

 

I didn’t write down any words, I was just trying to memorize them while reading (without mnemonics).

The final result?

After a careful analysis of my vocabulary, I found out that I picked up 5 extra words.

 

 

In other words, I spend 19 hours and had nothing to show for. To fully showcase how ridiculously slow that pace it’s worth reminding you that on a bad day, I can encode and learn up to 30 words in 15 minutes simply by picking them up from a dictionary and encoding them in ANKI.

 

That experiment definitely echoes the experience of my students. Even though it’s only an anecdote.

Over one year ago, a student of mine who learned German decided to read the first two books of the Harry Potter series in German.

At the time, she was on a B1/B2 level. I tried to discourage her from doing it and direct her efforts to active learning but she put her foot down.

After about 4 months she told me that she finished reading them – in total about 1000 pages or so.

The result was once again quite depressing. Once she told me about her intention, I started jotting down EVERY NEW WORD which came up during our classes. It wasn’t difficult at all as I taught her from the very beginning. I knew exactly which words she already used.

 

After 4 months, countless hours, 1000 pages she managed to introduce 0 extra words to her parlance.

 

All my failed and successful memory experiments

 

Experiment 2:

In my next experiment conducted in May 2018, I set off to check how many new words I can pick up from watching English movies with French subtitles. I was pretty sure that this method would be more effective since it involves more sensory channels.

 

 

In total, I watched about 60 hours worth of TV series. My level at that time was about B1. During that time I was able to pick up 11 words, most of which I was able to use spontaneously.

 

I haven’t been able to memorize other words than the ones I learned before. In other words, it allowed me to learn more.

Experiment status:

it was a success and a failure at the same time.

Why did it fail/succeed?

1. The experiment was certainly a success because it confirmed something I have been telling for a long time. Passive learning can be an amazing tool if you use it as an adjacent method.

Every day you should do your best to concentrate on active learning. Once you’re done and you can’t din more words into your head, feel free to read or listen as much as you want.

Spontaneous activation of words is much easier once you already have these words in your head. This is definitely something my experiment confirmed.

 

 

Even though I avoided speaking for 2 months, my fluency was actually higher after 60 hours of reading. Mind you that I didn’t pick up almost any new words. But the ones I knew came to my mind much quicker.

 

2. The experiment also failed because clearly reading was subpar to basically any active learning method, I have ever tried.

The main takeaways (i.e. what I learned):

 

1. “Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009). However, transfer tasks, such as the written fill-in-the-blank activity and the problem-solving task are perhaps better measures of true learning (Mayer, 2009).”

 

Just because you have a general impression of remembering words after a reading session, it doesn’t mean that you’ve committed them to your memory. The only tests which can confirm involve the active use of the said words.

2. Acquisition of new vocabulary from reading will be terribly slow and ineffective until you learn about 5k words. 5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).

Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing  (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997). If you’re hell-bent on learning this way, make sure that you know at least 3k words as it’s the minimum threshold needed for contextual guessing. (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).

3. Your ability to speak fluently and produce spontaneous speech is dependent to a high degree on the amount of input you expose yourself to.

Read more:

1. Optimize Your Language Learning – Limit Passive Learning Activities
2. Active and Passive Learning – How To Create The Winning Combination (Optimize Your Language Learning – Part 3)
3. The Rule of 2 – How Many Words You Should Know (For Every Language Level)
4. Why is it difficult to recall vocabulary and how to fix it?
5. The Purpose Of Passive Learning – How And When To Use Reading And Listening To Speed Up Your Progress

Extensive listening

 

 

As painful as it is for my analytical heart, I have never run any rigorous memory experiment involving extensive listening. All I have are my anecdotes concerning three main languages I teach (Swedish, English, German). For that reason, please take it with a grain of salt.

I haven’t done any form of extensive listening practice for any of those languages until I was at least at a B2 level. In other words, my vocabulary amounted to at least 5k words which warranted quite accurate contextual guessing.

Even though I can’t give you any specific number, we’re talking about thousands of hours of listening practice for English and hundreds of hours for both Swedish and German. My main listening activities concentrated mainly on watching TV series and movies.

Status:

it succeeded

Why did it succeed?

Despite the lack of detailed stats, I could definitely notice that my ability to produce spontaneous speech and to understand was greatly increased.

What’s more, vocabulary acquisition was also much higher compared to extensive reading. The probable reason is, once again, the wealth of stimuli, which is related to watching movies.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

1. Extensive listening is certainly the most useful form of passive learning. Especially up to a C1 level. 

2. The vocabulary acquisition rate is also quite high provided that you build your core vocabulary first. I can only speculate that on earlier stages, it would be quite ineffective since the cognitive load would be too high to enable effective learning.

It’s worth keeping in mind that extensive listening is still quite a terrible tool of acquiring vocabulary compared to almost any active learning strategy. Once again, it can be treated as a perfect supplement to active learning.

 

Chapter 4 – Random memory experiments

 

All the experiments presented here reflect a very interesting stage in my memory journey. Back then, I was willing to run almost any memory experiment as long as there is at least one scientific paper behind it.

