I love knowledge.
That may sound a little silly but it is entirely true. I love knowing things — from simple trivia to things that will actually have a directly beneficial impact on my life. I also love the idea of “hacking” ways to make learning quicker and easier.
For the past few weeks I have been learning the capital city of every country in the world. I have worked my way through Europe (easy), the Americas (not too bad), Asia (getting tough) and Africa (yikes) so far, with Australasia left to do. This is not something I would have endeavored to do were it not for a simple piece of open source software that makes learning exponentially easier. In this post I want to introduce you to this software and explain why it is so effective at helping you to learn more.
I was first formally introduced to the concept of spaced repetition learning by Derek Sivers in this article: Memorizing a programming language using spaced repetition software. It’s a little heavy and you don’t need to read it if you don’t want to but the principle is pretty simple: the human brain is far better at remembering things through repeat exposure.
It’s the same reason why when you crammed for an exam in school, you’d forgotten most of what you had learned a week later. The key to retaining information is consistent exposure over an extended period of time — that is how it is transferred from your short term (temporary) memory to long term (permanent) memory.
You’ll have to forgive me for my layman’s approach to this as I am no scientist, but I’m sure you get the gist. Take a look at the following image from Derek’s post for a graphical representation of the phenomenon of spaced repetition learning:
As you can see, if you remind yourself of a piece of information regularly, the chance of you remembering it is drastically improved. I have experienced this firsthand and can attest to the incredible power of spaced repetition learning — the simple principle of exposing yourself to the same piece of information periodically so that it is eventually lodged within your long term memory.
Creating any kind of manual system that easily facilitates spaced repetition learning is a huge hassle, which is why I have come to love an open source piece of software known as Anki. You may be wondering what it does. Well, do you remember those flash cards you used to study for exams with?
Anki basically operates as a computerized flash card system — one of the key improvements being that depending on how well you know the answer to any given question contained on a flash card, Anki can determine when you next see it (be it in 10 minutes, a day, a year, or any other period of time).
I have used Anki over the past month or so learn a huge amount of capital cities that were previously unknown to me — personal favorites being Greenland (Nuuk), Myanmar (Naypyidaw) and Brunei (Bandar Seri Begawan). It only takes 5-10 minutes per day and is great fun. In the future I plan to use it to learn any number of things — from US presidents to the notes on the grand staff:
Boosting Your Learning Ability by Association
Anki is fantastic for dramatically boosting your memorization abilities but I have found that combining it with association has resulted in an even greater effect.
I’m not going to go into too much detail here as the concept has been covered in more depth and by better-qualified people than me but the idea is to associate any new thing you learn with a memorable image or fact. I have used this to memorize a huge number of capital cities. Here are three examples:
- The capital of Sudan is Khartoum: the association is “my brother used to lived there” (as his old house in London was on Khartoum Road).
- The Judicical capital of South Africa is Bloemfontein: I imagine a bunch of judges crowded around a fountain with flowers blooming out of the waters.
- The capital of The Gambia is Banjul: I imagine Gambian banjo players wearing huge jewelled necklaces.
If you can create these kind of associations and/or memorable images the chances of retention are vastly improved. I can attest to that — the capital cities that I can’t think of anything to associate with are far more difficult to remember than the rest.
What Memorization Tips Do You Have?
There you have it folks — a couple of key steps I have taken to vastly improving my ability to memorize things.
But what about you — do you have your own techniques? Or do you have suggestions that can help improve spaced repetition or association? Let us know in the comments section below!