The Biggest Problem in Learning Effectively and Memorizing Tons of Information

biggest problem in learning effectively

Many people dream of having a fantastic memory. Who can blame them! Being able to recall information on a whim seems to be the hallmark of every genius. 

Yet, not many get close to this lofty goal. In truth, barely a handful of people acquire even decent expertise in their field of interest.

The reasons are plenty, and everyone seems to have their own explanations. Some blame disinterest and apathy of learners, while others claim that our brains aren't created to hold significant amounts of information. While I can't offer any advice in this article for dealing with the former, I can help you with the latter.

Let's see what the biggest problem in learning effectively and memorizing tons of information is and how to overcome it.


How Much Information Can We Possibly Remember?


Many people are under the impression that the capacity of our memory is the biggest problem in learning effectively. That's a myth. Unfortunately, if you try to google the answer to how much we can remember, you will get information that is outdated and doesn't reflect the state of our current knowledge.

That's why I will try to give you a number based on my research.


Previous studies about the capacity of our memory


A recent study from 2009 published by Azevedo and colleagues estimated that there approximately 86 billion neurons in the human brain. We also know that each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than an eighty-six trillion connections. Neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time. At the same time, a couple of years ago, scientists from the Salk Institute discovered that instead of 3 synapse sizes, as we previously believed, there are 26 discrete sizes. 

They can change over a span of a few minutes, meaning that the brain might have a far greater capacity for storing information than previously thought. 

In the past, professor Paul Reber from Northwestern University, who at the time believed there were about one billion neurons in the brain, estimated our brain's memory capacity at about 1,5 petabytes.

So what happens if we include the information mentioned above?

 

We would arrive at the number closer to 215 petabytes, and that is without taking into consideration additional synapse sizes. If we include 23 of the newly discovered synapse sizes, knowing that in computer terms, this value corresponds to about 4.7 "bits" of information per synapse, we will get about 860 petabytes.

One petabyte is 10^15 bytes of digital information.

As you can see, that's a scary number. However, it tells us one important thing. 

Your memory's capacity is not what's holding you back. You could learn a new piece of information every second of your life and live to be 500 years old, and you wouldn't even scrape the surface of what's possible.


A Great Example of the Vast Capacity of Our Memory


There is a good chance you've heard of Kim Peek. He was a savant and the inspiration for the character Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man. Many sources claim that he could memorize between 95-98% of almost any book by reading it in about 1 hour. According to The Times newspaper, he could accurately recall the contents of at least 12,000 books.

Is there any exaggeration in his feats? Highly unlikely. There are lots of videos on YouTube that showcase his fantastic memory. Here is an excellent documentary about him. Well worth your time.

Of course, it's easy to dismiss what he was capable of because of being autistic. Nevertheless, I think that what was unusual was his ability to access all the information, not how much he remembered.


Other Problems in Learning Effectively That I Will Omit


Before I get to the meat of the matter, I want you to know that other common learning obstacles may stand in your way.

The most important of them being:

Why have I decided to leave them off? Truth be told, if you used spaced repetition software, you could ameliorate most of these pains. If you think you don't need these programs then, no offense, but you're like one of those guys who think they are at the nudist beach only to wake up naked at a local playground when their acid wears off. In other words, — you might be a tiny bit delusional.

Read more: Here Is Why Most Spaced Repetition Apps Don’t Work and How to Fix It


What's the Biggest Problem in Learning Effectively?


Remembering is supposed to increase our efficiency in dealing with situations that occur in our lives. 

Think about something as simple as seeing a person with a knife. It's doubtful that your reaction would be anything else than fleeing like a challenged dodo bird. 


In other words, in the perfect world, certain situations or information should trigger our pre-created scripts as a response.


For that reason,

the biggest problem in learning effectively is our inability to connect information into meaningful models (i.e., schemas), which can be accessed easily.

Notice that it doesn't matter how much you try to cling to different information. Most of them fade into nothingness after a relatively short time.