In hindsight, sometimes I don’t know what the hell I was thinking!

 

Holding my urine

 

Judge me all you want, I did it. Years ago I read this study whose conclusion was that holding your urine improves decision making before choosing an immediate or a delayed financial reward.

As you can see, it had nothing to do with language learning or memory improvement. Of course, that didn’t stop me. The experiment went on for 3 weeks. During that time I almost pissed myself a couple of time but it certainly did nothing for my retention rate.

Fun fact:

a Dutch scientist conducting this study, Mirjam Tusk, was actually awarded Ig Nobel.

Status:

a debacle

Why did it fail?

Because I was a silly and impressionable dummy. But hey! At least I have an anecdote to share!

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Screw you Miriam and your research.

 

Learning in nature

 

failed and successful memory experiments

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

 

There are a lot of studies which show that spending time in nature helps to boost your memory. Some of them even show that staring at a photo of trees or a brisk walk in the woods can improve your memory and attention performance by 20%.

And obviously, that was a good enough reason for me to try it.

 

 

For three weeks in 2014, I spend 1 hour per day learning Swedish in the nearby park. The results were quite clear – no advantage whatsoever compared to studying at home.

 

Status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

Because the memory experiment conducted in the lab are usually detached from reality and don’t carry over to real life? That would be my guess. Interestingly, I noticed that my attention performance dropped while learning in the park. I was constantly distracted by damn squirrels, dogs, and bawling children. The general conditions weren’t very conducive to studying.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Learn where there is a minimal amount of distraction in order to maximize your memory performance.

 

Emotional modulation of the learned material

 

One of the undeniable laws of learning says that we always remember better items which are emotionally salient. That gave me the idea that if I learn how to modulate this saliency, I could use it to my advantage to boost my retention.

I did lots of weird things to achieve this goal. I screamed foreign words out at the top of my lungs. I made myself furious or jealous with the help of my imagination and then proceeded to memorize short lists of words.

Status:

it failed

Why did it fail?

Truth be told, I was able to remember a lot of these words right away so the first impression suggests that the method works. But as I usually say, in order to truly discover whether something works you need to run delayed recall tests.

You have to wait at least 1 or 2 weeks before you retest your memory. Only then do you get a clear answer about whether a method works or not. This strategy failed. 

In hindsight, the reason is simple – if everything stands out emotionally, nothing stands out emotionally.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Just don’t.

 

Learning before going to sleep

 

Another great strategy which I have heard about was learning before going to sleep. Like all short memory experiments of mine, it lasted 3 weeks in September 2015. The idea for this experiment was sparked by research showing a correlation between time of studying and how it can potentially improve your recall.

The protocol was very simple. I tried to memorize 10 random words from languages I knew right before going to sleep.

How did I fare?

Not much better than usually. My retention rate was improved by about 4%.

Status: Failure

Why did it fail?

I know that you might think that 4% is not too shabby and it’s worth something. However, in my case, I deemed the results less than impressive. Especially considering that I tried to memorize words from the languages I already knew which was a major mistake.

What’s more, if we include other co-founders, my results won’t be much better than the chance. I had definitely better results with practicing motor skills before going to bed.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Try at your own risk – I don’t see any super-duper benefits. It’s much more important to have a sound sleeping schedule than to practice at any specific time.

 

Combining learning with physical activity

 

Experiments

 

There is plenty of research demonstrating the benefits of combining physical activity with learning. The general idea is to space your learning sessions and to interrupt them with bouts of vigorous exercise.

Here is a great excerpt from Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (2011).

 

One immediate outcome of the research is a process known as spaced learning, in which teachers give short lessons, sometimes of less than ten minutes, before changing to physical activity and then repeating the lesson. In one trial, the pupils scored up to 90 percent in a science paper after one session involving three 20-minute bursts, interspersed with ten-minute breaks for physical activity. The pupils had not covered any part of the science syllabus before the lessons.

 

I started testing this idea in early 2016. Since I dislike gyms, I decided to weave in quick calisthenics workouts into my learning schedule.

Long story short, such an approach managed to significantly improve my attention span and slightly boosted my recall.

Status: success

Why did it succeed?

Even though there is a lot of great science which explains in a detailed way how exercise can help you with studying, I think it has a lot to do with Serial-position effect.

 

 

Serial-position effect is the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst.

 

Why do I think so?

Because I have noticed similar improvements while taking so-called meaningful breaks i.e. taking a walk, or just lying down and breathing mindfully.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

Mixing work-outs with your learning is certainly worth replicating

Read more:

John J. Ratey – Spark, The Revolutionary New Science Of The Brain And Exercise

 

Learning with pictures

 

1) a traditional approach
 
I am more than sure that even if you haven’t tried using pictures in your own studies, you at least heard how great of a method that is.
 
Is there any truth to it?
 
First of all, it’s slightly easier to memorize words which are accompanied by pictures. It’s related to so-called “Jennnifer Aniston neurons” (I am not making it up!) – the firing of a single neuron for a single image to form a concept.
 
