How to Self-Assess Your Progress – a Short Guide for Independent Learners

How to self-asses your progress - a short guide for independent learners

Learning on your own can be quite an unsettling experience, especially initially. Instead of being guided by a helpful hand of a coach or trainer, you cling to a clammy hand of doubt and despair. Questions like "What if I am wrong?", "Am I consolidating all the wrong things right now" become your bread and butter. To minimize the amount of all those unpleasantries, you need to learn how to self-assess your progress.

Sadly, choosing the right method to do it can be also confusing. After all, there are lots of ways to do it! No strategy is universal enough as to work for everyone. That's why I suggest that you spend some time thinking about the right way to assess your progress. If you don't do this, it will be challenging to tell whether you're pushing forward at the optimal pace or just spinning your wheels.



How to Self-Assess Your Progress as an Independent Learner


1. Use SRS (Spaced Repetition Software)


A fantastic feature of every SRS program, including my all-time favorite ANKI, is that every flashcard is a form of self-quiz. It provides you with immediate feedback about your knowledge.

It's like a virtual friend that regularly hangs out with you to make sure you have mastered your area of choice. You can't lose long-term with buddies like that!


2. Assess Others' Performance


We're getting a little meta here, but trying to evaluate somebody's performance, for example via teaching, is an excellent gauge of your current progress.

You see, it's very difficult to be able to single out somebody's mistakes unless you're on the same or a higher level than this person. Thus, doing so is a meta confirmation that you've achieved a certain level.

Of course, you don't have to teach someone to be able to benefit from this strategy. It can be as easy as observing somebody's performance on video. Or you can simply try to criticize somebody's work "theoretically".

For example, let's say that your goal is to create amazing facial creams. In that case, you can pick up any cream of one of your potential competitors and try to find flaws in it. At the same time, you can also try to find positives to consolidate your knowledge further.


3. Take part in interviews


Comparing your performance against other learners can tell you volumes about your current skill set or expertise. There is nothing more telling than seeing where you fall within a given group.


Interviews are a great form of a comparison between you and, often, hundreds of other candidates. Even if you're not looking currently for a job, it's still worth applying for one to test yourself.

If you fail, you will still get feedback from a company, and thus you will learn where you fell short. Heck, failing in itself, is a form of feedback.

If you succeed, you can ask for detailed feedback concerning your performance. Even if you turn the job down, you will still learn a lot.


4. Take part in Competitions/Contests/Tournaments


Competing with others is probably almost as old as our entire civilization and is still as popular as ever. Find a relevant competition that involves your skillset and see how you fare against other candidates.

An important benefit of this assessment method is that you also test how well you cope with pressure. Of course, it doesn't make much sense if your skill is performed in isolation. However, in all other cases, it's necessary to get out of the comfort zone to get a realistic picture of our expertise.


5. Take Online tests


Online tests can provide you with relatively precise and, more importantly, almost immediate feedback. In the era of the internet, finding one that is relevant to your field shouldn't be too challenging.

The only thing you should keep in mind is choosing the test of high quality. You need a test that can provide you with meaningful information. Sometimes, it simply means paying a couple of bucks.


6. Get a certificate


Certificates are one of the best ways to get very detailed feedback about your performance. It's not only a benchmark to measure your knowledge against - it can actually be something you can strive for. A source of inspiration if you will. If you want a meaningful confirmation that you've learned the material or skill effectively, look no further.


7. Produce/create something


In some cases, your goal is to create some masterpiece. It can be a program, a flying machine, a flamethrower, and whatnot. Creating the said item will allow you to assess your expertise critically.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
  • Does it work?
  • Does it work well?
  • Is there any room for improvement?
  • What do others think about it?

My Example - Composing Music


a short guide for independent learners


It's important to ask yourself these questions because if you just mindlessly keep on producing these items, you won't be able to improve. At least not by a significant margin.

You can use my experience as a case study. I have been composing for lots of years now with a plan for publishing my work in the future. You can call it my long-term side project. Whenever I finish an outline of a song, I send it to a group of my friends, asking them for a review. 

