How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively – The Ultimate Test of Active Vocabulary

How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively


If you decide to learn a language, one of the most important decisions you can make is choosing the right learning strategy. This choice will either allow you to progress fast or break you mentally like a twig. It's the difference between moving forward in a Ferrari versus using your tears as a lubricant while you crawl.

In the past, I have written a lot about what factors affect vocabulary acquisition and how to tell decent or good language methods from the bad ones. However, people often mistakenly interpret their initial results with a given method as a sign that it truly works. It's like getting into an expensive SPA and seeing crap-stained walls with the graffiti "Steve was here". Disappointing, that is.

When it comes to increasing your passive vocabulary, it almost doesn't matter which strategy you choose - reading, learning flashcards, humming songs. They will all work, more or less, equally well.

However, testing whether your method of activating vocabulary is effective is way trickier. Let me show you how you can verify it and what you should be wary of.


How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively


2 types of recall


Considering that we're interested in testing whether you know your words actively, we must test your recall. In other words, we must know whether you can retrieve a word in your target language when you signal it to your brain during a conversation.

The first thing you need to know is that there are two types of recall.

  • free recall
  • cued recall

Free recall


Free recall is 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. There is no natural context which might trigger the words you know.

Free recall often displays evidence of primacy and recency effects. Simply put, if you have just finished your learning session and you can feel dozens of words thrumming in your head, you have just experienced recency effect. The information that you are exposed to at the of your studies is easier to recall. The same goes for the information you have contact with at the beginning of your session - that's the primacy effect.


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.

The word "cues", or contextual triggers, as I like to call them, are key concepts here.


Why Free Recall Is a Bad Measure of Your Ability to Remember


Anytime somebody switches to a new learning method, especially if their baseline was good, old-fashioned cramming, they might experience improved initial recall. Does it mean that they remember more long-term? Absolutely not, although but a few people are aware of this.

"Free recall exercises, are good measures of initial learning and remembering (Mayer, 2009)."

The word "initial" in this case is just a synonym for short-term learning. It gives you an illusion that knowledge has been acquired. However, once this illusion is confronted by precise measurements, it turns out that not much has been retained.


Free Recall and the Illusion of Knowledge


It's also a very common theme regarding many passive learning strategies like reading, restudying, highlighting, etc. The science knows beyond the shadow of the doubt that they are useless, but students still prefer them over battle-tested strategies like spaced repetition.

1. " For example, studies have shown that learners tend to prefer massing or cramming (table 1) over spacing because of the illusion that it is faster and more effective (Kornell, 2009). Technique Definition Massing Learning events are massed together in a short amount of time. Cramming Special form of massing; learning something intensely, often for the first time, in the days or hours before a test. Spacing Learning events are spaced apart over a longer period of time."

Source: Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, Robert A. Bjork - Memory (Handbook of Perception and Cognition

2. "Despite the clear superiority of the recall method over the restudy method, students report they rarely use it when they study. One reason is that it is simply more work to practice facts by arranging a self-test and recalling them. But there is also something else going on. Studying by recalling just doesn’t seem as effective to students as reading back through their notes. Suppose we ask college students to respond to this scenario:

Students in two different classes read the same one-page essay. In Class A, the students were asked to write down as much as they could remember after they finished. In Class B, the students were given an opportunity to restudy the passage after they finished. After one week, all students were tested on their memory for the passage. Which class would you expect to have the higher test scores?

When memory researcher Jennifer McCabe posed a similar question to college students, she found an overwhelming preference for the second strategy, restudying, even though this approach is known to be inferior to the recall method in this situation. Why did the students get it wrong? Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying. The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment. And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming, when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created."

Source: Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, Robert A. Bjork - Memory (Handbook of Perception and Cognition

The above echoes something I have been saying for years - if you simply assume that a learning strategy is effective just because you feel some initial benefits, it doesn't make it true. Unless you test it, it's better to suspend your opinion for some time.


Read more:

Example: intensive reading and initial learning

A good example of this phenomenon is intensive reading. It can certainly be a good and effective learning strategy for advances learners, but it's absolutely terrible for beginners.

Intensive reading led to more immediate vocabulary gains but spaced practice led to greater long‐term retention.

These "immediate vocabulary gains" are nothing more than a sign of initial learning. It shouldn't however be confused with long-term retention or, as I call it, the real learning. Sadly, most authors of language-related research don't seem to understand it.


What Is the Measure of Real Learning?



Once again, you can take almost any learning method and you will get (relatively) promising results short-term


However, only transfer tasks, such as using words in a conversation are a good measure of true learning (Mayer, 2009).

The More You Know, the Less You Feel Your Knowledge


Because your knowledge is context-dependent and context-activated. You might know thousands upon thousands of words but you won't "feel" them. Some of them may even stay buried in your mind for years before an opportunity arrives to use them. If you learn how to say "fibroma" in your target language, don't expect to use it unless you encounter a situation wherein you are forced to utilize this word.


This phenomenon can be explained by the concept of habituationThe more we commune with certain stimuli, the less we react to them. In other words, the more you use a language, the less you feel that you really know it. 

That's why some extremely competent language learners claim that they barely know a language at a B2 level, while pitiful beginners run around shouting that they are bilingual.


Read more: 

Stress - a Crucial Factor That Needs to Be Taken Into Consideration


Every good language learning methodology can be encapsulated by the Marines' adage:


"Train as you fight, fight as you train"


You should always to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. Unfortunately, regardless of how good your learning method is, it's almost impossible to incorporate a crucial factor for your ability to retrieve and know your words actively - stress.

Even if you can confidently reproduce words from ANKI at the comfort of your home, it doesn't mean that you will be able to use them in a conversation. Learning in such conditions is always, to some degree, detached from reality. You have time to contemplate the right answer, and everything feels pretty snugly and comfy.


Compare it with a typical conversation where:

  • there is background noise
  • you have to maintain eye contact
  • you need to focus on what your partner is saying 
  • you do your best to control your pronunciation
  • you have to actively reproduce hundreds of words and apply grammar to them
  • etc.

Or to put it plainly, lying under your blankie and doing ANKI is a bit less stressful than trying to recall some word in a conversation while a crazy German local is sparging you with his saliva and screaming "Was?! WAS?!".


How Stress Affects Your Brain


The Ultimate Test of Active Vocabulary


Talking is stressful, especially for introverts. The worst thing that stress does in such situations is that limits the activity of your frontal lobe. This part of the brain is responsible for, among, others, emotional expression, problem solving, memory, judgment and language.

Once the cortisol floods your brain, your body goes into the survival mode. You don't need your cool problem-solving skill or silver tongue then. You need to wrestle some huge-ass bear or get the hell out of there. That's why you lose access to any memories and skills that are not well-activated as they are the ones that cost the most energy to retrieve. Your body prioritizes muscle at this point, not ATP-devouring thinking.


"The prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the most evolved brain region—subserves our highest-order cognitive abilities. However, it is also the brain region that is most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure. Even quite mild acute uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities, and more prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in prefrontal dendrites." Source: Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function


At the same, stress doesn't seem to affect hippocampus so much. This region of the brain is typically linked to declarative memory, such as memory for events and facts (Squire, 2004; Squire & Zola, 1996). Interestingly, acute mild stress exposure has no effect on or can actually improve the memory consolidation functions of the hippocampus.


If your eyes glazed over after reading these quotes and you started questioning life choice that brought you to this article, let me assure you that they are extremely important. What these facts tell us is this:

"Non-consolidated information that hasn't been transferred to your long-term memory is extremely prone to any stress-related disturbances. On the other hand, long-term memories stored in your hippocampus are immune to mild and medium levels of stress".

That means that it doesn't matter how confidently you can recall words in the comfort of your home. If your vocabulary is not consolidated well enough, instead of producing fluent speech, it might turn out that you sound like a goat in the middle of the breeding period.

However, there is an easy way to fix it.


Want to Know Words Actively? Overlearn!



Items that are difficult to learn should be overlearned to ensure long term retention (Hulstijn, 2001).


Overlearning refers to practicing newly acquired skills beyond the point of initial mastery. In the context of languages, it means that even if you CAN recall a given word while doing ANKI, or in a conversation, but it takes you some time, you can still improve

How?

Unsurprisingly, you need to crank out more sentences with the word. Make sure that the contexts you use vary as well.

Try to recall the last time when you saw a baby (1,5 - 3-year old). Have you noticed that it keeps on repeating the same word over and over again in different sentences and collocations? That's what overlearning is all about. The easiest, or maybe the only way, to apply it properly is to talk to yourself. I dare say that no one would be patient enough to listen to this waffle while being sober.


It's enough that you find a question and start answering it in a very monotonous way while constantly reusing a problematic word.

Q: Do you like apples?

A: Yes, I like apples. Apples are sweet. I like sweet apples, and I eat them often. I don't eat them often when I can't buy them. I but them in a shop, however, if I don't buy them, then I don't eat them.

You get the gist. Children are a wonderful example of overlearning in action. For example, not that long time ago, my son got so excited by getting a piece of cheese that he repeated this word 53 times (yes, I counted).

53 freaking times. It made me feel lazy and question the effort I put into learning!


How Can I Tell That I Really Know Words Actively - Summary



Most language learning methodologies are plagued by one fatal flaw. They make you believe that being able to reproduce a word in the comfort of your home is equivalent to really knowing it.

Unfortunately, the truth is more complicated. First of all, the ultimate test of your active vocabulary is always a conversation. If you can comfortably recall your newly acquired vocabulary, then you can be relatively confident that your approach works. I say "relatively" because unless you test a given method, you can't be sure that it's precisely what makes you recall words effectively. Most of the time, it's the results of combining a couple of learning strategies. 

What's more, if your learning method doesn't involve context and active transfer of your vocabulary between contexts, you can rest assured that it sucks.

Last but not least, if your learning strategy does involve context and active information transfer them, you should put more effort into overlearning those problematic words.

Keep in mind that this is one of those situations where individual differences kick in. Some people are more immune to stress than others. As a consequence, the degree to which you will have to overlearn words will often depend on your genetics and environmental conditioning.


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 25 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


How to Deal With Overwhelm When Learning New Skills (i.e. What to Do When I Am Stuck)

HOW TO DEAL WITH OVERWHELM WHILE LEARNING (I.E., WHAT TO DO WHEN I AM STUCK)


I don't want to convince you that learning is easy. You know damn well that is complicated and full of challenges. Even when you master the process of effective knowledge acquisition, you might still run into different obstacles.

Knowing how to learn is one side of the equation. However, being able to sustain your progress over a long period is an entirely different beast. It's a mental war that you have to wage against your brain and the resistance this spongy thing will create,

This article is supposed to serve you as a life ring. Whenever you feel that you're drowning in the sea of overwhelm, revisit it to resurface. 

​​Feel free to use just one of these strategies or all of them. The most important thing is that you shake off any gloomy feelings and snap out of the state of inertia.


What You Need to Know About Overwhelm


The first you need to know about learning how to deal with overwhelm is that it leads to three results:

  • Avoidance
  • Passivity
  • Hectic behavior (e.g., switching from one task to another in a hasty manner)

They all have one thing in common - loss of control. If you ever notice any of these telltale signs, you should be alarmed. It means that you are losing the grip on your learning process. Instead of being organized and methodical, you start floundering.

Here are some of the strategies that may help you regain the feeling of control.


How To Deal With Overwhelm



1. Be primitive


First thing you need to be aware of is the concept of activation energy

Activation energy is the energy need to start performing an action. The higher it is, the less of a chance that you will start performing a given action.

That means that you should reduce any clutter that stands in your way and holds you back. It also concerns your general attitude. If you overthink everything, your activation energy will be high as well. You can't focus on the start of the action if dozens of thoughts and tasks are running through your head.

In other words, focus on primitive tasks.

Here is what I mean by that:
  • Too many resources? Reduce their number drastically!
  • Can't create a proper learning plan because it's getting too big? Screw it. Just grab the first book for beginners and start learning.
  • Too many reviews? Stop adding new flashcards temporarily or use Load Balancer plugin for ANKI
  • Can't maintain your current learning pace? Reduce it.
  • Too little time for learning today? Do 5 flashcards and call it a day.

Remember that ​ideally, you want to become a life-long learner. Any temporary setback is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The only thing you should care about is regularity.

Don't break the chain at all costs. Review even two flashcards if you're exhausted today or don't have time, but do something every day!


2. Identify the constraints


The theory of constraints states that in any system, there is one function, resource, process area, or process step that constrains the entire system's ability to deliver on its mission.

​​Sometimes it will mean that removing just one obstacle will unblock your potential. Other times, you will discover that after eliminating that one significant constraint, there will be another one looming underneath.

In any case, do your best to get rid of these obstacles. Once you do, your learning process should regain its previous smoothness.

Keep in mind that your constraints can be:

  • psychological (e.g., "I am too stupid to do it," passing away of your relative)
  • people (e.g., toxic persons in your life telling you that your project is silly or useless)
  • organizational (lousy time management skills, being unable to access some facilities)
  • health-related (too little sleep, bad diet, being sick)
  • material (not having appropriate tools)

Try to identify them on your own. If you can't figure it out, ask someone trust-worthy for helpSometimes it's easier to spot such problems when you're on the outside looking in.


3. Lower The Intensity


The intensity you can endure will always be a resultant of your:

  • character
  • motivation
  • health
  • frame of mind
  • habits
  • external conditions
  • and the current level of advancement in your field of expertise

It's impossible to tell anyone that they should learn X amount of hours per day or do Y flashcards per day. You can suggest a goal that will later be verified by reality.  In other words, good goals will be established only after some trial and error.

Regardless, if you notice that instead of jumping for joy at the thought of learning and discovering the unknown, you feel like somebody slapped you with a slimy mackerel, it's time to stop. It's time to rethink whether your learning pace is not too ambitious. 

Don't get me wrong - ambitions are great, but regularity always beats short-lived zeal. If your will to learn wanes, decrease your learning and practice intensity temporarily.

Try to find out what pace and effort level make you happy. And don't even try to think of it as a failure. You're making a wise and strategic decision that will guarantee your long-term success. 


4. Take more breaks


Very often, a simple solution to feeling overwhelmed is taking more breaks.


How to deal with overwhelm

How often should you do it? 

Once again, your endurance threshold will depend on all the variables mentioned in the previous point.

​​Sometimes you will discover that you can plug away for hours on end, and sometimes 20 minutes of tackling a complex topic will break you.

It's definitely true for me. I have noticed that my ability to write is very fragile. The slightest distractions will throw me off most of the time. What's more, very often, even 40 minutes of writing leaves me in tears. On the other hand, I can effortlessly pore over ANKI for hours and create hundreds of new flashcards. I am positive, you will observe such regularities in your daily routine as well.

The most important question is - when should you take a break?

The internet is full of different numbers. Some say 20 minutes while the other ones cite a 40-minute rule. None of these things is true. 

Your energy levels, and thus your concentration, constantly fluctuate throughout the day. They are also heavily influenced by the variables mentioned above. 

That's why the best predictor of the need to take a break is your mental fatigue.

Whenever you:

  • start daydreaming,
  • get distracted, i.e., you realize that almost anything is more interesting than what you're doing right now,
  • feel brain fog,
  • notice that your performance dropped drastically,

it's time to pause.


Keep in mind that your breaks should be meaningful. That means no electronics and no taxing activities. Go for a walk, meditate, or lie down.

Rest for as long as you need.

It's crucial for your full recovery. I know that 10-15 minutes of lying in my bed is usually all I need. Very often, that leads to micro-naps - I am okay with that. I know that once I get up, I am ready to rumble again.


​5. Take care of SPDSH (sleep, private life, diet, sports, health)


Damn, I really tried to find some cool acronym for these elements, but (HuSH PeDo!) is all I got. On the bright side, it is as memorable as it might be offensive to some.

The critical takeaway from this point is that your learning project is not placed in a magical void. Your life is a system of interconnected vessels. If you have problems in your private life or you are sick, learning will be the last thing on your mind. Don't neglect those things at the cost of education.

Trust me - I know how difficult it is. I learn so much that usually, my sleep suffers. It's not wise, and it's something I have been struggling with for a long time.