That’s why you definitely increase your chances of memorizing a word by adding pictures (read more about the picture superiority effect).
 
But the real question which many people seem to ignore is – how much does it really help?
 
 
My answer is – not that much. Most of the time you will be able to just remember a picture very well. Based on my experiments I can say that the overall benefit of using pictures in learning is not big and amounts to less than 5%. At least when you stick to a typical approach i.e. adding random pictures to your ANKI flashcards.
 
 
Is there a better way?
2) a different approach
 
Since my initial results with this method weren’t very satisfying I decided to step it up and tried to check how different kind of pictures affect my recall. What’s more, I also verified how using the same picture in many flashcards affects my learning.
 
What kind of pictures did I use?
 
I concentrated on pictures which are emotionally salient. I tried everything starting from gore pictures to porn pictures. The results, especially with the latter, weren’t very good. I was sitting there like a horny idiot and couldn’t concentrate even one bit on any of the words. It’s like having a sexy teacher in high school. You can’t wait till you get to your classes but once you do, you don’t hear any words.
 
Funny enough, I remember most of the pictures from this experiment to this day which only further proves to me that your typical approach won’t work here.
 
So what kind of pictures did work?
 
Pictures from my personal collection. I found out that if I use one picture in a lot of flashcards where every flashcard concentrates on one word, I am able to recall words extremely easily. In addition, my retention rate has also been improved, although not as significantly as my ability to retrieve words.

Status: failure/success

Why did it fail?

While it’s true that it’s really easy to memorize picture, I haven’t noticed any amazing benefits using a typical approach i.e. inserting a new picture into every flashcard.

Why did it succeed?

I think that my approach to using pictures in language learning is so effective because it mimics a lot how we normally acquire vocabulary as children. It’s much easier to memorize names of different objects and phenomena if the same situation occurs frequently.

I have never seen any scientific experiments in this vein so I hope that the linguistic community will pick it up one day.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

If you want to use pictures in your language studies, don’t waste time trying to find a new picture for every word. Choose one picture and use it multiple times in different flashcards. Each time try to memorize a different word.

 

Learning with GIFS

 

Learning with GIFS

 

Don’t worry, this will be a short one. If you haven’t known this before, you can insert GIFs into your ANKI flashcards. Overall, it will give you an additional recall and retrieval boost.

Status: success

Why did it succeed? GIFs are very similar to real life situation. There is some dynamism there connected with visual stimulus.

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned): It works provided that, once again, you use the same GIF for many flashcards.

 

Writing vs speaking

 

Another interesting experiment which I set out to conduct, in 2017 if I am not mistaken, was to settle once and for all what’s better for language learning memory-wise – writing or speaking?

I won’t elaborate about it since I have already written a full article about this problem (you can find the link below).

The main takeaway (i.e. what I learned):

All in all, my opinion is that for the most people out there, speaking is the superior learning method as it allows you to practice what probably matters to you the most – being able to communicate. What’s more, writing offers almost no benefits memory-wise compare to speaking.

Having that said, you should remember that the ultimate answer might be more complex for you. Some learn a language to write, some to watch movies and some to talk. Choose your goal and choose your preferred learning method in accordance with it.

Read more: 

Writing or speaking – what’s better memory-wise for language learning?

How my learning pace changed over the years

 

Even though conducting all these experiments might seem like a lot of work, I think it was more than worth it. Especially since I have always been more interested in how memory works than knowing many languages.

I thought that it might be interesting for you to see how my quest for better memory has influenced my learning speed throughout the years. However, please remember that using the right methods is one thing. Another is that with every next language, it’s getting easier and easier to learn the next ones.

Of course, even a layman might learn extremely fast if they know how to do it. I have managed to teach a lot of people to a B2 level in a couple of months with just 1 hour of classes per week so it can’t be that bad (read more). Heck, some people who took my course Vocabulary Labs managed to do it without any help whatsoever within that time frame.

Side note: the numbers below don’t represent my current levels, just how fast I learned these languages to a B2 level.

My learning pace over the years

The languages below are chronologically ordered starting with the ones which I learned first. I never bothered tracking how much time I needed to get a C1 level and beyond in most of these languages. The number below don’t represent my current levels, just how fast I learned these languages to a B2 level.

Learning English

When did I start? When I was 12.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 7  years

Was the level verified? Yes, an FCE certificate

Learning Russian

When did I start? When I was 15.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 10 years

Was the level verified? Yes, by a private tutor

Learning German

When did I start? When I was 20.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 4-5 years

Was the level verified? Yes, a mock Goethe-Zertifikat B2

Learning Spanish

When did I start? When I was 25.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 1-1,5 year

Was the level verified? No

Learning French

When did I start? When I was 26.

Time needed to get to a B1 level: 6 months

Time needed to get to a B2 level: about 2 years

Was the level verified? No

Learning Swedish

When did I start? When I was 27.

Time needed to get to a B2 level: 3,5 months

Was the level verified? Yes, a multifaceted, internal verification in one of the global corporations

Read more about this missionLearn by talking to yourself.