The group is selected based on one criterion — they are honest. If something is shit, it's shit, and there are no two ways about it. This isn't where the process ends.

To further maximize the usefulness and truthfulness of this feedback, I ask my friends to share it with one or two other people. These may be family members or just close friends.

Some of them listen to other genres of music, and some don't listen to music at all. Once I get all the reviews and comments, I paste them into an Excel file and analyze them.

A bit unorthodox way of composing, but it certainly helps to yank me out of the echo chamber in which many creators live in. It's very sobering sometimes to hear, "man, just delete this song." 


8. Use checklists


Checklists have been widely popular for at least a couple of decades now. It's hard to find even an averagely organized company that doesn't use it to some degree. And there are good reasons for that - they make the overwhelming manageable.

Of course, checklists are amazing at all levels of advancement, but they are especially useful for beginners. First of all, they allow you to decrease your cognitive load drastically. They are the life-ring that stops you from drowning in the excessive amount of information. One look and you know what should be done.

However, the most important benefit for independent learners is that they enable you to efficiently self-assess your progress. Upon performing a given activity, you can quickly consult such a list to see what was done right and where you fell short.


9. Videotape or record yourself


Videotaping yourself is a form of formative assessment since it allows you to assess your performance during instruction (i.e., performance).

Recording yourself on video is an amazingly simple and effective way to identify areas that you need to improve. Of course, it's not for everyone, and it won't apply to some areas of knowledge. However, it's a perfect feedback mechanism for musicians, actors, speakers, performers, and dancers. 

The research certainly supports this way of learning:


Developing musicians typically engage in self-regulated practicing during the time that passes between lessons with their teachers. An important aspect of self-regulated practice is the ability to identify and correct areas of development in performance in the absence of a teacher’s feedback, but the effort required to perform as well as monitor a performance represents a challenge for any learner. 
Videotaping the performance and watching it afterward to fully concentrate on each task could constitute a solution to this problem. In our study, we verified how video feedback could affect the self-evaluation of intermediate-advanced musicians while practicing a new piece of music. 
To attain this objective, we analyzed and coded the self-evaluative comments of 16 classical guitarists while practicing. We then compared the number of coding entries in each category of a group of participants who used video feedback (n = 8) on four occasions over a period of ten practice sessions with those of a group of musicians who did not use video feedback (n = 8).
Our results indicate that musicians who used video feedback modified the way they formulated their self-evaluative comments while practicing and that these changes were more marked with higher-performing musicians. [[source]]

How to Self-Assess Your Progress - Summary


Knowing how to self-assess your progress as an independent learner is one of the most important keys to your success. Without that skill, you are bound to forever stray in the cognitive darkness or worse, beg for crumbles of advice from others' mouths.


Keep in mind that your feedback mechanism will heavily depend on what resources you have and your area of choice. It's also one of those cases where more is better. It's certainly preferable, especially if you want to be independent, to rely on more than one of the strategies above. Even if you can't pick a perfect feedback mechanism, you can incorporate smaller feedback drills to ensure you're not entirely without feedback.

Here is how you can self-assess your progress:

  • 1. use SRS (Spaced Repetition Software)
  • 2. assess others' performance
  • 3. take part in interviews
  • 4. take part in competitions/contests/tournaments
  • 5. take online tests
  • 6. get a certificate
  • 7. create or produce something
  • 8. use checklists
  • 9. Videotape or record yourself

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 14 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.

 


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!

 

 

The Goldlist Method – A Scientific Critique And Why It’s a Waste of Time

Choosing the right learning methods has always been one of the most daunting tasks for most language learners. No wonder. Around every corner, you can find yet another popular learning strategy.

But how do you know it’s effective? Is it actually based on any real science?

Most people can offer you just their opinions. I am here to show you step-by-step what are the biggest flaws of various language learning methods. In other words, I am going to scrutinize them and show you what their authors don’t know or don’t want to reveal.

The first position on the menu today is the Goldlist method.

Before I start, it’s worth mentioning that this article is not meant to offend the author of the Goldlist method nor disparage anyone who is using it but to show one simple fact – it’s extremely easy to come up with a method but it doesn’t mean it’s effective memory-wise.