6. Organize your learning better


overwhelm while learning

The term Information Fatigue Syndrome has been coined recently to refer to stress coming from problems with managing overwhelming information. 

​​Some consequences of IFS listed by Dr David Lewis, a British psychologist, include: anxiety, tension, procrastination, time-wasting, loss of job satisfaction, self-doubt, psychosomatic stress, breakdown of relationships, reduced analytical capacity, etc. The information era tends to overwhelm us with the amount of information.

For example, you might feel stressed by dozens of tabs in your web browser or 20 studies you still have to go through

I get it because I struggled with it in the past. How have I solved it?

I have organized my learning better, i.e., I focused my full energy on learning in ANKI whenever it's possible.

​​If I run into some papers or articlesI paste them into ANKI. I know they are safe and sound there, and I can process them by breaking them down into flashcards later. ANKI is my command center, and this feeling helps me stove away any anxiety related to learning.

With this conviction, you can devote all your energy to comprehension, analysis, and retention of the learned material, instead of eating your heart out.


7. Make a shift


A plateau happens when your brain achieves a level of automaticity; in other words, when you can perform a skill on autopilot, without conscious thought. Our brains love autopilot because, in most situations, it's pretty handy. It lets us chew gum and walk and ride bikes without having to think about it, freeing our brains for more important tasks. When it comes to developing talent, however, autopilot is the enemy, because it creates plateaus. 


Research by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and co-editor of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, shows that the best way past a plateau is to jostle yourself beyond it; to change your practice method, so you disrupt your autopilot and rebuild a faster, better circuit. One way to do this is to speed things up—to force yourself to do the task faster than you usually would. Or you can slow things down—going so slowly that you highlight previously undetected mistakes. Or you can do the task in reverse order, turn it inside out or upside down. It doesn't matter which technique you use, as long as you find a way to knock yourself out of autopilot and into your sweet spot. - Daniel Coyle - The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills


Personally, making a shift means creating silly flashcards which are based on ridiculous associations or observations. It's refreshing enough that even when I start feeling a bit jaded, this procedure restores the proper frame of mind.


8. Break down your project into smaller chunks


This is a classic productivity strategy and for all the right reasons. Sometimes focusing on a big picture can be detrimental to your performance. The project seems so big and complicated that it robs you of the will to pursue it. 

You can overcome this obstacle by breaking your projects into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Take a piece of paper and write down a detailed plan of your undertaking. Number all the steps so you know how to prioritize them. Doing so will free your mental energy and allow you to concentrate on one task at a time.

Then getting "primitive," as suggested in the first point, becomes much more manageable.


EXAMPLE

Instead of creating your flashcards right away, you can spend two days just pasting learning material into ANKI - that would be your first stage. Next, you can process this material into flashcards in the next couple of days. Only then, after five days, can you buckle down and start reviewing them.


9. Go back to the roots - what's your motivation?


If none of the steps above seem to help, it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Why did you want to achieve your goal? Has anything changed since then?

Revisiting the source of your motivation will allow you to accomplish two things:

  1. 1
    It will either pep you up and give you more power to carry on or
  2. 2
    you will give up.

The latter sounds ominous, but I assure you it's not.

Your life is dynamic and is in a constant state of motion. Thousands of elements enter and leave your life every week. They can all affect your initial motivation. If you decide, upon the close inspection, that you don't care anymore about your initial goal, I want you to know that it's okay. Ditch your project. Pour yourself a nice glass of whiskey or cocoa, sit in your armchair and think what you want to do next.

Your project is not a life sentence - you can quit anytime you feel that it's not right for you anymore.


10. Pep yourself up



Do you know what the worst part of every undertaking is? The middle.

Beginnings are usually exciting. It's like running into a magical maze. You have lots of energy and progress fast; everything is new and shiny. However, after a couple of weeks, you realize that you're running out of water, and your last meal was a dead squirrel. It's not good.

In other words, the middle of any project is the most monotonous. Your learning slows down. You don't get money out of this. No fans are showering you with their admiration. The only thing ahead of you is more work. It's not sexy, I know.

How to deal with this situation?

Pep yourself up!

It sounds cheesy, but sometimes cheese is all you need, as Paul McCartney used to sing.

Here are some things you might try:

  • Watch some motivational videos on YouTube.
  • Run around the room while drumming your chest and scream, "I am the king/queen of this jungle."
  • Watch Rocky for the 20th time.
  • Pump your ego by contemplating how amazing you are ("If I were an apple, I would be a really cute apple).
  • Reminisce on your past successes.
  • Take a step back and see how much you have learned so far.
  • Think about your future glory once you achieve your goal.
  • Gather all the empty whiskey bottles and spell "You're the winner!" 

There are no wrong answers here. See what works for you and stick to it in the moments of doubt.


How To Deal With Overwhelm When Learning New Skills - The main takeaway(s)


The moment at which you decide to start learning is usually a peak of your mental capacity and attitude. You feel awesome, and you want to do great things. The problem is that your energy and motivation to learn come and go. There will be plenty of days when you will feel bummed enough to start contemplating and romanticizing the life of a hobo just to run away from all your problems.

That's why it's always preferable to create learning systems instead of relying on flimsy companions like motivation. Here are some of the strategies that might help you:

To deal with overwhelm, try to:

  1. 1
    be primitive
  2. 2
    identify the constraints
  3. 3
    lower the intensity
  4. 4
    take more breaks
  5. 5
    take care of SPDSH (sleep, private life, diet, sports, health)
  6. 6
    organize your learning better
  7. 7
    make a shift
  8. 8
    break down your project into smaller chunks
  9. 9
    go back to the roots - what's your motivation?
  10. 10
    pep yourself up

Interleaved Practice – When and How to Use It to Maximize Your Learning Pace

INTERLEAVED PRACTICE – WHEN AND HOW TO USE IT TO MAZIMIZER YOUR LEARNING PACE

We've all heard that practice makes perfect. It takes time and effort to be great at something, and if you want to do it right, you should practice one skill at a time.

For example, a beginning guitarist might rehearse scales before chords. A young tennis player practices the forehand before the backhand.

This phenomenon is called “blocking,” and because it appeals to common sense and is easy to schedule, blocking is dominant in schools, training programs, and other settings.

However, the question we should be asking ourselves is this: is blocking the most optimal way to practice skills? It doesn't seem so.


What is interleaving?


Interestingly, there is a much better strategy - enter "interleaving".

 In interleaving one mixes, or interleaves, practice on several related skills togetherIn other words, instead of going AAAAABBBBBCCCCC you do ABCABCABCABC.

It turns out that varying it even slightly can yield massive gains in a short period.

Let's take baseball as an example: Batters who do batting practice with a mix of fastballs, change-ups, and curveballs hit for a higher average. The interleaving is more effective because when you're out there in the wild, you need first to discern what kind of problem you're facing before you can start to find a solution, like a ball coming from a pitcher's hand.

Read more: A Simple Learning Plan To Get The Most Out Of Your Study Time.


Is interleaved practice always the right choice?


There are almost no strategies that are fully universal and can be used for all disciplines and in all learning conditions. The same goes for interleaved practice.

The past four decades definitely demonstrated that interleaving often outperforms blocking for a variety of subjects, but especially motor learning (e.g., sports).  The results for other subjects are mixed.


Studies on interleaved practice in different disciplines


1. Languages

For example, when native English speakers used the strategy to learn an entirely unfamiliar language (i.e., generating English-to-Swahili translations), the results were betterthe same, or worse than after blocking. 


2. Mathematics

Another study  (Rohrer et al., 2015) concerning mathematics showed the dramatic benefits of interleaving on children’s performance at math.

During the experiment, some kids were taught math the traditional way. They got familiar with one mathematical technique in a lesson and then practiced it to death. A second group was given assignments that included questions necessitating the use of different techniques.

The results were as impressive as they were surprising.


One day after the test, the students who’d been utilizing the interleaving method did 25% better. However, when tested a month later, the interleaving method did 76% better.

Keep in mind that such an increase is truly amazing, given that both groups had been learning for the same amount of time. The only difference was that some students learned block by block, and others had their learning mixed up.

Read more: How To Master Many Fields Of Knowledge - Your Action Plan And Recommended Strategies.


The necessary condition before you apply interleaved practice


mazimizer your learning pace

The results above tell us one important thing. You can't just go cowabunga and start interleaving the heck out of every subject.

Before you do so, you should have some familiarity with subject materials (or the materials should be quickly or easily understood).  Otherwise, as appears to be the case for foreign languages, interleaving can sometimes be more confusing than helpful.

It's only logical when you look at this strategy from the memory perspective. For many, using even one technique seems to a burden enough for their working memory. Forcing such people to use three or more make you a psycho who wants to see the world, and their memory, burn.

It's simply too much.

It doesn't take away from the fact that interleaving can be extremely useful. It forces the mind to work harder and to keep searching and reaching for solutions. 

However, if you decide to use it, make sure that you're familiar with the strategies you want to interleave. This recommendation is based on a phenomenon called the expertise reversal.


The expertise reversal

The expertise reversal effect occurs when the instruction that is effective for novice learners is ineffective or even counterproductive for more expert learners.

If you look at it differently, more experienced learners learned more from high variability rather than low variability tasks demonstrating the variability effect. In contrast, less experienced learners learned more from low rather than top variability tasks showing a reverse variability effect.

Why might lower variability be better in the beginning?

It was suggested that more experienced learners had sufficient available working memory capacity to process high variability information. In contrast, less experienced learners were overwhelmed by high variability and learned more using low variability information. Subjective ratings of difficulty supported the assumptions based on cognitive load theory, which you have learned before.

​In other words, some signals that are needed by low prior knowledge learners might be redundant for high prior knowledge learners due to their existing schema in long-term memory (Kalyuga, 2009).

For example, one of the experiments (Likourezos, Kalyuga, Sweller, 2019) which tested 103 adults studying pre-university mathematics, showed no interaction between levels of variability (high vs. low) and levels of instructional guidance (worked examples vs. unguided problem solving). The significant main effect of variability indicated a variability effect regardless of levels of instructional guidance. 

What does it tell us?

We can't play in the big boy's league if we don't cover the basics!

Read more: The Curse of the Hamster Wheel of Knowledge – Why Becoming a Real Expert Is Very Difficult.


Interleaved Practice - Summary

(1) Interleaved practice is perfect for:

  • motor learning
  • any material that can be quickly learned and understood

(2) For more complicated subjects, make sure to familiarize yourself with the appropriate strategies before you decide to interleave them. This way, you will make sure that your working memory isn't overburdened.


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 11 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


Evergreen Skills and Knowledge – What’s Worth Learning?

A list of evergreen skills and knowledge – what’s worth learning?


Many people are in love with the idea of being knowledgeable. Sadly, not many believe that they can acquire enough knowledge. Being able to move through life and overcome all the obstacles effortlessly seems to be reserved mostly for the gifted or unrelatable movie characters.

A big part of the problem is the general inability to acquire considerable amounts of information. However, the other obstacle is deciding what's worth learning. If you don't know where you are headed, you're like a drunk bouncing from one lamp post to another in a twisted version of pinball. The next thing you know is you wake up with a bad headache and a bitter taste of disappointment in your mouth.

There is an easy fix for this - focusing on evergreen knowledge.


Why Should I Focus on Evergreen Skills and Knowledge?


1. It's immediately applicable

The problem with acquiring knowledge randomly is that most of the time if you can't use it, you will lose it. Sure, some bits stay with you throughout your life. Regardless, most of this knowledge will be inevitably lost. So will be your effort and time. I know that many say that spending your time learning is always a good investment.

But is it really?

If I spent 50 hours trying to acquire knowledge and my recall rate, or should I say - return rate, would be 1, 2 or even 5 %, I would be pissed. It would mean that for every 1 hour I spent learning, not more than 3 min were used effectively. That's a very definition of a stupid investment. Sure, you can argue that I have jogged my brain, and tried, and bla bla bla. Still, 5%? Come on!

If I retained that little, I wouldn't even bother learning. I would spend time with my family or binge-watch TV series. Learning is not fun if you can't hold on to any information.

But the evergreen knowledge is different. It's immediately applicable. Every minute you spend acquiring it can give you immense returns on any given day of your life.


2. It makes life easier

The immediate applicability of such knowledge bleeds directly into every area of your life and makes it easier. It allows you to get the most of out of the most ordinary situations and encounters.

Where other people struggle, you see opportunities. It's a real game-changer regarding how you live your life.


3. It gives you a sense of direction

If you have wanted to become a serious learner, but you have never known what to focus on, a list of evergreen skills can give you a clear sense of direction—no more fumbling in the dark. Check one thing off your list and move on to another. In the meantime, watch how much your life changes.


What Knowledge and Skills Can Be Defined as Evergreen?


I think that the most important method to establish what constitutes evergreen knowledge is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What's unavoidable in your life?
  • What situations or topics do you deal with every single day of your life?

As a result, you should arrive at the right answers.

Of course, it's worth pointing out that defining what's evergreen is not always perfectly possible. We are all different in some regards. I believe that this distinctiveness should be reflected in the definition of evergreen knowledge.

I like to explain this issue, as contradictory as it might sound to some degree, that evergreen knowledge can be divided into two categories:

  1. Universally evergreen knowledge
  2. Personally evergreen knowledge

Universally evergreen knowledge


This category envelopes all the skills and information that are truly necessary to function in any society, country, or profession. Everyone is forced to rely on this knowledge every single day.


Personally evergreen knowledge


This would be the knowledge that's specific to your type of personality, interests or a career path you have chosen. It is the instance where one man's trash is another man's treasure.

Some of the skills I consider evergreen would be treated as an utter waste of time for you. The opposite is true, as well.


Example #1 - Pets

If you're a dog person, knowing a lot about how to take care of your pet would be considered evergreen. That wouldn't be the case for anyone who generally dislikes animals.


Example #2 - Material Engineering

The same would be true for anyone whose area of speciality oscillates around material engineering. In that case, advanced knowledge of chemistry and physics would be a must. Would this kind of knowledge be useful for you and me? Highly unlikely.


Example #3 - Investing


Investing - crucial skill


This is an area that applies directly to my life. I am an active trader, and I focus mostly on short-term investments. To be able to do it effectively, I need lots of information regarding the branches that interest me.

Of course, this kind of knowledge would be useless to a non-investor.


News vs information

This is a moment where we should make a distinction between news and information.

Information is a representation of knowledge that feeds your decision-making process. It's almost immediately valuable and useful.

News is just noise - worthless bits of trivia that do nothing to improve any area of your life and feed mostly primitive, emotion-driven parts of your brain.

Unfortunately, I can't help you with deciding what knowledge is personally evergreen for you. This is a one (wo)man job, and you're the person to do it. I would suggest you take your time and compile a list of skills that will be of immense help to you.

In this article, I prefer to focus on universally evergreen skills and why they are worth learning.


A List of Universally Evergreen Skills and Knowledge


For your convenience, press a link to go to the chosen section.

These are the skills that I deem universal for any adult. Not only do they allow you to build a successful and happy life, but also will enable you to overcome any hurdles that you might stumble upon.


Evergreen Skills and Knowledge - Why Are They Necessary?


1. Learning how to learn


Usually, I am first to admit that I am biased in some areas. However, this time, I believe I am stating the obvious.

Knowing how to learn effectively is the single most crucial skill you can master in your life.

Nothing else comes even close. I know that educators from lots of other fields say the same thing about their specialty. They say that mathematics is the king, chemistry is the queen, painting with watercolors is the very essence of life and all that jive.

The thing is that without the knowledge of how to acquire information properly, you will quickly forget all the other information. This way, your life turns into a twisted version of alcohol-infused reality. You learn to wake up the next day and realize that all you have is vague recollections of what you did the night before.

The art of learning should be the very first thing we teach our kids at school. If we did, the standard of living in most countries would rise dramatically. We're talking about flying toilet bowls, and laser sabers here!

Sadly, this world doesn't exist. All we have is an endless game of playing intellectual catch-up and being happy with achieving  survival level of professional competence.


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2. Money-related skills


Money is an indispensable part of our lives. Yet, not many people take their time to learn how to handle it. 