Learning Esperanto

When did I start? When I was 28.

Time needed to get to a B1 level: 3 weeks

Time needed to get to a B2 level: ???

Was the level verified? Yes, by my Esperanto teacher

Learning  Czech

When did I start? When I was 29.

Time needed to get to a B1/B2: 4 weeks

Was the level verified? Yes, two separate online placement tests

Read more about this mission: How to learn communicative Czech in one month

Czech was also the last language I learned. About that time I decided to focus on other fields of science and improving my languages.

Right now, for the most European languages, I don’t think it would take me more than 6-8 weeks to learn them to a B2 level. When it comes to trickier languages like Hungarian or any Asian language it’s hard to say as I never looked into them deeply. Although probably if enough number of people are interested I will do another language mission in the future and will document my progress thoroughly.

Does it mean that these methods are bad?

 

failed memory experiments

 

As you have seen, I have classified quite many methods with which I have experimented as a failure. Does it mean they are inherently bad? Not necessarily. Depending on your current stage in language learning, many of them might boost your learning significantly provided that the one you’re using right now is bad.

Even my results which show modest boosts (e.g. 5%) in recall and retrieval rate should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, if you’re a person who is not very physically active, you might experience a significant increase in your ability to recall if just work out more.

 

Regardless of that, a lot of my experiments should show you rough effectiveness of many of these methods. I hope that one day I will find time to come back to this article and expand my lists of experiments including some others which I missed this time.

 

You might also wonder why I haven’t covered many of the popular apps and learning systems in this article. The answer is very simple – I didn’t have to. There are dozens of principles of memory to master in order to learn effectively. Once you acquire them, you can simply disregard many popular solutions because you can spot all the mistakes they are perpetuating. Not every experiment is worth your time.

How many of these methods have you experimented with? Let me know.

 

 

The Truth About Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics In Learning

Would you like to be able to memorize a whole book? What about those boring declination tables?

Silly question. Who wouldn’t?

One way or the other, you have heard of amazing memory feats of mnemonists – memorizing decks of cards or thousands of digits. And all this seemingly effortlessly.

Mnemonics definitely have the power to stimulate the imagination. And they definitely stimulated mine.

This dream, the dream of being able to memorize anything I want, triggered the chain of events which made me embark on a bumpy journey/

Destination? To discover the true effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics and master my memory.

My First Experience With Mnemonics

 

I still remember the first time when I had to practically use mnemonics.

I failed one of my exams and I had to retake it. The problem was that I didn’t know when.
I was convinced that the day would be announced very soon.

The days went by and I didn’t even touch the course book. Somehow the notion of the retake blissfully slipped my mind.

One day I was sitting in the corridor, listening to the music and reading a book

Suddenly I heard a muffled voice, “aren’t you preparing for the exam?”.
“What exam?, I looked up just to see the grinning face of my good friend.

“It’s starting in 2 hours”, he replied. Somehow his grin turned into an evil smirk.

“That’s it”, I thought to myself.

“I will fail this exam and I will fail my studies. I will end up homeless and will have to fight sewer spiders for the food.”

After the first surge of panic passed, I started coming up with possible solutions.
I decided that my best chance is to use mnemonics.

I didn’t have much experience in using them. Sure, I had read two books up to that point but had almost no experience to back up the theory.

Desperate times call for drastic measures. I rolled up my sleeves and started learning.

A bit over 3 h later, I left the professor’s office.
I passed. I don’t know how, but I passed.

Thus my obsession with mnemonics was born.

My imagination was running wild. Where are the boundaries?

Is it possible for each one of us to become genius if we just learn to utilize mnemonic strategies?

I needed many years to learn the bitter truth.

No. Mnemonics will not make you a genius and allow you to effortlessly absorb tons of information.

“So are they useful at all?”, you might ask.
And what can they be used for?

I will get back to this in a moment.

What Are Mnemonics

 

Before we move on, it’s good to quickly explain what mnemonics are.

In short, mnemonics are devices to aid our overburdened memory.

They are used to facilitate effective encoding by associating new information with the knowledge which is already stored in your long-term memory (Johnson & Weber, 2006 as cited in Gibson, 2009).

Probably the most common mnemonic device is so-called keyword method coined by Atkinson (1975). It is used to make meaningful auditory and imagery links to remember a word.

For example, if you want to remember that “to buy” in Spanish is “comprar”, you might create a vivid picture of a man who compares prices of products before the purchase.

Not that complicated, right?

Let’s see now what science has to say about mnemonics.

What Science Thinks About Mnemonics

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

 

There is a large body of research about mnemonics.

However, probably the most interesting study up-to-date was led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky and released in April 2013 by the Association for Psychological Science.

In a comprehensive report, the group of authors closely examined 10 learning tactics and rated them from high to low utility based on the evidence they’ve gathered.

If you are expecting mnemonics to be among the most useful strategies, don’t hold your breath.
They didn’t even come close to the top of the list.