So the real question is, how should you use your memory capacity to remember different information you confront to increase your efficiency with dealing with those situations.


What's Required for a Skill to Be Used?


obstacle in learning

Three things are required for a skill to be used or a behavior to occur (Fogg 2009):

  1. 1
    Motivation
  2. 2
    Ability
  3. 3
    A trigger

1. Motivation

In our case, I assume that you're not plagued by apathy, and you want to use and apply your knowledge. That leaves us with the remaining two requirements.

2. Ability

Ability can be understood as either knowledge, i.e., possessing the right information or psychomotor skills. I have argued that you can't think effectively without the right information. And no — being able to google something doesn't count. Failure to meet this condition will lead you to build automatic responses based on random pieces of information. As a result, both the quality of your thinking and its effects will be subpar. Garbage in, garbage out.

Read more: The Magnet Theory — Why Deep Understanding And Problem-Solving Starts With Memorization.

3. Trigger

A trigger can be understood by one or more things that set off your ability. 


What can be a trigger?

Almost everything can be the trigger. However, they are based on a combination of one of the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) and emotional state.

The problem is that not everything should act as a trigger. You don't want to be standing in an elevator and release your inner surgeon. Nor do you want to sit on the beach and suddenly recall how to program in Python. Triggers should be perfectly tied to a given informational set.

There is one more element missing to understand these interrelations fully.

How Is Our Knowledge Organized?


If you want to learn how to overcome the biggest problem in learning effectively, you must first understand the basics of how our knowledge is organized.

The schema theory is probably the best way to do it.


The Schema theory claims that what we currently remember is affected by our background knowledge (i.e., what we already know). In other words, our prior knowledge can significantly influence our current knowledge.

"According to this theory, the knowledge we have stored in memory is organized as a set of schemas, or knowledge structures, which represent generic knowledge about objects, situations, events, or actions that have been acquired from past experience."

"Schemas represent all kinds of generic knowledge from simple knowledge, such as the shape of the letter ``A'', for example, to more complex knowledge such as knowledge about political ideologies or astrophysics. Like the action schemas, knowledge schemas may be linked together into related sets, with superordinate and subordinate schemas. So, for example, the schema for ``table'' would be linked to schemas for ``furniture'', ``rooms'', and ``houses''. 

A schema has slots that may be filled with fixed compulsory values, or with variable optional values. A schema for a boat would have ``boats'' as a fixed value, but has ``oars'' and ``engine'' as variable values. 

Schemas also supply default values. These are the most probable or typical values. If you are thinking about some particular boat, and you cannot remember the color of the sails, the boat schema might supply the default value ``white'' as being the most probable value to fill the color slot. 

``Schema'' is used as a general term to cover all kinds of general knowledge." - Gillian Cohen - Memory in the Real World

`Schema'' is used as a general term to cover all kinds of general knowledge. However, we can also differentiate more specified versions of schema which are called scripts.

Scripts consist of general knowledge about particular kinds of events, or frames, which consist of knowledge about the properties of particular objects or locations (Cohen).

How to Overcome the Biggest Problem in Learning Effectively


1. Do not learn isolated pieces of information


My quest to become competent in lots of different domains started many moons ago. What I couldn't figure out for a long time was why I regularly failed to recall information I previously memorized. It didn't matter if I relied on mnemonics or spaced repetition software. A couple of weeks passed, and all the knowledge evaporated. It took me much time to understand that isolated pieces of information are nonsensical to the brain and have little to no practical value


An example of fallacious reasoning based on isolated bits of information

In one of our discussions my son's nursery teachers mentioned fleetingly that if a child suffers from a persistent cough, it's undoubtedly a sign of parasitic infection. 


Can it be true?

Absolutely. Some intestinal parasites (e.g., Ascaris) can lay eggs that might end up in your lungs. We also know some species of parasites that can be found exclusively in the lungs. However, does one piece of information warrant such a diagnosis? Absolutely not.

Dozens of things can cause a cough. Saying that it's X or Y based on one piece of information doesn't have much sense (or it's plain stupid). 