Saving is considered this thing that crotchety old people do. Investing is deemed as a gateway drug to becoming a blood-thirsty, three-piece suit capitalist - not something that honest people do. Budgeting seems like a good idea only when your financial situation is so dire that when you open a toilet bowl, a court executioner pops up humming "Money money money."

Generally, I think that learning more about Business and money is a great way to not only guarantee you financial stability but also to multiple what you already have.


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3. Analytical skills


Analytical skills is an umbrella term for subskills such as:

  • logical and critical thinking
  • conducting research
  • interpreting information
  • etc.

The amount of knowledge in the world is growing at a dizzying pace.


"Buckminster Fuller estimated that up until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By 1945 it was doubling every 25 years, and by 1982 it was doubling every 12-13 months. IBM estimates that in 2020 human knowledge will be doubling every 12 hours." - Modern Working Place


evergreen skills - doubling information


In theory, it should be great news. More knowledge and better access to it means that the quality of our lives and decisions should be increasing as well; except it doesn't.

The most prevalent reactions to this information overload are either:

  • accepting everything without questioning, 
  • avoidance of all the information (manifested as an escape toward TV, computer games, addictive substances, etc.),
  • always-on lifestyle in which one seeks constant stimulation by jumping from one source of information to another.

Analytical skills are the only way out of this madhouse. They allow you to apply a calm, cold, methodical approach to every problem. In the era of widespread misinformation and ignorance, this knowledge seems to be more critical than ever.

Just in the last couple of weeks, we have all had a chance to read the COVID-19 is a hoax created by lizard people who are transmitting via 5g technology. All this to inject you with a bogus vaccine that contains a chip that will travel to your brain to control your bowel movements. What a time to be alive.

Of course, establishing whether something is true or not is a process. It requires suspending your belief and opinions until you learn more about a given subject. Unfortunately, not many people are willing to take their time to do it.


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4. Nutrition


Considering that eating is something we do multiple times per day, it seems crazy for me not to study this topic in-depth. Your health is dependent on how good your diet is and how happy or miserable your life will be. It was the main motivation that led me to become a certified nutritionist.

Interestingly enough, becoming knowledgeable in this field requires a mix of other evergreen skills, namely:

  • knowing how to learn
  • analytical skills
  • mathematics (or statistic to be more precise)

If you accept current nutritional recommendations from your government without doing any proper research and knowing how to interpret the data, you are going to have a bad time.

Just the other day, I had a consultation with a woman who religiously followed all the current guidelines—lots of green veggies, whole-weed bread, etc. She also suffered from a hypothyroid and couldn't fix it even with drugs. You can imagine her shock when I explained to her that cruciferous vegetables that she consumed 5 times per day block absorption of iodine and impair the function of the thyroid. The same goes for the infamous gluten. After eliminating those foods from her diet (and some others as well) and adding some supplementation, her thyroid was alive and kicking in about 4 weeks.


5. Medicine and health


Many people treat doctors as an excuse to ignore this field of knowledge. After all, you are not a trained professional, so why would you even bother?

The reasons are plenty. First of all, modern medicine is strictly drug-based. While it's entirely ok in some, especially acute cases, it's subpar or harmful in others.

Secondly, no doctor will follow you around to check whether you or your relatives are ok. Some basic medical knowledge will allow you to spot many health-related problems from miles away. What's more, no doctor will care about the well-being of you and your family as much as you do. It's precisely this emotional engagement that allows people to dig way deeper into potential solutions than many medical professionals.

Last but not least, there are not many good specialists in any area, including medicine. I used to live in this conviction when I was younger that every doctor is a giant, squishy brain with legs attached to it. Sadly, once I started teaching medical professionals how to learn, I quickly realized that they struggle a lot with remembering. Of course, that weighs a lot on potential diagnoses.

Personally, I can't get enough of this domain. So far, I have created 30k + flashcards from this discipline and did governmental certification to become a trichologist and personal trainer, and I know it's just the beginning!


6. Productivity


Productivity is another essential skill everyone should learn. You're going to work most of your life. Being able to get the most out of it is an obvious choice.

Productivity includes subskills, such as:

  • task delegation
  • setting goals
  • prioritizing
  • motivating 
  • building habits
  • time management
  • task automation
  • sleep management
  • choosing the right tools and applications 
  • etc.

This skill tied beautifully with knowing how to learn. Once you get a grasp of how to acquire knowledge effectively, increasing your productivity will allow you to work more efficiently and realize projects related to the information you have acquired.


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7. Creativity


evergreen skills and knowledge


More and more people are getting anxious about the changes our world is going through. AI and the ubiquitous automation threaten to make dozens of professions obsolete in the upcoming decades. And rightly so - it's not fear-mongering. The process is happening as we speak, starting from self-driving cars, warehouse robots, and ending with the pattern-matching AI software. Heck, not that long ago, a Japanese company replaced office workers with artificial intelligence.

However, there is one thing that won't be replaced for a long time, or maybe ever—our boundless creativity and all the emotions that underpin it.

Of course, opinions about whether creativity is something uniquely human are split. However, we can't argue about is that AI programs are typically good at just one thing. Moreover, they need millions of data points to be able to perform this activity. 

The same constraints do not limit us. We still need input, but unlike machines, we can make crazy logical and creative leaps between seemingly unrelated subjects.

It's quite a safe bet that unless the processing power of computers increases by hundreds, if not thousands of times or more, the true creativity will remain a hallmark of humanity.

The big advantage is that just learning a couple of basic strategies can make you a way better thinker and problem-solver.


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8. Public speaking


Whether you like it or not, public speaking is yet another skill that we cannot escape. Depending on your line of work, you will be forced to step in front of a bunch of people quite often enough.

Learning the basics of public speaking will allow you to feel more confident and make a far better impression than you would otherwise. If you have experienced the soul leaving your body during one of such presentations, you know what I mean.

What's more, it doesn't take much time to acquire this knowledge at a satisfactory level, which makes it even more logical choice for your to-do list.


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9. Problem-solving skills


If there is one thing we are not short of is problems. Every day we face dozens of decisions and dilemmas of different magnitude. Being able to tackle them in a systematic way is a very desired competence. 

Problem-solving skills include subskills such as:

  • emotional intelligence
  • troubleshooting
  • risk management
  • decision making
  • drawing plans and diagrams

What's more, it can be reinforced by many other skills on the list like knowing how to learn, creativity, psychology, and analytical skills.


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10. Psychology


Psychology is the science that studies what influences our minds and behaviors. It's a critical component of our everyday lives. It helps to unveil all the hidden and unconscious mechanisms that drive our lives.

Studying psychological concepts will allow you to both improve relations with your directs surroundings as well as learn how to stop sabotaging ourselves and get out of your own way.

Once again, there is a certain overlap between psychology, creativity, and problem-solving.

Psychology was my first love way before the memory came into the picture. I was brought up in a dysfunctional family. My father was a mean, abusive alcoholic, and that inevitably shaped me as a young kid - and not in a good way. I was terribly aggressive and constantly got into trouble.

When I was about 11 or 12, I entered a bookshop and out of boredom picked up some random psychology book because it sounded smart. My life has never been the same since then. Concept by concept, I could understand where my behavior and actions came from, and I began to fix them. This is the power of psychology - 10/10 would recommend.


The art of persuasion

One of the most readily accessible subbranches of psychology is the art of persuasion. We all have to "sell" ourselves or our ideas in one way or another. You might as well learn how to do it effectively!

It's also worth keeping in mind that the art of persuasion is a double-edged sword. It can also be used against you as a tool of manipulation. Even if you're not interested in learning it to become more convincing yourself, it's worth doing so to become aware when others try to manipulate you.

As the old poker adage goes, if you don't know who the sucker in the room is, it means you are the sucker.


11. (Basic) law


The law doesn't evoke the most pleasant associations. Regardless, our every action is bound by it. Sadly, like many other evergreen skills, it's usually brushed off throughout the education system.

Learning its basics, be it, basic humans rights or tax regulations, will allow you to become a more aware citizen as well as bring you many other benefits, including the financial ones.


12. (Basic) economics


Economics is a field of science that explores how society uses its limited resources to best meet its needs. Both macro- and microeconomics can be applied to many other branches of knowledge, making it a universal tool to understand the economic reality we live in.

You can use it mostly to optimize your financial decisions. It can come quite handy both in investing or choosing the right moment to purchase different goods.


13. Basic physics


Physics is one of a few branched that made the modern world possible. Its applications can be found all around us in every device we use: batteries, cell phones, computers, cars, and constructions of any kind.

Even though it seems abstract at first, it can help you get a better grasp of dozens of everyday phenomena. I find it especially practical when combined with other evergreen skills like nutrition, medicine, and chemistry.

For example, my mom is a cosmetician, and I have always been, somewhat organically, fascinated by this field. One of the cosmetic preparations that are all the rage among ladies is hyaluronic acid.

Very often, it is as expensive as hell. What's more, companies do their best to convince you that it can miraculously regenerate and moisturize any type of skin even if it looks like a 15-year old tire. Sadly, these claims don't hold true. Once you learn a bit about dermatology and combine it with physics (i.e., the concept of permeability), you will realize that most hyaluronic acid preparations are too big to pass through the first layer of skin called stratum corneum. Just like many other preparations, I might add.

You see? A bit of reading will have saved you thousands of dollars.


14. Basic Chemistry


I still remember this memorable saying from school that chemistry "feeds, heals, clothes and defends." It's true. 

Chemistry is a tenacious companion of our everyday struggles. It can be found in cosmetics, drugs, clothes, cleaning products and weapons. Knowing just a bit of chemistry can be extremely helpful, especially if you combine it with other evergreen skills.

Personally, I love how medicine and chemistry go hand in hand. For example, once you learn about displacement reactions, you can apply this concept to understand one of the causes of hypothyroid. 

It turns out that halogens, i.e., elements like chlorine, bromine, and fluoride, can displace iodine that is responsible for producing your main thyroid hormones. In other words, accidental drink of the tap or swimming pool water or eating your toothpaste might mess you up.

The same goes for drinking too much tea because its leaves, especially young ones, are full of fluoride.

Everything is connected, and chemistry is an integral part of the whole.


15. Basic mathematics

list of evergreen skills


I love mathematics with all my heart. This was one of the mains reasons why I chose Econometrics as my major. That's why it hurts me a lot to see a lot of disdain for mathematics these days. All of a sudden everyone seems convinced that calculators and Excel are our saviors.

It's painfully wrong. I agree that not many people need to know advanced math. However, a lot of basic concepts and a general numerical is necessary. 

I would argue that basic statistics is one of the most mat skills one can possess. Without them, it's difficult to interpret any scientific research or even numbers communicated to us by our governments.



16. Basic computer science


There is no denying that we spend almost every day plugged to digital reality. There is little hope that it will ever change.

For that reason, it's definitely worth learning a bit about computers, programming languages and even network infrastructure. It doesn't take much time, but it can certainly improve your understanding of this area of life.


17. Languages


If your native tongue is anything else than English than knowing at least this one language is undoubtedly an evergreen skill. English is the language of knowledge; the modern Latin if you will. If you want to know anything about anything, you need to know it.

However, even if you're an already native speaker, mastering another language should be a must based on the cognitive benefits it delivers.

Nevertheless, I don't think you should overdo it. I believe that knowing more than three foreign languages is rarely practical and worth your time unless you really love this area of knowledge, or you have other good reasons. 


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18. Playing an instrument


Playing an instrument - cognitive benefits


I know what you're thinking. Playing an instrument is a direct contradiction of my definition of evergreen skills. It's certainly not something one does every day.

I have placed it on my list because just like languages, it's one of the best cognitive boosters in the world. If you care about your or your children's mental well-being, I would consider putting it on your to-do list.

It sure as heck is more effective than investing in some stupid brain-training games or thinking that Sudoku will enlarge your brain enough as to bend space-time.


A couple of benefits of learning how to play an instrument:

  • 1. improved reading skills
"Children exposed to a multi-year program of music tuition involving training in increasingly complex rhythmic, tonal, and practical skills display superior cognitive performance in reading skills compared with their non-musically trained peers, according to a new study." - Science Dailly

  • 2. improved working memory
"Musical training seems to hone auditory memory skills. Musicians have better auditory working memory (Chan et al., 1998; Jakobson et al., 2008; Parbery-Clark et al., 2009b2011a; Strait et al., 2012b2013a), potentially accounted for by musicians' increased activation of larger neuronal networks involved in cognitive control and sustained attention than non-musicians when confronted with difficult memory tasks (Gaab and Schlaug, 2003; Pallesen et al., 2010)." - Art and science: how musical training shapes the brain

  • 3. improved brain size and connectivity
"Musicians have a larger corpus callosum, the fiber tract underlying most interhemispheric communication, with musicians who started training at an earlier age having a larger corpus callosum compared to musicians who started later (Schlaug et al., 1995; Wan and Schlaug, 2010). Musicians' larger corpus callosum volume may reflect decreased interhemispheric inhibition (Ridding et al., 2000) and more communication between the two hemispheres."

How to Use Many Evergreen Skills in a Meaningful Way


Evergreen skills are easy to activate by their very nature. However, a great way to use them at the same time is to come up with a project

Most of the projects are characterized by a high degree of complexity and necessitate the use of many different skills. What's more, they are a preferable way for many people to learn. Not everyone can pore over books for months without any specific purpose. Projects, on the other hand, are meaningful and highly engaging.

They can also be a gateway to a better and more successful life - also financially. For example, I did my trichology certification for fun, as a personal project. Would it be difficult to open my practice or team up with someone to open a clinic? I don't think so. Nevertheless, it all started as a fun side project. 

Think whether there is something you have always wanted to do or create and start working towards it step by step. Acquire all the necessary evergreen skills on your way there and observe how much easier your project comes. There are truly few things in life that give as much satisfaction as seeing your vision come to life.


Summary - Evergreen Skills and Knowledge


Evergreen skills and knowledge should be a top priority for any ambitious individual. The time you devote to their development is among the best investments in life you can make as they can be used in every single area of your life.

The best part is that the more of them you learn, the more powerful those evergreen skills become. It's a beautiful demonstration of the synergy effect where the sum of parts is way greater than the individual part themselves.


Which of those skills is the most important for you? Let me know in the comments!


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 43 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies – Why You Should Take Them With a Grain of Salt

WHY YOU SHOULD TREAT POLYGLOTS; ADVICE, TIPS, AND STRATEGIES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT


One category of emails which I regularly get is called: "X did Y, what do you think about it?" (or some variation of it).

X is usually a polyglot or a YouTuber who just did a mission, whereas Y often stands for a short amount of time. Usually, what a reader expects from me is to tell them that it's possible because they also want to learn fast. I get it - it all sounds exciting. If you can learn a language way faster, then why wouldn't you take advantage of polyglot tips, advice or learning strategies? 

The answer is simple: critical thinking. You are not them, and depending on your skill set and language background, it might not be possible for you even to get close to their results. There is a long list of warning signs that you should be aware of before you decide to emulate what they did. And no - I am not above it. Apply those criteria to my advice as well. 

Let's chomp down a healthy dose of red pills.


Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies - Why You Should Take It With a Grain of Salt



I get this vague feeling that sometimes both people who give and take language advice are a bit detached from reality. 

In a rational world, if someone decided to start training box twice per week, initially, they would choose some simple form of training. Some stretching, basic forms, leg work - that kind of stuff.

A mere suggestion that, "Dude, Mike Tyson has this cool training, let's give it a try!" would be greeted with a pitiful smirk. They would know that this kind of workout routine would leave them in tears and wouldn't be too effective for them at this stage.

Yet, in the realm of languages, people get this idea that any language strategy is immediately applicable to them. Let me assure you - it is not. What's more, very often they can do more harm to your learning progress and motivation than good.

Here are a couple of arguments to bear in mind.


1. Expertise Reversal


The expertise reversal effect occurs when the instruction that is effective for novice learners is ineffective or even counterproductive for more expert learners.

If you look at it differently, more experienced learners learn more from high variability rather than low variability tasks demonstrating the variability effect. In contrast, less experienced learners learn more from low rather than top variability tasks showing a reverse variability effect.