According to the authors, some commonly used techniques, such as underlining, rereading material, and using mnemonic devices, were found to be of surprisingly low utility.

Of surprisingly low utility?!

If you look at memory feats performed by mnemonics, you might reach a conclusion that scientists must be taking crazy pills.

For example, here is a video of  Dr Yip Swee Chooi.

 

 

What’s so special about him?

He learned 1774-page Chinese-English dictionary by heart (in case you wonder – it took him almost 6 months to do it).

Another great example is  Simon Reinhard who memorized a deck of cards in 20.438 seconds.

 

 

Clearly, people with untrained memory would not be able to even come close to these results.

Still, the report says clearly – mnemonics might not be the best use of your time.

Of course, I must be perfectly honest with you.
There are a lot of studies who show that using mnemonics might be very beneficial for (among others):

What’s even more important, some studies showed memory improvement with students with disabilities, as described by Fulk (1994) and Bulgren et al. (1994).

And these are just a few of them and they all state clearly – mnemonics are statistically more effective.

Effective than what?! And why didn’t I include these studies here then?

Problems With Studies On Effectiveness Of Mnemonics

 

Having read dozens of studies on mnemonics, I can divide flaws of these studies into following categories:

a) Statistical sample is not representative

 

Do you know how to recognize bad, bullshit science at the first glance? Look at the sample.

To generalize, any number below 100 participants means that researchers just threw your tax money into the gutter.

b) Control groups suck

 

Do you know what is the usual control group against mnemonics-using students?
Rote learning students.

Ugh, it’s like watching some bizarre boxing match.

“Ladies and gentleman, let’s gather around to enjoy this very duel – a retarded shrimp vs. quite an ordinary shrimp”.

c) Laboratory settings

 

99,9% of these studies are conducted in laboratory settings.

And there is quite a yawning gap between research in areas of everyday memory (i.e. field research) and lab-controlled research.

The Hawthorne effect is one of the things which comes to mind.

A type of reactivity in which individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed

It’s very hard to generalize such results to other settings

What’s more, so-called low ecological validity comes into play.

The laboratory is clearly an artificial situation.  People are directed by an ‘experimenter’ in a psychological experiment. They are removed from their usual social settings and asked to memorize different sets of data.

This is a very unusual experience which raises the question – how do this novel experience and settings really affect their behavior and memory?

Still, lab research is better than no research at all.

d) Time horizon

 

Most studies are conducted over a relatively short period of time. It’s rarely spread over more than 3-4 weeks. As you will soon read, this is why most studies prove the effectiveness of mnemonics.

e) Nature of the tasks

 

How would you feel about memorizing and recalling a list of unconnected words or digits? Seriously, be honest. How would you rate your willingness on the scale from “nope” to “never”?

The detachment of such tasks from everyday life, and their general lack of usefulness have led some researchers to question whether their findings can be generalized to real life.

 

Am I saying that mnemonics are useless then?
Not at all. They can be insanely useful.

But you must understand what they are and what they aren’t.
I quoted the excerpt from John Dunlosky’s report for two reasons:

  • 1) It tested different learning strategies against one another.
  • 2) More importantly, it tested effects of those strategies in LONG-TERM learning.

And this is what mnemonics are not.

They are not a suitable tool for long-term learning. At least not in the form they are usually presented.

If you are not pressed for time, you can get by without any problems without using mnemonics

They are also not a panacea for all your memory problems.
This is just another tool in your learning arsenal.

If you have ever read anything by any author who promotes / sells anything mnemonics-related you might find it hard too believe.

Don’t worry, I also felt disillusioned. And I had good reasons.

(Results Of) My Experiments With Mnemonics

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

Picture by: Vlad

Since that pivotal moment of my life, my obsession with mnemonics had been growing in strength with each passing day.

There was no stopping me. I was the mnemonics preacher. Everybody HAD to know about how mnemonics are great,

After I won local memory championship, it only got worse.

I experimented with the ardor of meth-addicted junkie.

I created memory palaces holding thousands of words.

I tried to learn entire books by heart just to test ethe ffectiveness of mnemonics.

I have memorized tables, law regulations and tested my recall  at various intervals.

Effect was always the same.

Great recall rate at the beginning of my experiments. These early results were always accompanied by the feeling of overwhelming joy.

But it never lasted long.

My recall rate was still good after up to 2-4 weeks after creating mnemonic images and reviewing them. Although, I could notice some deterioration of my memories.

Inevitable drop in recall rate always came after more than 4 weeks.

And this is exactly why most scientific studies seemingly prove ethe ffectiveness of mnemonics.
They test them in labs in short periods of time.

Once again, I would like to stress that mnemonics can be immensely useful.

Useful both for recalling random information as well as helping you achieve high levels of expert performance. Just not for long-term learning.

Read on and I will show how they can be utilized best.

But first, to have a full picture of what you’re dealing with, take a look at limitations of mnemonics.