The Goldlist Method – What Is It All About?

 

Unless you are into experimenting with various learning methods, you may not have heard of the Goldlist Method. For that reason, I will try to outline what’s all about so we are on the same page.

First of all, here is a great video that sums up what this method is all about.

 

If you are old-fashioned, here is a description of how it works.

 

  • Get a large (A4 size) notebook. This is going to be your “bronze” book.
  • Prepare the materials (i.e. words) you’re interested in. The items you choose will go into your “head list”.
  • Open your book and write the first twenty-five words or phrases down, one below the other, on the left-hand side of the individual page. Include any integral information such as gender or plural forms of nouns or irregular aspects of a verb’s conjugation. The list shouldn’t take you more than twenty minutes to do.
  • When the list is ready, read through it out loud, mindfully but without straining to remember.
  • When you start the next piece of the head list, number it 26-50, then 51-75 and so on.
  • The first distillation – after at least two weeks open your notebook and cast your eye towards your first list of 1 to 25 (or, 26 to 50, or 9,975 to 10,000) depending on which double spread you’re at. The “two weeks plus” pause is important. It’s intended to allow any short-term memories of the information to fade completely so that you can be sure that things you think you’ve got into the long-term memory really are in there. Make sure, then, that you date each set of twenty-five head list items (something I haven’t done in my illustrative photos for this article).

David James says that there is no upper limit to the gap between reviews, though suggests a maximum of two months, simply to keep up momentum.

 

  • Discard eight items, and carry the remaining seventeen into a new list, This will be your first “distillation”.
  • Repeat the process for the second and third distillations (the third and fourth list on your double spread). The interval should be at least 2 weeks.
  • For the fourth distillation, you start a new book, your “silver” book.
  • The “gold” notebook works the same way, the hardcore items from the “silver” notebook’s seventh distillation are carried over to the “gold” for new head list of twenty-five lines (distillation number eight) and distillations nine (17 or so lines), ten (twelve or so) and eleven (nine or so).

 

How to Use the Goldlist Method – Summary

 

  • Grab a notebook and write there 25 words which interest you.
  • After at least 2 weeks check if you remember them and discard 30% of all the words. The rest of the words becomes a part of the second “distillation”
  • Keep on repeating the same process over and over again. The only thing that changes is that the older “distillations” get rewritten to other notebooks.

 

The Goldlist Method – Claims

 

The Goldlist Method

Photo by Bookblock on Unsplash

 

The author of the Goldlist method maintains that:

  1. The method allows you to retain up to thirty percent of the words in your long-term memory.
  2. It is also claimed that the process circumvents your short-term memory – you are expected to make no conscious effort to remember words. Thanks to this the information will be retained in your long-term memory.

 

The Goldlist Method – A Scientific Critique

 

1. The Goldlist Method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory

One of the big claims of the Goldlist method is that it is able to circumvent your short-term memory. Somehow, thanks to it, you are able to place all the information straight in your long-term memory.

Is it possible? Not really. I have noticed that 99% of claims of this kind come from people who have never had much to do with the science of memory. That’s why let’s go briefly through what is required to “remember”.

According to the author of the Goldlist method, David James:

 

” [[ … ]] we are alternating in and out of these two systems the whole time, we switch ourselves into short-term mode by thinking about memorising and switch out of it by forgetting about memorising.”

 

Unfortunately, this is a bunch of hooey. This is what the actual science has to say about memorization.

 

The working memory consolidation

In order to memorize a piece of information, you have to store it in your short-term memory.

This process is initiated by allocating your attention to the stimuli you want to remember.

In other words, initiation of consolidation is under conscious control and requires the use of central attention. The mere fact of looking at a piece of paper and reading/writing words activates it.

Any stimuli that capture attention because of their intrinsic emotional salience appear to be consolidated into memory even when there is no task requirement to do so.

Next, the items you learn undergo working memory consolidation.

Working memory consolidation refers to the: transformation of transient sensory input into a stable memory representation that can be manipulated and recalled after a delay.