Variability refers to a lack of consistency or fixed patterns in the tasks presented to a learner.
That means that beginners learn the best when there are:
  • not many tasks,
  • tasks are easy and predictable.

If you complicate a learning plan for them, they will never progress, or they will do it extremely slowly.

Call me pragmatic, but I wouldn't like to learn my first language to a B2 level while turning 70.

Sure, thumbs up from a nurse who is just emptying my bedpan sound encouraging, but I think I will pass.


What's an example of a crazy learning plan for beginners?

I bet you have seen or done it before - most of us did. Very often, if you have 45 minutes of learning time per day, you will hear the following recommendations:


  • 15 min of reading,
  • 10 min of listening,
  • 10 minutes of talking,
  • 10 of writing.
It's either this or some other variation of this madness.
Polyglots Advice

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

What I do recommend most of the time for beginners in my course Vocabulary Labs is this:

  • learn vocabulary with Anki,
  • learn basic grammar,
  • consolidate this knowledge with activation strategies.

Once they learn enough words, they start more advanced training, which involves lots of passive learning. Unsurprisingly, people who have failed to learn a language for ten years, miraculously start progressing like crazy.


Polygot Tips - Reading vs. Listening


The expertise reversal also manifests itself in the reading vs. listening effectiveness. Here is an excellent excerpt from a recent study.


Read-and-listen approach benefited novice learners; more expert learners could benefit more from the read-only approach.

2. Confidence can be misleading



The first thing you should keep in mind that we all crave confidence. Nobody wants to listen to people who seem hesitant. It all starts at a young age.

Researchers found that young children between the age of four and five not only prefer to learn from people who appear confident, they also keep track of how well the person's confidence has matched with their knowledge and accuracy in the past (a concept called 'calibration') and avoid learning new information from people who have a history of being overconfident. - ScienceDaily

Said another way, sometimes we don't pay much attention to what somebody has to say as much as how convincing they are when they do it. However, let's not confuse confidence (or age) with good advice.

Never underestimate how gullible we can be. While I am writing this, probably a dozen people on the internet are buying some course on healing cancer with banana enemas because the dude selling it looks and speaks like Gandalf.

Heck, I would probably buy it if he lowered his voice enough.


3. Experts are notoriously bad at explaining why they do certain things



Here is an excellent excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell's' book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking."


"Out of all the research that we've done with top players, we haven't found a single player who is consistent in knowing and explaining exactly what he does," Braden says.


"They give different answers at different times, or they have answers that simply are not meaningful."


One of the things he does, for instance, is videotape top tennis players and then digitize their movements, breaking them down frame by frame on a computer so that he knows, say, precisely how many degrees Pete Sampras rotates his shoulder on a cross-court backhand.

That's precisely how you combat this problematic phenomenon - you don't rely on opinions, you track data. Without it, our explanation of why something happened might be heavily warped by other factors.

If you want to see how far you can go with experimenting, check out this article: Over 30 Things You Can Learn From All My Fail And Successful Memory Experiments.


4. Achieving a certain skill level ≠ efficiency


I love Tim Ferris' approach to breaking down complex skills. One of his strategies involved finding outliers in a given discipline - people who shouldn't be good at something (especially sports), but they excelled against all the odds.

This framework allows you to cut through all the potential noise and eliminate variables that might distort your conclusions.

For example, I have had plenty of discussions with students of philology who claimed that the way they are taught at universities is impeccable. Every single time I had to point out that for five years, at least in Poland, they spend about 40 hours per week learning their target language. Go figure that you can achieve a C1 or C2 level after that many hours of practice!. Personally, I would be more interested in finding out how somebody, with similar or identical background knowledge, did it in a year.

The same goes for a lot of people who were born and raised in multilingual families or countries. It's great that they have acquired all this knowledge, but they are probably not the best people to give advice on how to learn languages.


5. The warping effect of background knowledge



Background knowledge is another variable that is NEVER considered by learners. 

Most of the relevant theories of learning to acknowledge that learners' knowledge bases are the most important moderating factor influencing our ability to acquire information (e.g., Chi, De Leeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994; Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994).

It is well established that knowledge of a given domain facilitates recall of information in that domain. For example, Spilich, Vesonder, Chiesi, and Voss (1979) found that after listening to a description of a half-inning of a fictitious baseball game, participants high in baseball knowledge recalled more game actions and other game-relevant information, but less irrelevant information, than did participants lower in baseball knowledge.

Similarly, after listening to short vignettes from a game, participants high in baseball knowledge were better able to detect changes in the event descriptions on a subsequent recognition test than participants lower in baseball knowledge, especially when the changes related to the goal structure of the game (Chiesi, Spilich, & Voss, 1979; Experiment 1). 

Walker (1987) also found a domain-knowledge effect when participants could read as well as listen to a half-inning game description.

Finally, Recht and Leslie (1988) reported the same effect when participants read silently the half-inning description.

Knowing many languages significantly changes your ability to acquire new ones. What's more, the more similar the language you want to learn is to the ones you already know, the faster you will acquire it.


Factors affecting your ability to learn



Keep in mind that there are lots of factors affecting your ability to learn, among others:

  1. 1
    Lack of a learning system
  2. 2
    Regularity of exposure
  3. 3
    Timing of repetition
  4. 4
    Retention intention
  5. 5
    Pronounceability (i.e., how difficult it is to pronounce)
  6. 6
    The usefulness of a word
  7. 7
    Emotional saliency
  8. 8
    Ease of application (i.e., knowing how to use a word)
  9. 9
    Lack of context
  10. 10
    Number of contexts
  11. 11
    Active encoding
  12. 12
    Morphological awareness (i.e., derivational complexity)
  13. 13
    The capacity of your short-term memory
  14. 14
    Intrinsic cognitive load (ICL)
  15. 15
    Germane cognitive load
  16. 16
    German cognitive load (GCL)
  17. 17
    Mental and physical condition
  18. 18
    Mental barriers
  19. 19
    Random variable(s)

Polyglots enjoy lots of unique advantages that have one thing in common - they decrease their general cognitive load. It means that they can learn much faster, longer, and more effectively than mono- and bilinguals. We can't pretend that it's not taking place, and we're all start at the same point. If this was a 100-meter dash, a typical polyglot would get a 70-meter headstart.

For example, quite a widespread piece of advice one can hear is that beginners should read simplified texts. Unfortunately, it's not true.

I want to make one thing very clear - no one is lying to you. These strategies DO work for them, but they will most probably won't work for you if your language background isn't extensive enough.


Learning Czech in 1 month


Let me give you a great example. My ninth and the last official language I learned was Czech. In 1 month (about 5 years ago), I managed to learn it from scratch to a B1/B2 level and confirmed with language tests.

It is a great result, and I am proud of it, but even at the beginning of this case study, I mentioned that I already know eight languages. What's more, my native tongue is Polish, and I speak fluent Russian.


Why is it important?

Because Czech shares about 70-80% of words with Polish. That means that right off the bat, my passive knowledge was big, and it was further increased by my knowledge of Russian.

Here are the implications of these numbers:


  • on day 1, I could already read and listen, and start acquiring some words passively
  • I didn't have to practice listening much because Polish and Czech are similar enough
  • there weren't too many words that seemed difficult for me pronunciation-wise
  • etc.


That was Czech. What about Slovak? To my surprise, when I visited Slovakia for Polyglot Gathering in 2017, I understood 98% of everything by virtue of knowing Czech. 

Would the above be true for me if I decided to learn Chinese? No!

That's why be alert if somebody tells you that passive learning is great. It's not - it sucks. However, it is effective for a person with extensive background knowledge.

If you have it - great. If not, better get back to active learning.


Summary -  Polyglot Tips, Advice, and Strategies 



Taking polyglot tips and advice at face value can be a fatal mistake for people who don't know many or any languages. It can lead to opposite effects. Instead of progressing way faster, your progress can be almost non-existent. In extreme cases, you can become so overwhelmed that you will give up.

The overall explanation is simple - polyglots enjoy all the benefits of having extensive background knowledge in a specific field of language learning. That makes their knowledge acquisition process much more efficient.

My suggestion would be to think twice before using their (and my!) advice. Better make sure that it applies to you before you waste any time!


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 18 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


What Is Smart Learning and How to Apply It to Become a Better Learner

What is smart learning and how to apply it to become a better learner?

Contrary to popular belief, not all learning leads to enlightenment and self-development. Oftentimes, lousy learning practices can lead to the contrary. Instead of acquiring in-depth and meaningful knowledge, you end up learning random and superficial pieces of information of questionable credibility.

In other words, stupid learning can turn out to be a waste of time, whereas smart learning will, unsurprisingly, make you smart. As such, it should be a priority for any self-respecting student or professional.

Unfortunately, most people learn by feel. Partly because of the undisciplined approach to knowledge acquisition and somewhat because smart learning has become a bit of a trite slogan in recent years. We all know we should do it, but hardly anyone knows what it is.

Let's tackle this topic step by step.


What is smart learning?


There are 5 key traits that characterize smart learning.


1. Optimizing your reviews


If you still haven't got the news. We have known for over 140 years that optimizing reviews allows us to slow down memory decay. About that time, a brilliant German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus proved that we ​could significantly slow down memory decay by revising the learning material at the right moment.


The famous Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve depicts this phenomenon.


smart learning


You would think that 140 years is plenty of time, but I assure you it's not. The concept of optimizing your reviews is still relatively unknown. Spaced Repetition Software, which allows you to revise learning material at the optimal intervals automatically, is nowhere to be found in public schools or at universities. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

Keep in mind that using programs like ANKI is not the ultimate solution. Yes, using it will certainly make you a better learner than about 70% of the population.

However, what makes it really effective is using it correctly, i.e., applying the right learning methods while reviewing information in ANKI. Spaced repetition algorithms are your white canvass, but you also have to know how to paint to get the best effects.

Read more: Why most spaced repetition apps don't work and how to fix it



2. Choosing the right learning materials


There are 2 types of sources of information:

  1. Primary sources
  2. Secondary sources


(1) Primary sources

Primary sources refer to previously established scientific facts (e.g., math, physics, and chemistry textbooks) or firsthand, fundamental research that is based upon observations or experiments (e.g., research articles in journals).


(2) Secondary sources

Secondary sources or secondhand sources refer to any learning resource which loosely relates to the primary resources and/or interprets them in a certain way (e.g., interviews, YT videos, etc.).


Roles of both sources of information

Both types of sources can be very useful in learning. The first one provides you with the certainty that the information you acquire is true.

Secondary sources, on the other hand, can help you make sense out of that information.

Sometimes hearing somebody's opinion on some matter can help you connect the dots and arrive at the right conclusion.


Always prioritize primary sources

As long as you focus on relentlessly acquiring knowledge from the primary sources, you can rest assured that your expertise will keep on growing and will be of the highest quality.

The problem arises when you try to derive a big chunk of your knowledge from secondhand sources. It always means one thing — you suspend your right to have any meaningful opinion.

You scarf down any crap which people dish out. And make no mistake. There are very few people who put in time and effort to really learn something.

Most simply regurgitate different anecdotes and old wives' tales to boost their ego.

Unless you prioritize learning from the primary sources, you will never be able to tell what's true and what's not.


Trust the facts, not the experts. Way too many people have their own agenda and have no problem with profiting from the naivety and ignorance of the others.


If you want to see for yourself how wide-spread that behavior is, go ahead and look up some popular language-learning websites. You will be lucky to find even one quotation on most of them.

As Dr. Johnson so wisely observed, truth is hard to assimilate in any mind when opposed by interest. Moreover, strong feelings about issues do not usually  emerge from deep understanding and knowledge.


3. Knowing what you can forget


WHAT IS SMART LEARNING


I have stated many times that if you want to be excellent in your area of choice, you need to remember tons of information and know how to connect in a meaningful way.

However, it doesn't mean that you literally have to suck in everything. With all due respect to the hard-working scientific community, when I read medical or memory studies, I rarely care who has written them. I won't waste any brainpower to remember it.

Why? Because ANKI is also a browseable database! If I need to look up the authors of a certain study, I can get this information within seconds.

You should always try to separate the worthwhile from the wooly.

It won't always be obvious to establish what's relevant and what's not. Sometimes only time will tell. There were times when I started memorizing random stuff only to realize after some time that I don't need to know it by heart. 

In other words, figuring out what's worth memorizing requires some trial and error, and it's heavily dependent on the depth of knowledge you want to acquire and on the conditions you will retrieve it in.

Definitely, one important criterion which can help you guide this decision process is choosing whether you want to master a certain discipline or be decent/good at it. 

Personally, I wouldn't decide to learn a lot of scripts or commands by heart if I was just programming for fun. However, if you want to learn a programming language to the "native" level of familiarity, you can't be too picky. In return, that will allow you to sketch out personal utility software, scripts, and hacks rapidly.


4. Choosing the right learning strategies


Choosing the right learning strategies depends on a lot of factors. However, there are two crucial elements that you need to incorporate if you want to become a successful learner.


Have a learning system

Let me make it very clear — you can't become good in your area of choice without an organized system of acquiring knowledge.

This is the basis of any learning success. Skipping this part makes as much sense as trying to build your house from the second floor.


Stop learning passively

The idea that we can acquire information effectively by reading or listening is as rife as antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea. Yes, you can learn this way, but this process is excruciatingly slow.

It doesn't matter how many relevant scientific studies get produced every year that show that passive learning is useless. The illusion of learning always seems to have the upper hand.

Students who engage in active learning learn more -- but feel like they learn less -- than peers in more lecture-oriented classrooms.

When memory researcher Jennifer McCabe posed a similar question to college students, she found an overwhelming preference for the second strategy, restudying, even though this approach is known to be inferior to the recall method in this situation.

Why did the students get it wrong? 

Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying.

The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment. And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created.

Illusions of competence are seductive. They can easily mislead people into misjudging the strength of their memory, and they can encourage students to adopt study methods that undermine long-term retention. The best defense is to use proven memory techniques and to be leery of making predictions about future memory strength based on how solid the memory seems right now

Here are other articles concerning passive learning:

5. Concentrating On What’s Evergreen!


BECOME A BETTER LEARNER

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

One of the best ways of amassing impressive knowledge within a relatively short period is concentrating on what's evergreen. Even though it's not possible in every single case, I believe that this is something we all should strive for. Political leaders will change, programming languages will evolve, but physics, math, and even psychology will remain almost unchanged at their core.

Focusing on those subjects will allow you to build evergreen knowledge that can be applied almost everywhere regardless of circumstances. What's more, the more you learn, the easier it will be for you to expand your knowledge. Every discipline contains nuggets of wisdom that can be transplanted into other areas.

Most of relevant theories of learning to acknowledge that learners’ knowledge bases are the most important moderating factor influencing our ability to acquire information (e.g., Chi, De Leeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994; Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994).

In other words, the more of such knowledge you gather, the quicker you will be able to learn!

Does it mean that you should try to master all the big disciplines? Of course not (unless you want to). Be picky and adjust your choices to your needs.

Whatever you do, remember this. Acquiring evergreen knowledge is an investment that will keep on giving and will never go to waste.


WHAT ARE EXAMPLES OF EVERGREEN KNOWLEDGE?

  1. 1
    The exact sciences (math, physics, etc.)
  2. 2
    The art of persuasion
  3. 3
    The science of memory and productivity
  4. 4
    Popular languages
  5. 5
    The basic nutritional and medical information
  6. 6
    The basic financial knowledge
  7. 7
    Creativity

Summary — What is smart learning and how to apply it to become a better learner?



Smart learning is a fantastic learning philosophy. I am not only its big fan, but I also practice it every single day myself.

It can be seen as the best of the worlds, i.e., productivity and the science of memory.

At its core, smart learning involves 5 key elements which, if applied correctly, can help you to learn faster and become a better learner:

  1. 1
    Optimizing your reviews
  2. 2
    Choosing the right learning materials
  3. 3
    Knowing what you can forget
  4. 4
    Choosing the right learning strategies
  5. 5
    Concentrating On What’s Evergreen!

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 23 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.

 


Why Is It Difficult to Recall Vocabulary and How to Fix It?