Limitations And Disadvantages Of Mnemonics

 

  • Gruneberg (1998) argues that the keyword method, in general, is inferior to rote learning in the longer-term retention of vocabulary.
  • “Campos and Gonzalez (2003) attribute ineffectiveness of keyword method to participants’ ‘lack of training. They investigated in four experiments the effectiveness of the mnemonic keyword method using two groups of adults and adolescents. In all the experiments, the rote method was more effective than the keyword method for both adolescents and adults.”
  • Some people (especially adults) are reluctant to create vivid images and crazy stories.
  • Some people (especially adults) are unable and/or unwilling to resign from using previously learned strategies.
  • Using mnemonic devices for memorizing words is time-consuming (especially at the beginning).
  • Using mnemonics requires more effort (especially at the beginning) than rote-learning.
  • Mnemonics don’t guarantee understanding.
  • Learning with mnemonics lacks context.

 

So if mnemonics are not a great way for long-term learning, what are they good for?

How Mnemonics Affect Your Short-Term Memory

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

 

Short-term memory has three key aspects:

  • 1. limited capacity (only about 7+-2 items can be stored at a time, or 3-4 chunks)
  • 2. limited duration (storage is very fragile and information can be lost with distraction or passage of time)
  • 3. encoding (primarily acoustic, even translating visual information into sounds).

 

And here is where the true power of mnemonics lies.

Mnemonic devices allow you to significantly boost all these three aspects of your short-term memory.

It might not seem like a big deal but it has tremendous implications for your (language) learning.

Why?

Because short-term memory is a necessary step toward the next stage of retention – long-term memory.

You can treat short-term memory as a bottleneck of your learning.

After all, if you can’t commit some information, even just for a few seconds, to your memory, how are you supposed to learn?

Some researchers claim that working-memory capacity reflects the efficiency of executive functions.

In other words, the ability to maintain and manipulate information in the face of distractions and other irrelevant information. ( Engle, R. W., September 1999).

 

That’s why the best way to think about mnemonics is to treat them as a relatively long-lived external memory with huge capacity.

 

I will get to the most effective use of mnemonics in a second.

First, I want to demonstrate you something. Let’s take a look at prodigies.

The Short-Term Memory Of Prodigies

 

Studies on the prodigies who reached professional-level performance in their domain (e.g., art, math, music) by the age of 10 show something very interesting.

When Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach administered an IQ test to nine prominent child prodigies (…) there were a wide range of IQ scores among the eight prodigies (from 108 to 147), and their cognitive profiles were uneven.

It turned out that the key to understanding their rapid learning in their domain was not their global intellectual functioning.

Most strikingly, every single prodigy in their sample scored off the charts (better than 99 percent of the general population) in working memory — the ability to simultaneously store incoming information while processing other information.

So how can you approach these levels of intellectual functioning?

Key Information Needed to Understand How To use Mnemonics Effectively

 

1) We learn best by doing
2) Calling information to mind strengthens it and helps in future retrieval
3) Understanding the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge.

 

According to Cohen and Squire (1980):

Procedural knowledge involves “knowing how” to do things. It includes skills, such as “knowing how” to play the piano, ride a bike; tie your shoes and other motor skills. It does not involve conscious thought (i.e. it’s unconscious – automatic). For example, we brush our teeth with little or no awareness of the skills involved.

Declarative knowledge involves “knowing that”. Knowing names of plants , dates, formulas – it’s all part of your declarative knowledge. Recalling information from declarative memory involves, so called, effortfull recall – i.e. information has to be consciously brought to mind and “declared”.

 

Knowing these things can help us stew perfect learning mix:

  • 1) Gather information 

It doesn’t matter whether you want to learn a language or how to master persuasion strategies. Gather the knowledge needed to achieve your goal.

  • 2) Memorize it with mnemonics

As I have written before, mnemonics can be treated as an extension of your short-term memory. Place as much information as you can on this external “hard-drive”.

  • 3) Start practising right away

Now that you know the theory of how to play piano or how to program, start putting your knowledge into practice.

Try to use as many pieces of information from your memory as you can.

Because every time you bring one of them to your mind, the magic happens. You start creating and strengthening neural networks responsible for the given action.

Repeat this action sufficient number of times and you will automate it. From that moment on, you will be able to perform it subconsciously and with minimal effort.

Let’s see how you can use it in language learning.

Mnemonics In Language Learning

 

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics

Picture by: Shannon Kokoska

 

When I launched my Czech mission, I already had a rough plan of how to achieve my desired level in record time.

This is more or less what I did:

  • 1) I got familiar with grammar
  • 2) I memorized basic declinations and conjugations with mnemonics
  • 3) I memorized about 50 basic words with mnemonics
  • 4) I started producing a lot of sentences by talking to myself and by using the aforementioned words and grammar
  • 5) I “rinsed and repeated” points 2-4. Each time I increased the number of words and grammar constructions

Of course, there was also listening and reading practice. If someone asks me what is the quickest way to learn a language, I show them this plan.

Ok, I also tell them to use ANKI.

Since we have established that mnemonics can be treated as your external memory, take a look at other practical applications of mnemonics!