For example, if it was a parasitic infection, then in this region of the world, there is a chance it would rather be some intestinal parasite whose eggs migrated to lungs. In that case, way before the occurrence of cough, we could notice some other symptoms, e.g.,  gastric discomfort, rash, diarrhea, etc. Even then, we would need to run further tests to narrow down possible causes. 

Conclusions based on isolated pieces of information are almost always fallacious.

2. Provide relevancy to the information you learn


My past self was not only failing to understand that remembering isolated pieces of information is useless. I also couldn't wrap my head around one simple fact.

Abstract information gets forgotten amazingly fast

If this abstract information is also isolated, then the forgetting will happen almost immediately.

Your goal as a learner is to make this information as useful as it's possible. It should be a part of your reality. We didn't evolve to remember rubbish information. Whatever we learned or remembered was usually necessary for our survival. This was and is true for many things like remembering what not to eat, how to perform certain skills to earn your living, etc.

Whenever I teach medical professionals, they are always baffled why I remember some seemingly trivial information. The disappointingly dull answer is - I brute-force myself to make relevant connections.

Example - biophotons:

When I was learning about biophotons, one of the things I learned is that their emission is a type of bioluminescence. It can theoretically be triggered by reactive oxygen species. That led to a forced, but funny (for me!) conclusion that I turned into a flashcard:

Q: How can I use biophotons to light up my room?

A: eat lots of mercury (= inflammation)

The logic being that this action would trigger a massive inflammatory reaction. Is it exactly true? Not exactly, but it helped to cement the concept in my head, and this is what truly counts. 

Read more: How Pretending To Be An Assassin Can Help You Remember Poisons In Food Better.

3. Categorize your knowledge into relevant scripts


You already know that your abilities need triggers. Hence, your goal is to categorize your knowledge into relevant scripts which should get triggered under the right circumstances. Even then, it's easy to overdo it by trying to squeeze too much information into one script, which leads to cue overload.

Cue overload is the phenomenon wherein the slower and less accurate recall is caused by too many associative links (the fan effect; Anderson, 1983a).

Example - lie detection:

Many people, quite naively believe that one gesture is enough to spot a liar — quite the contrary. Real experts usually analyze body language based on clusters of different gestures and cues

In that case, your ability, i.e., analyzing body language or getting suspicious, would be triggered by a specific combination of cues. Without those cues, your abilities won't get activated. It's not like your amazing skills will be activated around the clock.

It's funny to hear some body language experts claiming that their skills are like the curse, and they can't seem to turn it off. I can almost see them watching some low-budget erotic movie thinking, "hmm, judging by the cues he is not a real plumber, and he didn't come here to unclog the pipes".

4. Create many different scripts for every piece of information


The Biggest Problem in Learning Effectively and Memorizing Tons of Information


Just like memorizing isolated information is nonsensical, so is combining it into one or only a few scripts.

Any kind of information is by its nature multi-faceted. You can't expect one script to give you a complete picture.


You should do your best to combine those different facets into many scripts, whereas each one of them presents you with a different perspective. The more scripts you create, the more complete and original your thinking will be.


The Biggest Problem in Learning Effectively - Summary


Way too many people believe that the capacity of our memory is the main problem in learning effectively and remembering a lot. It's not the case, but I do understand this line of reasoning. If you believe that remembering a lot is not possible, then you won't make an effort, and you will end up being right (see self-fulfilling prophecy).


The truth is that you can be an expert in many different areas (or at least very competent) if you only learn how to acquire information and turn it into relevant scripts. Unfortunately, no amount of reading will get you close enough to your goal. It's all about the conscious effort and following the plan.


How to Learn Effectively and Memorize a Lot

  1. Don't learn isolated information
  2. Provide relevancy to the information you learn
  3. Categorize your knowledge into relevant schemas that get triggered by the right cues
  4. Create many different scripts for every piece of information

Do you want to share your own experience with memorizing a lot? Leave me a comment!