The phenomenon of retrieving words at will seems to be almost magical. The mere intention of wanting to use any of them recalls them effortlessly and in no time.

Hah! You wish!

The truth is that most of us look like constipated capuchin monkeys trying to poop out a screwdriver when we try to retrieve vocab! It’s difficult and it sure as hell doesn’t come easy.

Why is it so?

Well, first of all, the universe is a cruel place and probably hates you.Other than that there are some other memory-related reasons for that state of affairs.

Since I can’t do anything about the universe, let’s concentrate on the latter.

 

Difference between remembering and retrieving a word

 

Let’s start with a very different distinction between remembering a piece of information and retrieving it. Contrary to common knowledge and intuition, they are not the same.

To explain this concept, let’s look at a simple model of memory.

  1. encoding
  2. storage
  3. retrieval

As you can clearly see that first you have to encode (memorize) a piece of information and only then can you retrieve it.

It means that:

 

a) you can remember something but you might not be able to retrieve it.

b) if you can retrieve something you certainly remember it.

 

The infamous tip-of-the-tongue feeling refers to the so-called failure to retrieve error,

If you want to improve your chance of recalling an item you need to improve its retrievability.

 

What is retrievability?

Long-term memories can be characterized by two elements: Stability (S) and Retrievability (R) are part of the Two-component model of long-term memory.

 

Retrievability of memory is a variable of long-term memory that determines the probability of retrieving a memory at any given time since the last review/recall.

 

I would like to direct your attention to the word “probability”. You can never be certain that you will be able to retrieve a given memory. It all depends on a plethora of factors. But what you can do is increase your odds.

Let’s dig deeper.

 

Fundamentals – Retrieval Cues

 

Whydifficult to recall vocabulary

 

Before we move on, you need to familiarize yourself with some basic memory concepts. Only then will you be able to fully understand why you can’t recall a word and how to change it.

Everything starts with a retrieval CUE.

 

A Retrieval Cue is a prompt that help us remember. When we make a new memory, we include certain information about the situation that act as a trigger to access the memory. Source: AlleyDog

 

As you can see, literally everything can be a cue! Let’s say that you meet a nice girl. The way she looks is a cue. Actually, every piece of her garment is a cue. The weather is a cue. The look of disgust on her face as you empty yet another cup of beer and whisper gently into her ear, ” Shh. Let the magic happen” is another great example of a cue.

The sound of your feet being dragged across the dirt by the security is yet another cue.

What? No. That did not happen to me! Mind your own business! Let’s get back to science!

Saying that everything is a cue is a bit lazy, isn’t it? I think you will be able to understand them much better once you see how they are typically categorized.

And don’t worry. This is not an exercise in futility. This info will come handy.

 

Types of retrieval cues

Gillian Cohen in her book Memory In the Real World distinguishes the following cues:

  • External cues were ones that came from the environment.
  • Abstract (aka internal) cues were all thoughts or linguistic references to the original episode.
  • Sensory/perceptual cues were those that provided sensory/perceptual referents to the original episode.

Sensory cues can be further categorized as visual cues, auditory cues, haptic cues, olfactory cues, environmental cues, and so on.

  • State cues were physiological or emotional referents to the original episode

I hope that now it’s easier for you to understand that literally everything can be a cue – starting from a thought and ending with a smell.

Then, you might wonder, if there are so many of them, how come you still have trouble retrieving memories or words?

The easiest answer is that you need to use the right cues.

 

Memory principles governing recall

 

There are a couple of general rules which will help you with understanding when it is usually possible to retrieve a word.

 

1) The encoding specificity

Somewhere in the 70s, a psychologist by the name of Endel Tulving proposed a theory called the encoding specificity principle.

It states that:

 

Successful recall relies on the overlap between the thing you are trying to remember and the situation in which you first encountered it, and the cues or prompts that are available when you are trying to recall it”.

 

This gives us our first rule:

 

The more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.

 

Let’s stress it one more time – it’s not guaranteed that you will recall desired words.Meeting the said conditions simply increases the likelihood of retrieving them.

 

Example:

Let’s say that you memorized (actively) the word “cat” in the following phrase: “a black cat”.If at any given time during a conversation, you decide to use this phrase, it will most likely come to the top of your mind.

But what happens if you decide to use this word in another phrase:”a wild cat”? Assuming that you already know actively the word “wild”, there is a chance that you will be able to string this sentence together.However, the likelihood of this is definitely smaller than in the previous example as you have probably never ever made such a mental connection before. This leads to problems with so-called “information transfer“.

 

If you memorized some word in only one context, your mind can cling to it so tightly that it won’t be able to transfer a given item into another context.

 

Any time you use a given word in one part of a conversation and then can’t use it in another one,you run into exactly this problem.

 

Fun fact

Interestingly, these rules stay true regardless of the relevance of the information you are trying to retrieve.

 

“When short-range contextual dependencies are preserved in nonsense material, the nonsense is as readily recalled as is meaningfull material.” – The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives

 

Side note: Now, when I am reading this sentence I think that I need to go out more often.I have a strange definition of “fun”.

 

2) The strength of associations

Another aspect of successful retrieval is how strong your associations are. I think that it is intuitively understandable that the stronger the association between the cue and the target information the bigger your chance of retrieving an item is.

However, make no mistake:

 

The strength of your association is still not as important as the match between features of recall and features of encoding (Pansky et al., 2005; Roediger & Guynn, 1996).

Example

Imagine that you are eating peacefully your breakfast in a hotel abroad and all of a suddensome cat jumps on a table and gracefully puts its paw into your cereal bowl.

You think for a second how to word your outrage in a language of your choice andthen you finally cry out “I will skin you alive, you sack of fleas!”.

From now on, every time you decide to express your outrage in a similar situationthe chance of using exactly this phrase increases.

3) Number of cues

 

 

Edward Vul and Nisheeth Srivastava presented another interesting perspective. Namely, the process of retrieval is the process of retrieving cues that anchor the said item.

From this it follows that:

  • recognition performance is superior to recall performance when the number of items is greater than the number of cues
  • recall performance is better than recognition when the converse holds.

It means that the bigger the number of words you want to memorize, the bigger the number of cues you need.

 

Don’t overdo it – a cue overload effect

There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you decide to go over the top and insert too many cues into a piece of information you are trying to memorize you might notice that your recall rate didn’t change.

It happens so because:

 

If retrieval cues are not recognized as being distinct from one another, then cues are likely to become associated with more information, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the cue in prompting the recall of target information (Watkins & Watkins, 1975).

 

Example

Let’s say that you want to memorize a two-word phrase “a disgusting slob”. If you just create a flashcard and then try to din it into your head, there is a good chance you won’t succeed.

The number of cues is minimal here. You can just see these words visually.

In other words, you are using one sensory cue. But as you know now, there are quite many different kinds of cues.

You can dollop more of them on top of this one.

  1. You can add a sound (another sensory cue)
  2. You can say it out loud (internal and sensory cue)
  3. You can modulate your emotions (state cues)

Instead of just saying a phrase, you can shout it out angrily.Win-win! Unless you shout it out on a bus, of course.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s a slight simplification of a problem as it doesn’t factor inthe capacity of our short-term memory.

 

4) Distinctivity of cues

The last (important) piece of a puzzle is how distinct your cues are.

 

In order to increase the likelihood of recalling a verbatim-based piece of information, you need distinct retrieval cues (Anderson, 1983a; Anderson & Reder, 1999; Tuckey 743 & Brewer, 2003).

 

But why do we need distinct retrieval cues?

 

Shortly, recall of one item can prompt further recall of semantically related items (Collins & Loftus, 1975). This occurs through the spread of activation through the associative links of the memory network. Gillian Cohen – Memory In the Real World

 

You can think about it as a domino effect. One element leads us to another.

How to build good cues 

 

difficult to recall and retrieve vocabulary

 

Good quality retrieval cues often have:

  • (1) constructability (cues generated at encoding can be reliably reproduced at recall);
  • (2) consistency between encoding and retrieval within a given context  (i.e. an effective retrieval cue should be compatible with the memory trace created during encoding and show high cue-target match);
  • (3) strong associations with the target and the ability to be easily associated with newly learned information;
  • (4) bidirectionality of association (the cue recalling target information, and target information recalling the cue).
  • (5) It is also important that retrieval cues are distinctive or discriminable.

Think about those rules as guidelines. Applying them will definitely increase your odds of retrieving an item.

However, don’t go too crazy and try to apply all of them every time when you try to memorize something. If anything, you should increase the number of cues only for the words you have trouble remembering.

 

Examples of learning methods which impede retrievability

 

In the world of learning, there are a lot of methods and approaches which don’t work at allor which can be used only in the specific cases.

I would like to complete your understanding of this topic by giving you a couple of examplesof strategies which don’t follow the aforementioned framework and thus, will mostly hinder your learning

 

Mnemonics

As I have argued before, mnemonics are a great addition to your learning toolkit.However, you shouldn’t treat them as anything more than just a temporary extension of your short-term memory.

Let’s look at the quickest way to retrieve a word in a conversation.

 

PHRASE YOU LEARN       PHRASE YOU RETRIEVEencoding cue             ->      retrieval cue (identical or similar to the encoding cue) = success

 

Quite straightforward, isn’t it?

Now here is the path of retrieval when you decide to use mnemonics:

 

a big cat  -> looking for associations -> turning them into pictures -> placing them in some location -> decoding them -> retrieval

 

As you can see, we are adding a lot of unnecessary steps into the process of retrieval. The usual effect is that you:

  • a) don’t remember them after a couple of days/weeks
  • b) you remember them but can’t recall them since you have no real context for these items

 

Associations

Associations are certainly a useful learning tool. The problems occur when there are too many of them. In my line of work, I have met people who were obsessed with finding an associationfor every possible piece of information.

The thing is that the associations, just like mnemonics, can at best help you with remembering the word but not retrieving it.

 

A couple of associations are great because they are distinct.However, there is nothing distinct and special about 100 associations.

 

Another problem is that once again you are lengthening the process of retrieving a word

 

encoding information -> building an association -> decoding an association -> retrieval

(a cat) -> (it sounds similar to a candy bar ” Kit Kat -> (now you want to use the word in a conversation) it was something connected with a candy bar -> I bought a new Snickers!

Teaching/learning styles

 

difficult to recall vocabulary and retrieve it

 

I have mentioned before in a couple of articles that learning styles don’t exist (read about it more here).Sure, you can have preferences for a giving style of learning but that does not mean that this styleof learning will be more effective memory-wise.

Sure enough, there is a host of studies which suggest that even teaching styles have no influenceon the students’ ability to recall information.

If you have ever had a teacher who hired a throng of merry and naked gnomes in orderto sing you a lengthy list of historical dates then I have bad news for you.

Although, you have to appreciate the effort, right?

 

How to maximize your chances of recalling words – Summary

 

Time to recap everything you have learned so far about maximizing your chances of recalling something. But let’s do it in plain English this time.

 

  • 1. You should be the person who generates cues

If you download ready-to-use flashcards or use apps like Duolingo and then whine that you can’t learn then there’s your explanation.

 

High levels of recall usually occur when the cue is self-generated (Hunt & Smith, 1996).

 

  • 2. Retrieve vocabulary in different conditions

If you just sit at home and pore over a computer or books you are encoding and retrieving items in the same conditions and that clearly hinders their retrievability.

As you already know in order to retrieve a piece of information we need to use good cues.

Remember:

 

Retrieval is a selective process, relying on a complex interaction between encoded information and features of the retrieval environment (Tulving & Thomson, 1973).

 

  • 3. Memorize natural phrases / collocations

One more time – the more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.

Let’s say that you want to learn the word “a bike”. You decide to put it into the following phrase which you will later memorize “a bike made with light alloys”.

If you have never ever heard yourself saying such a phrase in your native tongue then what are you doing?! Use something simpler and more natural, for example, “a new bike”.

P.S. Here you can read more about choosing the best learning methods.

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 32 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go.

 

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.

 

 

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!

 

 

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

 

Regardless of whether you use Spaced Repetition Apps or not, you can’t deny that there is some controversy among language learners whether such programs are truly effective. Some people swear by it while others prefer more old-fashioned pen-centered strategies. It gets even better! Even among SRS enthusiasts, you can find different militant fractions. Some claim that Memrise is the best. Other that Quizlet is the way to go.

 

For many, it can be quite difficult to wrap their head around what’s true and what’s not. Let’s sort it out so you can finally know the answer.

 

What’s the scientific consensus about Spaced Repetition Apps

 

 

If you have ever seen one of the aforementioned squabbles online, the first thing you need to know is that opinions that SRS is ineffective are completely detached from reality. Spaced repetition is among the most thoroughly researched memory-related phenomena in the world. Its efficacy has been replicated in hundreds of comprehensive and extensive studies (read more about choosing the best language learning methods).

 

It is effective on a variety of academic fields and mediums. 

 

Spacing effects can be found in:

 

  • various domains (e.g., learning perceptual motor tasks or learning lists of words) such as spatial44
  • across species (e.g., rats, pigeons, and humans [or flies or bumblebees, and sea slugs, Carew et al 1972 & Sutton et al 2002])
  • across age groups [infancy, childhood, adulthood, the elderly] and individuals with different memory impairments
  • and across retention intervals of seconds [to days] to months (we have already seen studies using years)

 

Source (probably the best article online about the spaced repetition, well worth checking out)

 

The benefits of spaced study had been apparent in an array of motor learning tasks, including:

 

  • maze learning (Culler 1912)
  • typewriting (Pyle 1915)
  • archery (Lashley 1915)
  • javelin throwing (Murphy 1916; see Ruch 1928, for a larger review of the motor learning tasks which reap benefits from spacing; see also Moss 1996, for a more recent review of motor learning tasks).

 

Heck, there are almost no exceptions to this phenomenon. Sure, there is maybe 5% of studies which haven’t replicated these findings. But upon reading more about their design and methodologies used, one might conclude that they are often an example of bad science.

 

The only notable exception I have seen so far is that children can often fail to exhibit a spacing effect unless they process learning material in a certain way. This, however, is a topic for another article.

 

Where does all this controversy about the effectiveness of SRS programs come from then? I will get to it soon.

 

First, let’s concentrate on what makes learning truly fast and effective.

 

Encoding – the most important criterion for effective learning

 

 

A simple model of memory

 

 

Here is why most Spaced Repetition Apps don't work for you and how to fix it

 

The process of memorization can be depicted in the four following steps:

  1. Retention intention
  2. Encoding – involves initial processing of information which leads to the construction of its
    mental representation in memory
  3. Storage – is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
  4. Recall – is the retrieval of stored information from memory

 

Let’s concentrate on the second step of this process. Clearly, you can see that it’s a gateway to the land of remembering. But what does encoding really mean?

 

Encoding is any kind of attempt of manipulating a piece of information in order to increase your chances of memorizing it.”

 

What’s more, there are two kinds of encoding.

 

Two types of encoding

 

 

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.

 

Deep encoding

 

 

The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make a meaningful connection between different items. The more the better.

 

Deep encoding is so powerful for your learning that it even shows up in brain scans as increased activity in key brain areas associated with memory. It is this activity that appears to give deep processing its memory advantage. (source: How Memory Works–and How to Make It Work for You).

 

So what’s the example of deep encoding in the world of language learning? Creating sentences or saying them out loud, to be more precise.

 

Interestingly, every time I say it, there is always someone who seems surprised. I guess the reason being that we don’t appreciate enough how complicated it is for our brains to create a sentence.

Why creating sentences is so complicated

 

 

Why most Spaced Repetition Apps don't work for you and how to fix it

In order to create even the simplest of sentences you have to:

 

  1. remember actively the words you are currently learning
  2. remember all the other words in the sentence actively
  3. connect them in a meaningful way
  4. apply all the known grammar rules
  5. choose the appropriate register of the sentences (i.e. a form of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting)
  6. remember the pronunciation of all the words in the sentences
  7. pronounce all the said words by using your muscles

 

As you can see, it’s not that trivial to produce a sentence. And that’s why this process is so meaningful and memorable for your brain.

 

Initially, a lot of my students grumble about having to create many sentences. They say it’s too exhausting. I agree. The thing is that producing sentences equals knowing and being able to use a language!