(Other) Practical Applications Of Mnemonics

 

Mnemonics are useful whenever you need to memorize a lot of information on the fly and remember them for at least a couple of hours.

That’s why you can use them (among others):

  • during parties and meetings to memorize names and information about other participants
  • during last-minute panic before the exam or company presentation to make sure that the information stays in your memory!
  • during speeches.
  • to impress your wife and show her that “you don’t need no damn shopping lists” to remember what you should buy
  • to memorize random information which emerges during conversations

And so on. I think you got it!

Are Mnemonics Effective?

 

Mnemonics have to be one of the most misunderstood learning tools of all times.

They are usually sold as the ultimate solution for all kinds of learning problems which is far from the truth. As you can see, they can be extremely useful but only provided that you exactly understand what they do. And what they do is “inflate” your short-term memory for some time.

Manage to review the knowledge you acquired with mnemonics by performing some actions specific to that knowledge.and you can rest assured that your progress will know no boundaries.

You will become that “robo-weirdo”. And this is what I sincerely wish you.


 

Why Do We Forget and How Mnemonics Can Help You Alleviate This Problem

Why Do We Forget and How Mnemonics Can Help You Alleviate This Problem

We’ve all been there. Sitting at the party and calling everyone “hey dude” because you can’t recall their names. It was there just a moment ago but obviously, your brain deemed that remembering lyrics of some silly song might be more useful.

Well, sc*ew you brain!

So why do we forget? And why should you care? Firstly, it’s fascinating but if it’s not enough for you I want to appeal to your practical side. Understanding why we forget might actually help you remember more effectively.

What’s more, I’m going to show you that using mnemonics can actually solve all your problems with memory! Let’s take a look at some common reasons behind forgetting, as identified by Elizabeth Loftus.

1. Failure to Store

 

I’d argue that this is the most important reason for not remembering. You can’t recall something that you haven’t actually committed to memory!

Day in, day out we are flooded with thousands of pieces of information from various sources. Brain largely ignores them since they are not important for your well-being. So what actually stands a chance of being remembered?

The information which you

  • a) pay attention to
  • b) encode (well)

Take your watch as an example (or a jacket). How well can you describe it without looking at it? Usually, the results are lousy. Sure, you remember the general shape and maybe a couple of details. But that’s it. And there is a good reason for that. You didn’t pay attention. You don’t need this info to enjoy your watch or jacket after all.

What about encoding?

Let’s take a look at the following medical term: medial epicondylitis. The mere staring at this term won’t magically transfer this knowledge into your long-term memory.

What about repeating it over and over again? Well, it’s as effective as putting your shoes on your hands when you’re cold but why not?

So how can you encode this term well?

You might have noticed that the word “medial” consists of “me” and “dial”. “Con” in Spanish means “with”. What’s more, you pronounce “dylit” like “delight”.

I can imagine myself saying “me dial” a number. If I want to do anything epic con delight in my life I might need this hand. Not bad, right? But we can also step it up and imagine the pain and the location where the said call takes place.

And that’s actually how mnemonics work! You dissect a word, create a story and place it in some location.

2. Interference

 

This theory says that information in long-term memory may become confused or combined with other information during encoding thus warping or disrupting memories.

It seems that forgetting happens because memories interfere with and disrupt one another (Baddeley, 1999) There are two ways in which interference can cause forgetting:

  • Proactive interference is when an old memory makes it more difficult or impossible to remember a new memory.
  • Retroactive interference occurs when new information interferes with your ability to remember previously learned information.

That’s why it is really difficult to learn two languages which are similar. The brain quickly becomes confused and start mixing everything up. A good piece of advice is to space learning of similar information over a longer period of time.

Mnemonics come in very handy again. When you precisely encode information, the possibility of interference occurrence is greatly decreased.

3. Retrieval Failure

 

There are many theories which explain why we are often unable to access information. One of the most popular is the decay theory. The theory has it that a memory trace is created every time a new memory is formed.

With the passing of time, these memory traces begin to fade and disappear. If the information is not retrieved and rehearsed, it will eventually be lost. Of course, the greater the interval time between the time when the event from happening and the time when we try to remember, the bigger a chance of memory being lost.

It’s worth remembering that some memories are context or state dependent. They are hard to access when there are no appropriate retrieval cues

Consolidation

The simplest solution to this problem is simply consolidation. When we learn new information, a certain amount of time is necessary for changes in the nervous system to occur – the aforementioned consolidation process – so that it is properly absorbed. The information moves from short-term memory to the more permanent long-term memory (read more about how to improve your short-term memory).

Mnemonics can help with this problem as well. Storing information in certain locations makes it easy to access regardless of retrieval cues. But you still have to remember about consolidation. There is no shortcut here.

4. Your health and emotional state

 

I guess it’s stating the obvious but when you’re stressed, tired or in a bad shape, your retrieval and processing capabilities (and retention) gets worse. Usually, it goes together with worsened concentration.

The remedy is quite easy here. Get a good night sleep, eat well and don’t get stressed too much.
Gee, if only life was that easy.