Contrary to what the creator of the Goldlist method believes, after this process is complete, be it 2 weeks or more, the short-term memories are not gone. They are simply not easily accessible.

Our brains make two copies of each memory in the moment they are formed. One is filed away in the hippocampus, the center of short-term memories, while the other is stored in cortex, where our long-term memories reside.

You probably have experienced this phenomenon yourself many times. You learned something in the past. Then, after some years, you took it up again and were able to regain your ability relatively quickly. It was possible because your memories were still there. They just became “neuronally disconnected” and thus inaccessible.

 

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

There is one more proof that shows clearly that the method doesn’t circumvent short-term memory. The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve shows us how fast the incoherent information is forgotten.

What we mean by incoherent is that this is not the information which you can associate with your background knowledge.

This is very often the case when you learn a new language or when you’re at a lower intermediate level.

 

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

 

What’s more, the Ebbinghaus curve’s numbers are based on the assumption that the learned material :

  • means nothing to you
  • has no relevance to your life
  • has no emotional load and meaning for you

On the curve, you can see that if you memorize information now and try to recall after 14 days, you will be able to retrieve about 21-23% of the previously memorized knowledge. Mind you that this is the knowledge that is incoherent, bears no emotional load and means nothing to you.

What happens when you start manually writing down words which interest you or when you are able to establish some connection between them and your life? Well, this number can definitely go up.

 

Keep in mind that your recall rate will also be affected by:

  • frequency of occurrence
  • prior vocabulary knowledge
  • cognateness.

Advanced language learners can get away with more

Since most advanced language learners have a benefit of possessing broader linguistic background knowledge, they can get away with using subpar learning strategies. Their long-term memory modulates short-term memory and thus decreases the overall cognitive load.

 

Is there anything nothing magical about the Goldlist method and the number “30”?

Nope. It follows very precisely the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve which takes into account your short-term memory. Sometimes this number will be higher, sometimes it will be lower depending on your choice of words.

You can check it yourself how low this number can get. Simply choose a language that is from a different linguistic family than the ones you already know. Track your progress and see how this number inevitably goes down.

 

The Goldlist Method is just a spaced repetition method with bigger intervals. That makes it less effective than most spaced repetition program right off the bat.

 

2. The Goldlist Method is impractical and time-consuming

 

Relatively high activation energy and time-consuming

One of the most important concepts in productivity is the activation energy.

The activation energy is the amount of energy needed to start conducting a given activity.

Even though the Goldlist Method has initially the low activation energy, it starts growing considerably with each and every distillation. Having to carry with you a couple of A4 notebooks seems also very impractical to me.

 

Limited usefulness vocabulary-wise

However, the biggest problem I have with this method in this department is that it suggests I only learn words I am interested in. There are hundreds of situations where one has to learn words that they are not interested in.

 

Good learning methods should work for any kind of vocabulary.s

 

And they should work particularly well for the vocabulary you’re interested in.

 

3. The Goldlist Method is inflexible

The Goldlist Method - A Scientific Critique

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

 

This is one of the methods which collapse under their own weight i.e. it’s inflexible. The Goldlist method suggests that you learn vocabulary in 25-word batches.

If I need to master a language quickly and I want to learn at least 40-50 words per day? After 10 days I will be forced to go through 20 distillations. After one month this number will start hitting insane heights. More and more of my attention will be required to keep up with all the reviews. This seems very off-putting.

Another important quality of effective learning methods is that they should automate the learning process. The method which necessitates more and more conscious decisions on your part the more you want to learn simply doesn’t fit the bill.

 

4. Lack of context

The enormous red flag for any language learning method is the exclusion of context from the learning process.

 

Simply repeating information in a mindless manner is called passive rehearsal. Many years ago it was actually proven that passive rehearsal has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

 

This is just the first problem with the lack of context.

The other one is that almost all the knowledge you possess is activated contextually. If there is no context, it will be extremely difficult for you to retrieve a word when you need it.

 

In other words – you will remember the information but you will have a hard time using it in a conversation.

 

As a result, soon enough you will forget a word because there will be no network of other information holding it in your head.