 

To make your inner geek happy, it’s worth mentioning that encoding is very often connected with two other principles of memory which make your learning even more effective:

 

The level of processing effect (Craik & Lockhart, 1972)  – the more you process a given piece of information, the better you remember it.

 

The generation effect (Slamecka & Graf, 1978) – active production of a given piece of information increases your chances of permanently storing it in your long-term memory.

Read more about optimizing your language learning here.

 

Interesting, right? Now it’s time to answer the most important question – what if somebody is too lazy to actually go through all the trouble of producing sentences?

 

Consequences Of Lack Of Encoding (i.e. why most Spaced Repetition Apps don’t work)

 

 

I hope that the following paragraph will help you make a very important decision – never ever use or buy any learning app. I don’t care that you read that Gabriel Wyner is working on a revolutionary app or that Memrise has a better algorithm now.

 

The most important and effective thing you can do for your learning is to create multiple contexts (i.e. sentences) for a word you want to learn. Simply repeating ready-to-use flashcards, especially the ones without any context, won’t work well. This simple fact renders all the memory apps combined useless. ANKI is really all you need.

 

Think for a second about the solution those apps dish out to you. Most of the time they simply give you ready-to-use flashcards, often without any context! Or meaningless games which perpetuate shallow encoding. Or even when you see a flashcard with a word in the context, it was not encoded by you and thus it will be way harder to remember.

 

Time to stop looking for magical solutions. You won’t find them in apps.

 

To my chagrin, I don’t see any big company talking about this. Of course, the reason is obvious. If you pay for an app, you have to be convinced that it’s truly magical and life-changing. I don’t think they would sell well if the owners started screaming from the rooftops “They are sh*t! What’s truly magical is the effort you put into encoding your vocabulary”!

Read more about Common Language Learning Mistakes and How To Fix Them With Lean Language Learning.

 

SRS programs are just a white canvas

 

 

SRS programs

 

The right way of thinking about such programs is seeing them as a white canvas.

 

Algorithms underpinning them are close to perfect in themselves. Unfortunately, some people crap in their hand and insist on smearing it until they get a one-eyed unicorn. The next thing you know is they are running around the internet and screaming that SRS programs don’t work. You can’t be lazy when you learn.

 

I know that doing ready-to-use flashcards seems “quicker” to use because you don’t have to invest too much energy into producing them. However, in reality, they are more time-consuming in the long run because you need to spend more time repeating words unnecessarily.

 

It has to do with the mechanism of passive rehearsal which is simply a mindless act of rattling off a cluster of pre-prepared information. Many years ago it was actually proven that it has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

 

If you ever want to use such flashcards, simply treat them as a source of vocabulary to learn. Other than that, simply encode your vocabulary and you will be fine. All ready-to-use flashcards can do is create the illusion of time-efficiency while slowing your progress down at the same time.

 

To sum up, currently there is no other technology, including virtual reality, which is as effective as spaced repetition programs. However, if you don’t actually put in the effort and try to produce sentences for the words you learn then you waste most of the potential of this software.

 

Quick learning is not about time but about the effort.

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. 

 

 

How To Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading (Which Sucks Anyway)

 

Being able to read books fast is undoubtedly a fantastic skill and a very tempting one.

Can you feel the thrill of endless possibilities? If you just knew how to do it, you could read, like, ten books per week!

No wonder speed reading is a huge business. There are probably thousands of books written on the subject. And 99% percent are crap – promises-flavored crap.

Sure, everyone would like to be the guy who picks up a thick book, thumbs it through in two minutes to say, “Do they have to dumb down everything these days?”.

Can you become such a person? Definitely no. Can you become a person who reads very fast? Yes. However, if you are looking for a quick and easy solution, you will get severely disappointed.

Let’s start with some basic facts to help you read books fast without speed-reading.

 

Want to Read Books Fast? Forget About Speed Reading

 

Read Books Quickly Without Speed-Reading

 

I know that some might take this statement very personally or even be offended. 

“How dare you smear the good name of the speed-reading community?!” However, it has to be said as it frustrates me endlessly.

Almost anywhere I go, I encounter opinions that it is entirely possible. From Tony Buzan’s classic to Tim Ferris’ article, everyone claims that reading with a speed of 1000 words/min is entirely achievable.

Some even go a step further. Comments under any article on speed-reading usually spiral into some bizarre contest.

“800 wpm (words per minute)? That’s laughable, man. Try getting to 2000 wpm, like me, to see what REAL speed reading is!”

Sounds great, right? It doesn’t work. 

Before we get to the specific methods, I think you should know a thing or two about my reading background.

 

MY EXPERIENCE WITH SPEED-READING

I started my speed reading journey about 12 years ago. I have always been a great believer in the capabilities of a human mind. No wonder, I quickly got sucked into the speed-reading world.

Initially, I thought that I was a speedy reader. It quickly turned out that my typical reading speed of >300 wpm was pitiful.

Wouldn’t you feel that way?

You start reading about people who underwent a special kind of speed-reading training. About some super-geniuses, or so I thought, who can read with 3000 wpm or even 8000 wpm?

I felt inadequate.

I started reading every speed reading book I could ferret out. There were good books, and there were terrible books. Ok, mostly they were awful.

Some titles sound as if a shitfaced magician concocted them. Here are some of them. But just a word of warning. Don’t buy them. They are crap. Get yourself drunk instead. Or buy your horse a three-piece suit, It will be a better use of your money

 

  • A Course in Light Speed Reading A Return to Natural Intuitive Reading
  • The Alpha-Netics Rapid Reading Program
  • The PhotoReading Whole Mind System

 

Did I get better? Yep. At least in some way.

 

Trying to Read Books Fast – My First Results

After a couple of weeks of training, I could read with a speed of 1000 words per minute. Then I pushed myself even more, and I got to 1400 wpm. 

There was just one problem I couldn’t spot back then. The speed was there, but I understood almost nothing.

I guess Woody Allen summarized it quite brilliantly when he said, ” I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

It was a very disappointing experience. I needed some time to digest the burden of this conclusion. When I did, it became clear that:

 

1) Nothing worth reading can/should be read fast.

 

and

 

2) You can read books fast, but you can’t understand and analyze information quickly.

 

That’s why, as far as I am concerned, anyone who is selling “photographic reading courses” should be pilloried while a fat dude named Stanley sticks a tongue in his ear (so-called “seashell”).

Ok, we got this covered. Let’s move on to the things which can help you read faster.

 

How To Read Books Fast – Strategies

 

  1. Know Thy Goal
  2. Separate Learning from Reading
  3. Learn What You Read
  4. Skim
  5. Learn Core Vocabulary
  6. Build Core Knowledge
  7. Read a Lot
  8. Use the Knowledge You Learn

 

1) Know Thy Goal

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

    Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed,
    and some few to be chewed and digested. –

FRANCIS BACON (1561–1626)

 

When in doubt, trust in Bacon. He was definitely onto something.

The very first thing you should do before you open a book, and a waft of the paper hits your nostrils, is to decide why you want to read it.

It doesn’t sound sexy. I know. You are a bad boy, and you’d rather slap that book open right away. However, you need to restrain yourself as it is a crucial step.

You might not feel it, but your decision, subconscious or not, will weigh heavily on what your mind concentrates on. And on what you extract from the text.

You usually read for

  • knowledge
  • inspiration
  • relax

 

Try to choose one of the said purposes. 

Of course, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the exact purpose of reading. Nevertheless, you always do your best to determine it as precisely as you only can

 

2) Separate Learning from Reading

You are ambitious – that’s great. It’s even admirable. And very likely, it is an invisible burden that hovers over your head and stops you from reading faster.
Why?
Let me guess. Are you trying to read and analyze information at the same time? You see something thought-provoking, adjust your monocle and say, “Oh my, utterly marvelous. Let’s ponder over it for a while.”
Do you?
Then if your goal is to read books fast, you are setting yourself up for failure. There is one crucial lesson here you need to understand.

 

Reading is not learning. Learning is not reading.*

*it’s a good tattoo idea if you ever need one

 

Your brain is not a computer. It can’t switch effectively between two different activities. Do it for a short period, and you will burn through all the glucose stashed in your brain.

Result? Headaches, the feeling of general fatigue, malaise, and so on. After a while, your brain becomes impervious to new information. This method of reading is not very sustainable.

Mind you that I am not saying that you can’t read and learn at the same time. I am just stating a simple fact that it is not a very effective method of reading.

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

How to Separate Learning from Reading

To be honest, I have struggled with this problem for quite some time until the two beautiful words dawned on me.

*whispers sensually”

 

Batch working.

 

I am sure you are familiar with the term but just to be sure, let’s explain it:

 

Batch working is a process of grouping items because they are similar, or because we plan to do something similar to them.

 

For instance, it wouldn’t make much sense to make a massive omelet without preparing products beforehand. Can you imagine how ineffective it would be?!

“I need twenty eggs to make this omelet.”

*takes two and cracks them open into a bowl*

“I need two more.”

*opens a fridge and takes another two*

Doesn’t it sound frustrating?

That is why you should always try to group similar tasks. It is the method which, I am pretty sure, saved my sanity.

 

1) First mark/highlight

Whenever you stumble across something that is

  • interesting
  • thought-provoking
  • vague
  • incomprehensible
  • you don’t agree with

mark/highlight it in some way.

Jot it down on a margin or copy it into some file. Don’t try to dismantle any of the concepts you have read about. The time for that will come.

Done? Good. Keep on reading. Have you marked another fragment? Good. Keep on reading.

 

2) Learn/analyze

After reading a certain number of pages, set aside some time for a more detailed analysis.
Go crazy, analyze the heck out of everything.

Refute, digest, criticize to your heart’s content.

Learning is demanding enough on its own. Don’t mix it additionally with reading.

 

3) Learn What You Read

 

Learn what you read

 

This one comes from a very frustrating experience.

About two years ago, I was binge reading about 3-4 books per week. Of course, being a sensible learner, I took notes and scribbled my remarks about everything, even mildly interesting.

In quite a short period, I amassed notes from over 40 books. The bad luck had it that I hit a rough patch and didn’t have so much time anymore. After everything settled, I came back to reading. I didn’t do anything with the notes, mind you. They just sat soused in my notebook.

Fast forward year and a half, I was reading some interesting excerpts from a book on cognitive neuroscience. My eyes lay on a particular sentence, which solved one of the biggest obstacles I had at the time concerning my memory experiments.

I was freaking ecstatic! The worst part?

A couple of months ago, I finally strapped myself to a chair and started going through the notes mentioned above. A couple of minutes into the reading, I saw it. There it was, guffawing blatantly at my helplessness — the same damn fact.

The miracle solution was there all along. I didn’t learn it. In the process, I wasted myriads of hours on useless experimenting.

Lesson learned:

 

Before you move to the next book, learn what you have read before.

 

Almost Every Book Is a Treasure Trove of Knowledge

It makes perfect sense, even more so if you want to specialize in some area. Your average author spends hundreds of hours researching his book or summarizing his knowledge.

Without notes, you will spend dozens of hours reading it and end up with almost no knowledge. You will remember just a couple of main things. Nothing more. And it would be a damn shame.

Thanks to this strategy, your ever-growing knowledge will help you go quickly through most of the books.

How quickly?

It’s not unusual for me to read a 400-page book in less than two days. There is not enough new information for me to absorb. Sometimes you have to do the hard things first, so it gets easier.

Read more: How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Your Action Plan and Recommended Strategies.

 

4) Skim

 

Skim While Reading

 

You don’t have to read everything.

 

You can skim through some paragraphs or descriptions. Nobody will judge you.

 

I am yet to hear, “John is such a filthy, primitive animal, I have heard he skips paragraphs. He sickens me!”

What is important for an author might be meaningless to you. Take this article as an example. I thought it was essential to include my personal experiences. But maybe you don’t care. That’s ok, skim through such passages until you catch a glimpse of something more interesting.

 

5) Learn Core Vocabulary

A specific lingo permeates every industry and area of specialization. Love it or hate it; it’s still something you must learn.

My main area of specialization is learning/memory and everything in-between, like productivity.

Not knowing what the hippocampus, the dentate gyrus, or the Premack’s principle is, would have the paralyzing influence on my reading ability. It would be equivalent to kneecapping myself and expecting to run.

 

If you care about being good in the area of your choice, always try to master every word you encounter.

 

6) Build Core Knowledge

 

In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you. – MORTIMER J. ADLER

 

I can safely assume that whatever you read, you read because you want to learn more. Or you want to master a given field of knowledge. In any case, you should know that initially, your pace of reading will always be slow. But that’s good.

 

Slow is new fast. This deceptive sluggishness is the speed of light in disguise.

 

Look at this excerpt.

 

In an imagery study by Okado and Stark (2003), increased PFC activity for false memories was localized to the right anterior cingulate gyrus. Given the role of the anterior cingulate in response competition and conflict (Kerns et al., 2004), the authors concluded that this reflects the increased effort involved in incorrectly endorsing an imagined item as “seen.” ERP studies also support the conclusion that frontal regions may distinguish between true and false memories, and be engaged in greater monitoring and evaluation associated with false retrieval (Curran et al., 2001; Fabiani, Stadler, and Wessels, 2000; Goldmann et al., 2003; Nessler, Mecklinger, and Penney, 2001; Wiese and Daum, 2006).

 

It is a typical excerpt from a book on neuroscience. If you have no scientific foundation, it can be hard for you to read even a couple of pages from such a book. Let alone an entire book.
It is precisely where building core vocabulary and knowledge comes together.

 

It’s one thing to get familiar with the nomenclature. But do you really understand how these terms interrelate?

 

Do you understand, at least superficially, what is their function? If not, you have to analyze it. Only then can you move on. It’s not fast. It takes time. But there is not even one discipline in this world where you can skip basics.

Read more: The Magnet Theory – Why Deep Understanding and Problem-Solving Starts with Memorization.

 

7) Read a Lot

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

The more you read, the more efficient the reader you become. The reader who knows the ins and outs of different styles of writing. The one who knows when to skim and when to read deep into a text.

 

These benefits alone explain well why you should try to read as much as possible. But there is one more reason.

 

The spiral theory of knowledge.

 

The Spiral Theory of Knowledge

The spiral theory of knowledge describes a fascinating phenomenon.

First, when you encounter a particular idea, you might not notice or comprehend it. Not fully anyway. Then you move on to something else. You learn other subjects, read other books. Then, after some time, you reencounter the same idea, and only then can you get your Eureka moment.

“How could I not understand it before?! That was so easy. The answer was there all along!”

And that’s a great question. How come you didn’t understand this concept before? Your knowledge was to blame. At the time, it was patchy and full of gaps. You were not ready to comprehend the full scope of the idea then.

The potential answer to whatever questions that might be bugging you, consciously or subconsciously, lies in yet another book.

Yes, there is a door behind the door. But you will never know if it has the answer written on it until you open it.

 

8) Use the Knowledge You Learn

Many people love to brag about the number of books they read every month. They are like beautiful shiny badges. The phenomenon is so well-known that Issac Watts wrote about it in his book “The Improvement Of The Mind” in 1821!

 

Such persons are under a great temptation to practice these two follies. (1.) To heap up a great number of books at a greater expense than most of them can bear, and to furnish their libraries infinitely better than their understanding. And (2.) when they have gotten such rich treasures of knowledge upon their shelves, they imagine themselves men of learning, and take a pride in talking of the names of famous authors, and the subjects of which they treat, without any real improvement of their own minds in true science or wisdom. At best their learning reaches no further than the indexes and table of contents, while they know not how to judge or reason concerning the matters contained in those authors. And indeed how many volumes of learning soever a man possesses, he is still deplorably poor in his understanding, till he has made those several parts of learning his own property by reading and reasoning, by judging for himself, and remembering what he has read.

 

Don’t be one of those people.

 

Try to find even the slightest use, if it is only possible, for whatever that is you’re reading. Impress someone or help a friend with some problems. Find a better job. Anything will do.

 

Just don’t let it go to waste as I did for such a long time.

Years ago, I used to learn every single fact about almost anything. And I am sad to inform you that it was mostly wasted effort. I don’t remember almost anything I learned.