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It's enough to download ANKI, and you're good to go.

 

 

Listening Comprehension in a Foreign Language – 12 Ways to Improve It

Listening comprehension in a foreign language

Improving listening comprehension in a foreign language is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most challenging skills to master. The amount of time needed to understand a language is enormous. Unfortunately, not everyone succeeds in this field.

Not everyone reaches the finish line and has the pleasure of saying, "I understand most of everything I hear."

On the contrary, the bodies of poor souls who surrendered along the way colorfully decorate the entire length of the route. Everyone has their theory of why they failed.
"My ears are too small." 
"I can't listen to German for long because I start to sob."

And who knows, maybe the above is partially true. However, these reasons are not as important as the list you are about to see.

Here are 12 reasons why you have trouble understanding a foreign language.


LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM

Understanding a spoken word is complex. It's affected by many factors.

LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM

1. Limited vocabulary

7. Lack of concentration

2. Problems with pronunciation

8. Problems with interpretation/culture

3. Trying to understand everything

9. Problems with natural (i.e. colloquial) speech

4. Insufficient listening practice

10. No visual support

5. Too fast a pace

11. Passive listening

6. One-time listening to recordings

12. Insufficient knowledge of grammar

1. LIMITED VOCABULARY 


Insufficient knowledge of vocabulary is one of the main culprits. No wonder you have trouble understanding if your vocabulary is very limited! As you listen, each word and phrase at your disposal becomes your foothold.

Think of it as a puzzle - the more elements that fill the outline of an image, the easier it is to see what the picture is. Similarly, when listening, each subsequent word allows you to understand better what the general meaning/message of a given conversation or recording is.

There are two significant milestones for most languages:


1st milestone - 3000 words

Knowledge of the 3000 most frequently used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 95% of texts and conversations (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). It is worth remembering that, in this case, we count one word as all variations of a given word and its family of words.

For example: "run," "running," and "runner" are counted as one word by this classification.


2nd milestone  - 5000 words

Knowledge of the 5000 most-used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 98% of texts and conversations ((Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).


The minimum vocabulary required to listen effectively

If you want to be sure that you will understand to some degree recordings and conversations of all kinds, you should aim for a vocabulary of at least 2.5 - 3 thousand words. But as always - the more, the better!

So you don't know that many words? Come on, get to work! Don't be lazy!


2) PROBLEMS WITH PRONUNCIATION


Listening comprehension in a foreign language 12 ways to improve it



Issues with pronunciations are one of the hidden reasons why your understanding suffers; hence, many people are entirely unaware of it. 


How does sloppy pronunciation cause difficulties in understanding?


(I) Incorrect phonological representations

Each of us, as part of the so-called phonological memory, uses phonological representations.


A phonological representation is the way you think a word sounds.


If your phonological representation largely coincides with the actual pronunciation of the word, then everything is fine, and your brain should recognize the word.

It is worse when your interpretation of the pronunciation of a word completely diverges from its actual pronunciation. The result is a complete lack of understanding, although you often KNOW the word (Rixon 1986: 38). You pronounce it in your "specific" way.

For example, if in your head the pronunciation of the word "gist" sounds like / gɪst / with a hard " g," then you may not completely understand it when you hear its correct pronunciation / ʤɪst/.


(II) Lack of knowledge about assimilations


A separate problem is the so-called phonetic assimilation phenomenon


Phonetic similarity (phonetic assimilation) - a common phonetic process in which a sound changes to be more similar to a neighboring sound. The essence of every phonetic preference is coarticulation, whose mechanism of action is the influence of a given sound on the articulation of sounds that are adjacent to it. - Wikipedia

Assimilation simply means that the pronunciation of a letter can change due to the letter before or after it.

A typical example of assimilation in a language is when a word ends in a consonant, and the other begins in a vowel. Most often, such words "merge" in pronunciation and are pronounced as one.


E.g. "It is", which we pronounce as / ɪtɪz / /, not / ɪt ɪz /.


How to deal with these problems?