 

5. The Goldlist Method is detached from reality

The problem with the Goldlist Method is encapsulated in a famous adage used by Marines:

‘Train as you fight, fight as you train’

I can’t stress enough how important these words are.

Always try to train for reality in a manner that mimics the unpredictability and conditions of real life. Anything else than that is simply a filler. A waste of time. It gives you this warm feeling inside, “I have done my job for today”, but it doesn’t deliver results.

Tell me, is rewriting words from one notebook to another actually close to using your target language?

 

6. Lack of retention intention

Another elementary mistake that we tend to make way too often when we fail to retain a word is actually not trying at all to memorize something.

 

You see, everything starts with a retention intention.

 

This fact is even reflected in the simplified model of acquiring information:

  1. Retention intention
  2. Encoding
  3. Storage
  4. Retrieval

 

A retention intention sets the stage for good remembering. It is a conscious commitment to acquire a memory and a plan for holding on to it. As soon as you commit to a memory goal, attention locks on to what you want to remember.

 

This is how attention works—it serves the goal of the moment. And the stronger the motivation for the goal, the more laserlike attention becomes and the greater its memory benefits.

 

In other words, you can watch as many TV series and read as many books as you like. It will still have almost zero effect if you don’t try to memorize the things you don’t know. The same goes for the Goldlist method.

A key feature of a retention intention is the plan for holding on to the material. It might be as simple as rehearsing the memory, or it might involve one of the memory strategies described later. Whatever the plan, when you are clear about how you intend to retain the material, it is more likely you will actually carry out the plan, and this can make all the difference between a weak and strong memory.

 

7. Lack of encoding

Take a peek once again at the simplified model of acquiring information.

  1. Retention intention
  2. Encoding
  3. Storage
  4. Retrieval

What you can see is that the second most important part of the process of memorization is encoding.

Encoding is any attempt to manipulate the information you are trying to memorize in order to remember it better.

Shallow and deep encoding.

Encoding can be further divided into shallow and deep encoding.

In the world of language learning, deep encoding is nothing more than creating sentences with the words you intend to memorize. In other words, it’s creating contexts for the items you want to learn.

Shadow encoding encompasses almost everything else. Counting vowels, writing down the said items and so on.

Deep encoding is the fastest and the most certain way of memorizing information and maximizing your chances of retrieving it.

If you skip encoding, like the GoldList method does, you immediately revert to mindless repetitions of words (i.e. passive rehearsal).

And we all know how it ends.

Mindless repetition of words has almost zero effect on your learning. If you want to increase your chances of memorizing them permanently you need to use the new words actively in a task (Laufer & Hulstijn (2001:14).

To be honest, I could add some more mistakes which this method perpetuates. However, I think enough is enough – I think I have pointed out all the most glaring ones.

 

Read more about factors affecting word difficulty i.e., what kills your learning progress.

The Goldlist Method – Potential Advantages

 

The Goldlist Method - A Scientific Critique

 

There are two things I like about the Goldlist method

  1. It gives you a system which you can follow. This is certainly the foundation of any effective learning.
  2. It jogs your motor memory by making you write words.

That’s it.

The Goldlist Method – Suggested Modifications

 

The Goldlist method is too flawed to fix it in a considerable manner but let me offer you this suggestion.

Instead of rewriting words, start building sentences with them for every distillation.

This way you will incorporate some deep encoding into your learning process. You should see the difference progress-wise almost immediately.

The Goldlist Method – The Overall Assessment

 

There is no point in beating around the bush  – this is one of the worst learning methods I have ever encountered. It violates almost every major memory principle. If you were contemplating using it – just don’t.

If you have nothing against using apps and programs to learn, I would suggest you start your language learning journey with ANKI.

Here are two case studies which will show you how to do it

The Goldlist Method – Summary

The Goldlist method is one of the best examples of something I have been saying for years – anyone can come up with a learning method. Sometimes it’s enough to sprinkle it with some scientific half-truths to convince thousands of people to try it.

My opinion is this – you’re much better off using many other methods. This is one of the few which seems to be violating almost all known memory principles.

 

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.