Why would I?

My brain didn’t find this knowledge useful, nor did I find it helpful – and so it had to go.

 

How To Read Books Fast – Summary

 

We are wired to follow the path of the least resistance. No wonder. We are drawn to, seemingly, easy solutions such as speed-reading.

But you already know the truth, don’t you? There are no easy fixes. There are no easy solutions. And yet it is still possible to read fast. Even very fast. But first, you have to put effort into building a foundation.

The very same effort which will make your newly acquired skill taste so sweet. Enjoy it.

 

How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Your Action Plan and Recommended Strategies

How to master many fields of knowledge

 

Growing-up has to be one of the saddest things ever from the outside perspective. It’s like a backward evolution. You see how amazingly curious creatures turn into mindless corporate drones. You see how the pursuit of knowledge turns into the pursuit of money.

I believe that curiosity and the power to create are the very things that can ward off all the negative in the world. However, for those qualities to survive, you have to feed them continuously. The problem is that modern times actively discourage people from becoming a polymath.

What’s more, we live in the conviction that there is not enough lifetime to master many areas of expertise.

I want to show you that it’s possible if you play your cards right. Within your lifetime, you can become great at many things. But before we get to the specifics, let’s start with a fundamental question:

 

How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Is It Worth It?

 

 

I like to think of knowing many things as of the magical glasses – the more you know, the more you can see.

 

Being stuck in one field of specialty is nothing short of being blindfolded. You can go throughout life without being able to spot all those enchanting intricacies coming from the expanded perspective.

 

Everything starts making sense. You know why leaves are green. You know why bread turns brown.
Unfortunately, being good at many things is not encouraged these days. We want everyone to be ultra-specialized, which breeds ignorance in almost all other areas.
Kant elegantly touched upon it years ago:

 

It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all.

I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.

The guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision will soon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex) should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous.

Having first infatuated their domesticated animals, and carefully prevented the docile creatures from daring to take a single step without the leading-strings to which they are tied, they next show them the danger which threatens them if they try to walk unaided.

Now this danger is not in fact so very great, for they would certainly learn to walk eventually after a few falls.

But an example of this kind is intimidating, and usually frightens them off from further attempts.”

 

It couldn’t be any more accurate. Of course, we don’t have to know everything. But will it hurt to learn just a little bit from many areas of knowledge? Were we created to be stuck in one groove all of our lives?

 

Why You Should Master Many Fields of Knowledge

 

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

~ Robert Anson Heinlein

 

Even though it’s advisable to master at least one field of knowledge intimately, it’s usually not necessary to do it for more than one.

 

How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – the Pareto Principle

 

 

One of the first logical foundations which will allow you to build a wide array of skills is the Pareto Principle.

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

 

In other words, find out what’s essential in a given field of knowledge and learn it. This way, you will be able to double-down on what’s important and save a lot of time in the process.

 

How much time is needed to be good?

Of course, just telling you to apply the Pareto Principle would be lazy. We need more specifics.

From the work of K. Anders Ericsson, we know that to be world-class at something, you need about 10k hours of deliberate practice.

Of course, throughout the years, many other researchers have proven that this number might vary depending on, among others, the complexity of a given skill.

However, for simplicity’s sake, I will stick to this number.

 

Even though the number looks scary, you should not forget that you don’t need to become world-class in every field of knowledge. With just about 1-2k hours, you might become an ordinary expert.

 

If you apply the Pareto Principle to this number, you will see that with just 200-400 hours of your time, you will be able to understand most of the things in this field.
Yikes. Maybe that still looks way too scary. But there is one more thing you can do to learn even smarter.

 

Working smarter – The Pareto Principle of the Pareto Principle

 

 

Once again – the Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. However, if you apply the Pareto principle to the Pareto principle, you might see that roughly 64% of the effects come from 4% of the causes.

 

It means that if you can determine the absolute essentials, you will be able to become good at something while spending only 4% of your time/effort.

 

In other words, with just between 40-80 hours, you will know your way around a given discipline.

Example 1

For example, what if you don’t trust your endocrinologist and would like to, sort of, become one.

Easy, it’s enough that you learn:

  • what hormones are
  • how they function
  • what are the main hormones in our body
  • how they are produced
  • sprinkle on top some knowledge about Type 1 and 2 Diabetes, thyroid disorders, PCOS, cortisol- and testosterone-related disorders.

As difficult as it’s to believe, most specialists deal with the same old cases day in, day out.

 

Remember – you don’t need to know every possible exception to every possible rule to be good.

 

Example 2

What if you want to be a semi-professional gourmet? No problem! Memorize the scale for describing foods and start tasting!

Mayonnaise, for example, is supposed to be evaluated along:

  • 1) six dimensions of appearance

(color, color intensity, chroma, shine, lumpiness, and bubbles)

  • 2) ten dimensions of texture:

(adhesiveness to lips, firmness, denseness, and so on)

  • 3) and fourteen dimensions of flavor split among three

subgroups:

a) aromatics (eggy, mustardy, and so forth);

b) basic tastes (salty, sour, and sweet);

c)  chemical-feeling factors (burn, pungent, astringent).

 

Example 3

What if you want to get good at persuading people (because manipulation is such a dirty word)? I would dare to say that reading Cialdini’s classic book should be enough to be at least decent at this craft. The rest is practice and the automation of those rules.

A famous quote by Bruce Lee echoes that thought:

 

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

 

Oftentimes, you might discover that a slightly smaller knowledge that is automated is much better than knowing a lot of theory.

Read more: The Curse of the Hamster Wheel of Knowledge – Why Becoming a Real Expert Is Very Difficult.

 

Your Action Plan

 

Even though we are talking about mastering potentially a lot of fields of knowledge, we all have to start somewhere. Here is a simple list that might help you with the preparation process.

 

1. Make a list of all the things you want to learn and choose no more than 3

Once you master those fields of expertise, you will be able to move on to the next ones.

 

2. Make sure they are potentially applicable to your life

I want to emphasize that you can learn whatever you want. However, if you choose useful skills at the beginning, you will find it much easier to find time to practice them.

Learning practical things is also extremely rewarding and can help you keep your motivation high.

 

3. Choose how much time you want to devote to them daily

 

I don’t want to be too lax in my calculations, that’s why I am going to assume that being good enough at something requires 100 hours.

 

That tells us that with about 1 hour per day for each field of knowledge, you should be able to know them relatively well in a bit over three months.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the more you know, the easier it will be for you to acquire even more skills and knowledge (so-called the Snowball Effect).

Remember that you don’t have to cling to these numbers religiously – they are here to impose some general guidelines.

 

4. Determine what you should learn

You can try to google what are the essentials of the given area of specialty or contact somebody who does it for a living. That should do the trick.

 

5. Get your learning materials

Once you know what to learn, this step shouldn’t be too difficult. The only thing I can add here is this – make sure that your source of knowledge is reliable. You don’t want to waste your time remembering things that have no reflection in reality.

 

How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Recommended Strategies

 

Your action plan and basic strategies

 

Congratulations! Now you know roughly how to organize your learning. It’s time you familiarized yourself with the strategies which might help you achieve your goals faster and with less effort.

 

1. Use deliberate practice

 

Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. – source.

 

Common characteristics of deep learning:

  • it gives you a specific goal
  • it requires your full attention
  • it’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
  • it gives you feedback

 

In other words, deliberate practice gives you a goal and tells you to mercilessly concentrate on a given concept until you’re ready to move on to the next one.
I will be the first to admit that it’s not the most pleasant learning strategy. However, if you power through it, you will find out that it’s the quickest one out there. For me, a little pain for a lot of gains is undoubtedly a trade-off I am willing to make (read more about deliberate practice here).
 

2. Combine skills (aka laddering, skill transfer)

 

It’s important to realize that a lot of different skills might be combined to save you time and make your practice sessions more productive.

 

For example, you can:

  • exercise and listen to a lecture at the same time
  • learn a language and use it to master a particular area of knowledge
  • learn how to negotiate to get a job in a different department where you will be able to use your newly acquired programming skills

The number of combinations is endless. Give it some thought and contemplate what kind of combinations might work for you.

I like to watch pointless YT videos from time to time, but I never do it without a work-out session.

 

3. Use and automate your knowledge 

Not every skill has to be useful, but it’s certainly much easier to maintain it if you automate its use, and you can use it. At least on a semi-regular basis (read more about automating your skills here).

 

4. Do interesting things / choose difficult projects

Simple tasks don’t require much brainpower – probably that’s why soon multifunctional AI blenders will replace 50% of our planet.

If you want to let, your talents shine, always strive to take up challenging projects which involve the use of many different skills. It doesn’t matter whether they are a part of your job description or just a personal project. Try to make them relatively challenging relative to your current skill set (read more about doing the hard work here).

 

5. Help others

Helping others has to be one of the best ways to master many fields of knowledge. There are thousands of people in the world who might benefit from your expertise. Find them and do your best to help them alleviate at least part of their problems.

 

Not only will you feel slightly better and decrease your chances of becoming a skull ashtray for all the hellish abominations below us, but you will also consolidate your skills significantly better.

 

Why?

Because the more you’re able to embed your knowledge in reality, the easier it is to remember it.

 

How to Master Many Fields of Knowledge – Summary

 

Many people think that trying to master many fields of knowledge is silly. Why bother if you can pay somebody for their expertise or do something less taxing.

However, the truth is that doing so can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your life. Once you wrap your head around main concepts from many different disciplines, your life will improve. You, in turn, will become more confident.

And the entire process doesn’t have to take that much time if you stick to the strategies mentioned in this article. Good luck on your journey!

 

Benefits Of Talking To Yourself And How To Do It Right To Master a Language

 

There is no better way to start a piece on the benefits of talking to yourself than to quote Mr. Jones.

 

“One advantage of talking to yourself is that you know at least somebody’s listening,” Franklin P. Jones.

You must be thinking now – is there a BAD way to do it? Of course. Believe me, It’s definitely an art. Just like basket weaving.
But seriously – we take our ability to talk to ourselves for granted. I tried to google “talking to yourself” in some languages. The result? Usually, people are trying to make sure that they don’t have schizophrenia.

Taking to Yourself – Why so Many Bad Associations?

Every time, every damn time, when I mention to somebody that I love talking to myself out loud, they give me this weird look. They probably think that I put on my trench coat, get on the bus, sit near some nice old lady, and rub myself while blurting out some incomprehensible words.
That’s a grave misunderstanding. If used the right way, “self-talk,” as psychologists refer to it, can be a handy tool in your mental arsenal. It can, I kid you not, improve almost every area of your life.
No more shameful hiding in the shadows. Embrace your inner voices, and let me walk you through the benefits of talking to yourself!

 

Cognitive Benefits Of Talking To Yourself

 

What does the research say about the benefits of talking to yourself?
Research from the University of Michigan found that those who worked through their stress about giving a speech about their qualifications using “you” rather than “I” performed better and were less tormented by anxiety and self-doubt.

When people think of themselves as another person, “it allows them to give themselves objective, helpful feedback“, says Ethan Kross, associate professor of psychology and director of the Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory at the University of Michigan

In another study, psychologists Gary Lupyan (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Daniel Swingley (University of Pennsylvania) conducted a series of experiments to discover whether talking to yourself can help you to locate lost objects.

Long story short – they established that speaking facilitated search, particularly when there was a strong association between the name and the visual target.

You see? Not only children can augment their thinking while doing some tasks!

Are there any other benefits other than being more likely to stay on taskstaying focused better, and showing improved perception capabilities?

 

Sure! Better memory. Think about it – when you talk out loud, you stimulate more sensory channels than when you subvocalize. You hear the sounds. What’s more, even though you may not realize it, your body feels sounds as they are conducted through your bones.

Fun fact: Bone conduction is one reason why a person’s voice sounds different to him/her when it is recorded and played back.
Last but not least, whenever you say something out loud, you engage your emotions. One of the most potent ingredients to boost your memory.
Research is great. But experiencing something first hand is even better.
Choose some words you’d like to memorize and shout it out angrily or with joy and afterward start laughing like a madman. I’ll be amazed if you can’t recall it a few days later.
Here’s a good example. I’m sure you remember this scene if you have seen the movie.

I hope that by this moment, you’re at least muttering to yourself!

 

Benefits of Talking to Yourself – Overcoming Stage Fright

 

Everybody has his favorite tricks to deal with anxiety. But the one which I find the most effective is preparing yourself for what’s about to come.

Have a presentation?

Stand in front of the mirror and go through your presentation as many times as it’s necessary to turn it into a brilliant performance. Who knows? Maybe you will enjoy it that much that you will join Toastmasters.

Have an interview?

Collect the list of 20-30 most frequently asked questions and rehearse the crap out of them!

Want to confront your boss about the long-overdue raise?

List all the possible questions that may come up during such a conversation and prepare your answers. Doing so will put you in a much better position when push comes to shove.

And so on. You get the idea.

 

Proper preparation kills stress and anxiety.

 

 

Benefits of Talking to Yourself – Practicing Languages

 

What if I told you that you could learn a language without uttering a word to anyone else but yourself? You would probably think I’m crazy. And I certainly am. After all, I’m writing an article about talking to yourself.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I learned Swedish (B2 level) to get the job in less than four months without talking to anyone in Swedish (but myself). And while working 50+ hours per week.

Talking to yourself is one of the best (and cheapest!) ways to improve your language skills. Conversations with others always impose various limitations on you. It’s entirely understandable – It’s much more important to keep the talk alive than to experiment with different grammar constructions or new vocabulary.

 

Self-talk enables you to concentrate on your weaknesses. Such deliberate practice can significantly improve your language level.

 

How to Talk to Yourself?

All conversations are based on the “action-reaction” principle. Somebody asks you some questions – you answer. It goes on and on. That’s why, if you want to prepare yourself for conversations with, say, friends from abroad, you should list potential questions that might come up, together with answers to them. Don’t forget about taking into consideration the interests of potential conversation partners!

Of course, you don’t have to come up with all the questions by yourself.

I want to recommend two fantastic websites which I have been using for many years:

 

They cover almost every socially acceptable topic which might crop up during your conversations. Together with some more “unusual” subjects, such as – eye contact or Jamaica.

If you discuss most of these subjects with yourself, I can guarantee you that you’ll be able to talk with every native speaker about almost anything you want. Isn’t it a definition of being fluent?

 

Overcome Weirdness of Talking to Yourself

 

Benefits Of Talking To Yourself

Picture by: Gabriel77

It’s only weird if you make it weird. You don’t have to rush to your friends to brag about this, nor do you have to write an article about this (sic!). It’s just a tool to make you a better person.
It’s perfectly normal. Do you know that computer scientists do it as well (not that it means anything!)?

Rubber duck debugging is an informal term used in software engineering for a method of debugging code. The name is a reference to a story in the book The Pragmatic Programmer in which a programmer would carry around a rubber duck and debug their code by forcing themselves to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck.[1] Many other terms exist for this technique, often involving different inanimate objects.

 

So don’t be a weirdo and don’t feel ashamed to talk to yourself!

 

Other Benefits of Talking to Yourself

 

That’s right. You might use the self-talk for various things, such as:

 

  • Energizing and motivating yourself – you can psych yourself up with: “Come on!” “Let’s go!” “You can do this!”. Martial artists have been using screams for hundreds of years to give them some extra energy. I’m pretty sure there is a good reason for that.
  • Playing devil’s advocate – find the weaknesses in your argumentation. Try to debunk your theories. Saying your options out loud and elaborating on the pros and cons can help bring the right choice to light, and you might be surprised at the unexpected direction your thoughts take when they’re audible.
  • Blowing off steam – don’t keep it all inside. If your colleague is a massive w*nker, say it out loud and scold him. Scientists found out that swearing can alleviate pain and decrease stress.
  • Cheering yourself up – sometimes, it just happens that others don’t appreciate you enough. So what? You can pat yourself on the back for being a great human being!

 

Benefits of Talking to Yourself – FAQ 

 

My spouse/brother/friend is talking to himself/herself a bit too much? Should I be worried?

Generally, no, unless you notice any of the two following symptoms.