I) Try to accurately internalize the pronunciation of the words you learn

It will affect not only your ability to understand, but also your ability to learn vocabulary. As research shows (Fowler, 1991; Pierce et al. 2017), phonological representations can affect your coding ability, which is an early step in the process of learning and remembering words.


II) Learn the pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet of the language

I know that most people won't do it, but I recommend delving into the sounds of your target language.

It's worth knowing which of them are in your native language and which are not. With this knowledge, you'll know which ones require your special attention.

Read more: Master Pronunciation of a Foreign Language.


3) TRYING TO UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING

Great, you're ambitious, but the level of ambition should be in proportion to your current level of capability. Efforts to understand everything do not make sense if, after the first hearing of the recording, you do not know whether the conversation is about politics or whether they offend you. 

Listen for the gist, and only then for details - it is the best strategy.

Attempts to pick out individual words by ear make sense only when you can understand the overall meaning of the recording.

If you have not reached this point yet, it is worth listening to the recording again.


4) INSUFFICIENT LISTENING PRACTICE


Good listening comprehension in a foreign language is the most time-consuming language competence. Don't expect 20 minutes of listening a day to work wonders. You should aim for a minimum of 1 hour of listening per day!

I can already hear those moans: "Well, he's crazy! More than 20 minutes! Lord, I have a life! "

Contrary to appearances, it is not so difficult. All you have to do is plan your day well. After all, you can listen to music or recordings almost anywhere! At home, gym, shop, commuting, and often even at work!


5) TOO FAST A PACE



Many people feel that one of the biggest obstacles preventing them from understanding a language well is the high rate of influx when listening.A constant stream of words creates the impression that you always miss essential information, which can make you unnecessarily stressed. Fortunately, it is quite easy to get rid of this problem these days.


(I) Manipulation of the recording speed

Almost every movie and music player nowadays is equipped with speed control. YouTube is a good example. If the average tempo of the recording prevents you from understanding, lower the speed to 0.75. You should immediately notice a big difference.


(II) The word "please."

In the case of conversations with foreigners, the matter is even more straightforward - ask them to speak more slowly and clearly. Most people shouldn't have any problem with this.

They don't want to do it? A quick blow to the temple should subtly encourage them to cooperate.


6) ONE-TIME LISTENING TO RECORDINGS 


Repeated listening to a given recording or conversation is not always possible. However, if it's possible, you should always listen to your materials more than once if you have trouble understanding them.

Here's a simple plan you can stick to:


(I)) Learners at levels A1-B1


Find a recording/video on YT or something similar, and listen to it over and over again.


When should you move to the next recording?

When you understand about 80% of the recording, i.e., you grasp its gist - hunting for particular words at this level is pointless. 

However, it is essential to become familiar with the prosody of the language and to improve the ability to capture the most common words in a given language.

It is a particularly useful listening system when you want to learn a language for which there are practically no listening materials.

At the time when I was doing my first major language project (learning Swedish from scratch to a level B2 in about four months - a full story here), I could listen to one radio program, lasting about 10 minutes, even a dozen times. This is how long the phonetic identification of "theoretically" simple words that I  "theoretically" knew took me.


(II) Learners at B2-C2 levels

Here the matter is much simpler. Assuming that you are indeed at this language level, you should know between 3 and 5 thousand words. Thus, your understanding should range between 95-98%.

Since you are already quite advanced, repeatedly listening to a given recording does not make sense, After all, you are already able to identify the essential words appearing in a given language. At these levels, the most important thing is to listen to as many language users as possible to get used to the variety of accents and language patterns.


7) LACK OF CONCENTRATION


Sometimes, problems with understanding are dictated by nothing else but a good old lack of concentration. Each of us knows the moment when, after 2 minutes of listening to the interlocutor, you completely sail away to ride on a pony in a happy place in your head, while saliva begins to gather in the corners of your mouth.

Where does this state come from, and how to remedy it?