Do you have any stories of how your memory back-stabbed you when you needed it the most? Let me know!

 

How To Memorize Grammatical Gender With Use of Mnemonics

How to memorize grammatical gender

 

I have the greatest pleasure to introduce my friend and ex-student – Mariusz who I had the honor to teach (Swedish) not so long ago.

Mariusz started his journey with Swedish in March and thanks to the super effective mix of grit, right methods and mnemonics got to (almost) B2 level at Swedish. The level was assessed by one of the language schools in our hometown at the beginning of October.

How fast is that? Pretty damn fast if you ask me! Especially since he had only a 1,5 h lesson once per week for just 4 months!

Warning: if you’re new to the world of mnemonics, please do not think that we’re having a really bad, acid-induced trip. Instead click here to hop on the list and get your own 7-part mnemonics course.

Without further ado – enter Mariusz!

How to memorize grammatical genders with use of mnemonics

 

Come along for a stroll! How I memorized Swedish A1 level ett-gender nouns. It is known that there are only two grammatic genders in Swedish and they are described with their proper indefinite articles –  ‘en‘ or ‘ett‘.

The first one covers, depending on sources, about 75% of all the nouns, while the other the remaining 25%. It was obvious, that with the aim to pick always the correct one, it’s sufficient to memorize the smaller group of nouns. So I made use of mnemonics.

I’m not certain why but from the very beginning I have already imagined the en-nouns as green and the ett-nouns as light blue, particularly while revising vocab with Anki, and I colored at least the ‘ett’ ones.

As I was wading through, at first, quite big amounts of upcoming words and the number of the blue ones began to grow, I felt the need to arrange them, preferably into one vast made-up Loci. Then I created a picture of a seaside in my memory.

The sea (ett hav) seemed to fit my needs the best because the only bigger blue objects that I came up with were the sky or the planet Earth, too vast to take up a virtual walk along. So I landed by the Baltic Sea on a beach I am familiar with because I’ve spent my holidays there many times, taking long runs in the sand in early mornings.

Having appeared there once again, I saw in front of me the extensive mass of water reaching up to the horizon on my left and right. Although the sand was yellowish, I realized that after every step I took left a footstep (ett spår) illuminating with bluish light (ett ljus). Cool, isn’t it? I looked around hastily and to my surprise, I spotted even more phantom-like bluish objects.

The nearest one was a table (ett bord ) with my Swedish grammar book, opened on a site with a test (ett test). I always feel pain (ett ont) when I make a mistake (ett fel). I left it as I found it and continued to explore the surroundings to find something more inspirational.

Not too far away, more or less halfway of the left-side shore, there was a stage on which a music band played a sort of heavy metal, sounding similar to the Polish metal band… oh, I forgot, what was its name (ett namn)?

 

Seepsteen (Sias van Schalkwyk)

Seepsteen (Sias van Schalkwyk)

 

Oh yes, the name was Vader. Maybe to spice up the atmosphere of the heavy and furious songs, the weather (ett väder) at the venue was about to get bad (such a shame!), as I saw a big grey-blue cloud (ett moln) thereover.I gave the gig a better look.

Seemingly, the frontman had a sibling (ett syskon) in the same band, but the difference between them was that, unlike his brother, he wore a weird blue beard (ett skägg).

Maybe that’s because he’d always had a big ego (ett stort ego) and wanted to show off? Or simply got crazy on drugs (ett knark). Apart from that, whenever he didn’t sing he sipped his beer (ett öl). And…

If you would like to know how my short story continues, I can only say, that on the right side of the beach one can see a big company (ett företag) which processes the water (ett vatten)  to make it clear again before letting it into the sea.

Not to mention other countless objects.  If one day there’s no more place available at the seaside, I’ll certainly check what’s behind the distant tip of land so that I could go on with my travel. And you’re invited too!

Mariusz Hebdzynski

Let’s take a look

 

That’s not a place to sugarcoat anything so let’s get straight to the meat of the matter.

What was right:

What was wrong:

  • very little action and emotions

Have you noticed how static Mariusz’s picture is? There is very little action and far too few emotions. If you see a book which reminds of your mistakes you should punch it time and time again! Guys on the stage should go crazy since they are likely to be stoned!

Action and emotions are the mortar of your associations. If used appropriately, they can increase your recall manyfold.

  • too few distinctive places

I don’t know exactly how the said beach looks like. But the thing about beaches is that there are not many distinctive places there to place many pictures. It might work assuming that we don’t flood such a scene with too many associations but in the long run it’s not good enough.

Variations of this method

 

You might say that the example used in this article was pretty useless, after all, there were only two articles. What about German where there are 3 of them?! Or about Russian where the grammatical gender is not even specified by an article?!

Well, the main principle doesn’t change – we just need two distinctive locations to memorize the grammatical gender. Logically, the nouns which don’t appear in any of the stories placed in these locations must fall into the third gender category – piece of cake!

That’s it, have fun and let me know if you decide to use this method (or have used it already!).