  • The self-talk is accompanied by general hostility towards others, cupping some object and calling it “my precious.”
  • It turns out that they are talking to the invisible friend called Jimmy

 

Remember, it’s not weird until you make it weird!

 

The Curse of the Hamster Wheel of Knowledge – Why Becoming a Real Expert Is Very Difficult

The curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge

A fascinating and, let's be honest, an inseparable part of human nature is attributing to oneself mainly positive qualities, i.e. egocentric bias.


Egocentric bias - a tendency to explain the consequences of one's own behavior in such a way as to increase positive and reduce negative significance for one's self-esteem.


And maybe I am slightly prejudiced because of my interest in memory, but it seems to me that nowhere else is it as visible as in the work we do.

How many times have you met a doctor, IT specialist, or even a chef who said he was average or mediocre? That's right. It doesn't happen often.

The truth is, there are very few real experts. Not that people are lazy or lacking in intelligence.

All because of the phenomenon I call ... * sinister background music *



THE CURSE OF THE HAMSTER WHEEL OF KNOWLEDGE



What is the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge?

Before proceeding to clarify the nature of the curse itself, it is worth starting with a reminder of what the Pareto principle is.



The Pareto principle


The Pareto principle says that statistically, in many areas of life, 20% of the potential causes are associated with 80% of the results.

This does not mean, of course, that the ratio is always 20/80. Sometimes it will be 10/90 or 30/70.


The most important conclusion, however, is that most often a relatively small group of variables will be responsible for most of the results.

How does this relate to the work we do?


The Pareto principle for work



By transposing the above rule onto professional soil, it is not difficult to notice that in any profession there are a limited number of tasks or problems that will dominate the workload.


Knowledge Pyramid


The next step that will help you understand the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge is to look at the knowledge pyramid.

Although it is sometimes criticized for lack of precision, this pyramid still shows one important thing: active learning, such as performing activities, guarantees much more effective assimilation of information.

Read more about The Guide To Effective Problem Solving For Beginners.


In other words, the information we don't use very quickly fades from our minds.


What's more, the more abstract the information is, the faster we forget it.



Final explanation of the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge


Summarizing the above, we can say that:

  1. A limited number of problems and tasks fill most of the time in any profession.
  2. Unused knowledge (especially abstract) quickly leaves our minds.

And this is the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge.


Most of us have no idea how to retain a great deal of knowledge in our mind, and thus it is quickly forgotten. At the same time, we do not have to suffer undue consequences for this. The lesser amount of knowledge we have and use is able to address the tasks we face, through repetition caused by the Pareto principle.

Thus, most people are at a level of competence that guarantees no one will kick them in the ass, making them a corporate piñata.

But make no mistake about it - it is the so-called survivable level of competence, which is self-sustaining at most.

However, it is no indicator of sophistication or highly specialized knowledge.



An example of a hamster wheel of knowledge - building muscle mass


Initially, I wanted to Google relevant articles or statistics for this section. However, I found that it would be easier to just relate an anecdote from my own life, which for some reason stuck in my mind.

It was relatively easy for me to notice it because I obsessively remember absolutely everything in every field that interests me, in particular anything related to medicine, nutrition and physiology.

A good friend of mine, during one of our conversations, mentioned that he is considering testosterone supplementation because he is not particularly pleased with the growth rate of his muscle mass.

The training and nutrition plan that he got from his trainer with 15 years of experience can be called a classic.

Lift 3 times a week for power to hit every muscle group 2-3 times, eat 5 meals a day, and ingest a ton of strange supplements that if they had an effect, it was definitely a placebo.

After looking at the whole thing, it turned out that:


  • His basal metabolic rate was poorly calculated and was not further adjusted for his weight loss.
  • The optimal amount of protein needed for muscle mass synthesis had been incorrectly calculated.
  • Before starting training, he was not asked to perform thyroid tests. To be honest, I've never heard a trainer instruct a client in my life, despite the fact that in the event of a thyroid disorder, muscle building and regeneration will be impaired.
  • The coach hasn't recommended measuring baseline testosterone. Most mean nowadays have abysmally low levels of this hormone, and it can be easily increased.
  • Carnosine had been recommended as a supplement, although it is found abundantly in meat which my friend eats in abundance. For example, about 450 g of chicken has 2g of carnosine in it, and 450 g of beef about 1.5g. At the same time, the saturation threshold for carnosine is about 2g. After crossing the threshold, it ceases to be effectively absorbed in the small intestine.
  • It was recommended to take BCAA, or branched chain amino acids. This is all the more strange because it is taught in school that proteins are broken down into amino acids and that proteins of animal origin contain large amounts of branched chain amino acids. In addition, he also took whey protein hydrolyzate, which as a supplement of animal origin is also broken down into amino acids, including large quantities into branched chain amino acids.
  • Etc.

I could go on and on about what else could be done, but I think the above is enough to highlight the following thought:


the moment when you think you know enough is the moment when you condemn yourself to mediocrity.


To become a real expert, you need to constantly expand your knowledge.

Let's discuss the simple ways you can do it.


How to fight the curse of the hamster wheel of knowledge


Don't worry. We are not talking about smearing your face with bat guano or sticking dill into your colon during the new moon. I mean, it will certainly not hurt, but it won't be that useful.

The following approach is needed here:


1. Have a system

99% of the people I've ever talked to have absolutely no systematic way of acquiring knowledge.


Most often they work on the principle of throwing wet paper at the wall. If you read or listen to information enough, something will probably stick.

If you give yourself 20 years to be decent in your field of choice, then the above solution is completely rational.

However, if you want to do it much faster, create your own learning system.


By the learning system I mean a fixed way of acquiring new information.

The one I usually recommend is simply downloading a review optimization program (e.g. ANKI) and entering the information you want to remember.


2. Don't stop learning

It doesn't matter how much you already know. It's always worth assuming that you still don't know enough. If you already study regularly, you should not have special problems with this.

If you have trouble with regularity, you can always set an overarching rule that you must stick to every day.

It can be, for example, learning 3 new facts a day.

Read more about How To Build Durable Habits In 4 Easy Steps Even If Your Motivation Is At An All Time Low.


3. Create a knowledge map


I say it repeatedly: one of the biggest challenges in science is to be aware of what we don't know as accurately as possible.


Although this sounds abstract, it is perfectly logical. Until you know that there is knowledge that you have not yet acquired, you will not be able to access it in any way, nor will you be able to even consider using it to solve a problem.

A good example is an IT specialist who has learned to program in a given language at an intermediate level and has been using the same commands over and over again to solve various kinds of problems.

Although this knowledge level is often sufficient to solve the problem, it is neither optimal nor efficient.

So your goal is to create a long-term knowledge map, i.e. a list of things you need to learn. You can do this even by browsing through appropriate textbooks or courses and systematically acquiring encountered knowledge.


Have you noticed any signs of the hamster wheel of knowledge curse in your immediate surroundings? Let me know in the comments!


Pictures and Images in Flashcards – Are They Even Useful?

 

Have you noticed a trend that has been going on for quite many years now? Almost every app out there seems to be using pictures. It’s been touted as a magical cure for your inability to learn.

But is it really the case or maybe it’s another thinly veiled attempt to talk you into buying a premium version of some crappy app?

Unfortunately, it seems to be the latter. Yes, learning with pictures has its benefits, but they are relatively tiny compared to the effort and other potential strategies you might use.

Let’s investigate step by step why it’s so!

 

Potential benefits of learning with pictures

 

One picture is worth 1000 words, as the saying goes, and I am pretty sure that every child who ever wandered into their parent’s bedroom in the middle of the night can attest to this. But what’s important to you, as a learner, is how many benefits can learning with pictures offer you. After all, you wouldn’t want to waste too much time adding them to your flashcards if they are useless.

 

The Picture Superiority Effect (i.e. you remember pictures better)

 

Pictures and images in your flashcards - are they even useful?

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

If we want to discuss advantages of using pictures, we much touch upon the picture superiority effect. This is a go-to argument of many proponents of this approach to learning.

The picture superiority effect refers to the phenomenon in which pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words.

It’s not anything debatable- the effect has been reproduced in a variety of experiments using different methodologies. However, the thing that many experts seem to miss is the following excerpt:

pictures and images are more likely to be remembered than words.

It just means we are great at recognizing pictures and images. It has its advantages but it’s not should be confused with being able to effortlessly memorize vocabulary.

Let’s quickly go through some studies to show you how amazingly well we can recognize pictures.

 

Power of recognition memory (i.e. you’re good at recognizing pictures)

 

In one of the most widely-cited studies on recognition memory. Standing showed participants an epic 10,000 photographs over the course of 5 days, with 5 seconds’ exposure per image. He then tested their familiarity, essentially as described above.

The participants showed an 83% success rate, suggesting that they had become familiar with about 6,600 images during their ordeal. Other volunteers, trained on a smaller collection of 1,000 images selected for vividness, had a 94% success rate.

But even greater feats have been reported in earlier times. Peter of Ravenna and Francesco Panigarola, Italian memory teachers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively, were each said to have retained over 100,000 images for use in recalling enormous amounts of information. – Robert Madigan – How Memory Works and How To Make it Work For You

Now that we have established that we’re pretty good at recognizing images, let’s try to see if pairing words with pictures offers more benefits.

 

Boosting your recall

 

Another amazing benefit of using pictures as a part of your learning strategy is improving your recall. This process occurs in the following way:

During memory recall, neurons in the hippocampus began to fire strongly. This was also the case during a control condition in which participants only had to remember scene images without the objects. Importantly, however, hippocampal ativity lasted much longer when participants also had to remember the associated object (the raspberry or scorpion image). Additionally, neurons in the entorhinal cortex began to fire in parallel to the hippocampus.

The pattern of activation in the entorhinal cortex during successful recall strongly resembled the pattern of activation during the initial learning of the objects,” explains Dr. Bernhard Staresina from the University of Birmingham.” – The brain’s auto-complete function, New insights into associative memory

It’s worth pointing out that even the evidence for improved recall is limited and usually concerns abstract words and idiomatic expressions.

Farley et al. (2012) examined if the meaning recall of words improved in the presence of imagery, and found that only the meaning recall of abstract words improved, while that of concrete nouns did not. A possible interpretation of this finding is that, in the case of concrete nouns, most learners can naturally produce visual images in their mind and use them to remember the words.

Therefore, the Vocabulary Learning and Instruction, 6 (1), 21–31. 26 Ishii:

The Impact of Semantic Clustering additional visual images in the learning material do not affect the learning outcome, since they are already present in their mind. However, in the case of abstract nouns, since it is often difficult for learners to create images independently, the presentation of imagery helps them retain the meaning of the words they are trying to learn.

Jennifer Aniston neurons

 

Jennifer Aniston neurons
It seems that this improved recall is caused by creating immediate associations between words and pictures when they are presented together.

The scientists showed patients images of a person in a context e.g. Jennifer Aniston at the Eiffel Tower, Clint Eastwood in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Halle Berry at the Sidney Opera House or Tiger Woods at the White House. They found that the neuron that formerly fired for a single image e.g. Jennifer Aniston or Halle Berry, now also fired for the associated image too i.e. the Eiffel Tower or Sidney Opera House.

The remarkable result was that the neurons changed their firing properties at the exact moment the subjects formed the new memories – the neuron initially firing to Jennifer Aniston started firing to the Eiffel Tower at the time the subject started remembering this association,” said Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, head of the Centre for Systems Neuroscience at the University of Leicester.” – Researchers Make a “Spectacular Discovery” About Memory Formation and Learning 

To sum it up, we know that:
  • we’re great at remembering pictures
  • we’re great at recognizing pictures
  • we’re great at recalling pictures 

 

Let me make it clear – these benefits are undeniable, and they have their use in the learning process. However, the real question is – how effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary!

 

How effective are pictures at helping you memorize and recall vocabulary

 

Before I move on to the science, let’s start with my personal experiments. Contrary to a lot of “language experts” online, I rarely believe anything I read unless I see lots of quality scientific support for some specific claims. And believe me, it’s not easy. Most of scientific studies are flawed on so many different levels that they shouldn’t be written at all.

Once I have gathered enough evidence, I start running long-term statistical experiments in order to see what benefits a given approach brings to the table.

Read more about experimenting: Fail Fast and Fail Epicly – The Best Way Of Learning Languages

What’s the answer in that case? Not that much. Most of the time you will be able to just remember a picture very well. Possibly, if the picture represents accurately a meaning of a given word, you might find it easier to recall the said meaning. Based on my experiments I can say that the overall benefit of using pictures in learning is not big and amounts to less than 5-10%.

 

Effect of pairing words and pictures on memory

 

Boers, Lindstromberg, Littlemore, Stengers, and Eyckmans (2008) and Boers, Piquer Píriz, Stengers, and Eyckmans (2009) investigated the effect of pictorial elucidation when learning new idiomatic expressions.

The studies revealed that learners retain the meanings of newly learned idiomatic items better when they are presented with visual images. Though there was no impact for the word forms, such presentations at least improved the learning of word meanings.

In other words, using pictures can improve your understanding of what a word, or an idiom, means.

One of the problems I have with most memory-related studies is that scientists blatantly ignore the fact that familiarity with words might heavily skew the final results. For that reason, I really love the following paper from 2017.

Participants (36 English-speaking adults) learned 27 pseudowords, which were paired with 27 unfamiliar pictures. They were given cued recall practice for 9 of the words, reproduction practice for another set of 9 words, and the remaining 9 words were restudied. Participants were tested on their recognition (3-alternative forced choice) and recall (saying the pseudoword in response to a picture) of these items immediately after training, and a week after training. Our hypotheses were that reproduction and restudy practice would lead to better learning immediately after training, but that cued recall practice would lead to better retention in the long term.

In all three conditions, recognition performance was extremely high immediately after training, and a week following training, indicating that participants had acquired associations between the novel pictures and novel words. In addition, recognition and cued recall performance was better immediately after training relative to a week later, confirming that participants forgot some words over time. However, results in the cued recall task did not support our hypotheses. Immediately after training, participants showed an advantage for cued Recall over the Restudy condition, but not over the Reproduce condition. Furthermore, there was no boost for the cued Recall condition over time relative to the other two conditions. Results from a Bayesian analysis also supported this null finding. Nonetheless, we found a clear effect of word length, with shorter words being better learned than longer words, indicating that our method was sufficiently sensitive to detect an impact of condition on learning. – The effect of recall, reproduction, and restudy on word learning: a pre-registered study

As you can see, conclusions are not that optimistic and almost fully coincide with my own experiments. That’s why I would suggest you don’t add pictures to every flashcard. It’s too time-consuming compared to benefits. However, if you really enjoy learning this way, I will suggest to you in a second a better way to utilize pictures.

 

Test it for yourself!

 

I know that the above could be a bit of a buzz-kill for any die-hard fan of all those flashy flashcard apps and what not. But the thing is, you should never just trust someone’s opinion without verifying it. 

Run your own experiment. See how well you retain those pictures and if it really makes a difference result-wise compared to the invested time. Our time on this pancake earth is limited. No need to waste any of it using ineffective learning methods.

It doesn’t take much time and it will be worth more than anyone’s opinion. If you decide to go for it, make sure to run it for at least 2-3 months to truly verify of pictures offer a long-term memory boost.

How to use picture more effectively in your learning

 

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, but now words, 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.

 

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.

What’s more, if it’s only possible, try to stick to pics from your personal collection – a weekend at your grandma’s, uncle Jim getting sloshed at your wedding. You know, good stuff!

 

Summary

 

Pictures are a definitely a nice addition to your learning toolkit. However, in order to be able to use them effectively you need to understand that they won’t help you much with memorizing words. The best thing they can offer is a slight boost in remembering words and significantly improved recall for pictures. That’s why don’t waste your time trying to paste a picture into every flashcard. Benefits will be minuscule compared to your effort.

If you really want to get the biggest bang for your buck learning-wise, try to use one picture to memorize many words. That’s a great way of mimicking the way we originally started acquiring vocabulary. And it’s not very time-consuming.

Once you try this method, let me know how it worked for you!

What are your thoughts on using pictures in flashcards? Let me know in the comments!

 

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