(I) Ditch boring recordings

Listen, you are not in an interrogation room in Guantánamo. Nobody compels you to listen to things you don't enjoy. If the subject of the recording causes your eyes to spasm, then change it. Simple logic works here - the more you like a topic, the more willingly and longer you will listen to it.


b) Chunk your listening sessions

There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing.

If the recording is too long, break up your listening session into many parts.

For example, instead of watching one 40-minute episode of a series in one hearing, try to do it in two or three sessions. Everything according to the slogan: "A large elephant is eaten piece by piece."


(III) Avoid adverse conditions

Sometimes the conditions are not conducive to listening. Maybe a bunch of airheads are rehearsing Tibetan throat singing as a demonstration in defense of the rights of bakers. 

In this situation, there are only two things you can do, depending on the nature of the problem:

  • find a quiet place to listen
  • Keep on listening

If this does not help, get into a fight with some guy in the YT comment section to vent off.


8) PROBLEMS WITH INTERPRETATION / CULTURE




Sometimes the culprit of communication problems is the cultural gulf between interlocutors (Underwood). Interestingly, this problem also occurs among native speakers of a given language. There is no simple remedy.

The only solution is to continually broaden your horizons and explore the culture from which your target language originates.

A classic example of misunderstanding is an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Doing so in the Middle East, West Africa, and South America is a delicate suggestion that you intend to violate the dignity of your interlocutor's rectum. A classic faux pas!


9) PROBLEMS WITH NATURAL (I.E., COLLOQUIAL) SPEECH


The difference between the natural, colloquial language spoken by native speakers and the one that is usually taught in language schools, or which can be heard on the radio, can be huge (Hedge).

In real life, a situation where the interlocutor speaks to you very slowly it clearly shows that:


  • a) he will have a stroke soon
  • b) thinks you're "special" and it's not a compliment!


(I) Various accents and dialects

Another problem in this category is the variety of accents and dialects. Unfortunately, the uniformity of languages varies dramatically.

For example, in Germanic languages (e.g. English, German, Swedish, Dutch), after driving only 20 km, we may come across a completely different dialect.

For many, this is a huge shock. They spend years convinced that they understand the language well, and suddenly it feels as if they were starting all over again!

A great example is the Scottish accent, which causes a lot of problems for many people who comprehend classic English very well.

P.S. Here is some stand-up of the most famous Scottish stand-up comedian, Frankie Boyle: YouTube (heads up - it's full of swear words!)

If you want to be sure that you will be able to understand native speakers without significant problems, you need to diversify the materials you listen to. It should always be a mix containing both colloquial (e.g., videos on YT) and more formal speech (radio, news, etc.).

Listening to different dialects is not necessary unless you need the ability to understand them for some reason (i.e., moving to a specific region).


10) NO VISUAL SUPPORT


In real life, communication with our potential interlocutor is more abundant with body language or facial expressions. The value of this additional information cannot be overestimated, as it often helps to understand the meaning of the speech, despite the lack of understanding of individual words.

It would be a mistake to limit listening only to the radio or podcasts.

It's worth enlarging your listening toolbox to include audio-visual materials  (e.g., TV series or YouTube videos). They will not only speed up your pace of understanding but will also make learning more enjoyable!

11) PASSIVE LISTENING



Many people equate listening to a purely passive activity. Nothing needed but crash in your armchair and start your favorite podcast! Of course, there is nothing wrong with it, and I usually prefer this type of listening. But, there is an alternative - active listening.

While listening actively, you should try to make a note of the recording text and words you do not know. Although this is a time-consuming process, it has a positive impact on your understanding.


12) INSUFFICIENT KNOWLEDGE OF GRAMMAR


Lack of (good) knowledge of grammar is one of the last obstacles on your path to full understanding.

It is interesting that the lack of knowledge of grammar does not prevent complete understanding, but only makes it difficult.

I'm sure you know people who went abroad, and after 5 years they still don't know the language. Despite this, they can communicate with native speakers at a basic level, using the requisite words, gestures, and the occasional grunts.

I like to explain this phenomenon, and also the role of grammar in understanding, using the following metaphor.

Imagine that words are building blocks, and grammar is nothing more than a logical mortar holding them together. When we have both, we can create a beautiful "palace of comprehension." If the mortar is missing, the only thing we can do is to stack the bricks on top of one another. This way, we will build "something," but it will certainly not be a palace - more like a swanky privy.

Read more: Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice.


IMPROVING LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - SUMMARY



As you can see, problems with listening comprehension in a foreign language are very diverse. Therefore, to effectively benefit from the advice contained in this article, you should analyze your particular situation as accurately as possible and choose the tips that apply to you.

Regardless, for many language learners, the two main factors which usually impair their listening comprehension are limited vocabulary and insufficient listening practice - these are always the right places to start.

Good luck!


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It's enough to download ANKI, and you're good to go. Memorizing things like "phonetic associations"  and such can be really easy!

 

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 fantastic memory feats of mnemonists – memorizing decks of cards or thousands of digits. And all this seemingly effortlessly.

Mnemonics have the power to stimulate the imagination. 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 actual effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics and master my memory.

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics In Learning – My First Experience

 

I still remember the first time when I had to use mnemonics practically. 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 coursebook. Somehow the notion of the retake blissfully slipped my mind.
One day I was sitting in the corridor, listening to music and reading a book. Suddenly I heard a muffled voice, “aren’t you preparing for the exam?”. “What exam?” I looked up 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 exposure to back up the theory.
Desperate times call for drastic measures. I rolled up my sleeves and started learning. A bit over three 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 a 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 absorb tons of information effortlessly.
“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 explain what mnemonics are quickly. In short, mnemonics are devices to aid our overburdened memory.

They are used to facilitate efficient 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 the 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.

Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning – an Overview of the Scientific Literature

 

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 carefully examined ten 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 conclude 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 a 1774-page Chinese-English dictionary by heart (in case you wonder – it took him almost six 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 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 which 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 The Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning

 

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

a) Statistical sample is not representative

 

Do you know how to recognize bad, bullshit science at 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 the usual control group against mnemonics-using students is? Rote learning students.

Ugh, it’s like watching some bizarre boxing match. “Ladies and gentlemen, 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 tough 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 natural social settings and asked to memorize different sets of data.

This is a very unusual experience that 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. It’s rarely spread over more than 3-4 weeks. As you will soon read, this is why most studies prove the effectiveness and usefulness 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.

Are mnemonics useless?

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 examined the 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. It 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 to believe. Don’t worry. I also felt disillusioned. And I had good reasons.

Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning – My Experiments 

 

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 the 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 the effectiveness of mnemonics. I have memorized tables, law regulations, and checked my recall at various intervals.
T
he effect was always the same — high recall rate at the beginning of my experiments. The feeling of overwhelming joy always accompanied these early results. 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 four weeks.

And this is precisely why most scientific studies seemingly prove the effectiveness of mnemonics. They test them in labs in short periods.

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 the 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 the 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 an excellent 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 boost all these three aspects of your short-term memory significantly.

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 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 practicing right away

You know the theory of how to play the piano or how to program. It’s high time you started 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 a 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.

Effectiveness and Usefulness of 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 essential words with mnemonics
  • 4) I started producing a lot of sentences by talking to myself and by using the words and mentioned above 
  • 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 the quickest way to learn a language with mnemonics is, I show them this plan. I also tell them to use ANKI or combine those strategies.

Either way, since learning with mnemonics lacks context, I would avoid using it for language learning unless you can produce lots of sentences with the vocabulary you have memorized this way,

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 data 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!

Effectiveness and Usefulness Of Mnemonics – Summary

 

Mnemonics have to be one of the most misunderstood learning tools of all time. They are usually sold as the ultimate solution for all kinds of learning problems, which is far from the truth. As you can see, effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics can be amazing but only provided that you understand precisely 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.

Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. Memorize, among others, what working memory is, what are limitations of mnemonics, and much more!