How to Memorize Way Faster and Easier

Meet Billy. He wants to go to Allstar Academy: the best college in his country. The Academy is home to the world’s greatest overachievers. To get in, Billy needs to ace his next exam. 

The problem? 

The exam requires a lot of memorization which Billy is terrible at. But, Billy watched my last video on the growth mindset and knows that he can improve his ability to memorize. With that said, let’s help Billy get into Allstar Academy.


Encoding and Retrieval


Before we discuss the tactical advice, we need to understand some basics about memory. The act of memorization can be thought of as a collection of smaller processes. We’re going to focus on two in particular: encoding and retrieval.  

Encoding is the process of creating new memories and retrieval is the process of accessing them. If Billy wants to ace his exam, he has to optimize both of these processes. So, let’s start by taking a look at the process of encoding. [1]

Dual Coding

One way Billy can improve his ability to encode information is by using a Dual Coding process. Initially coined by Allan Paivio, the term “refers to the creation of both a visual and a verbal memory for the same information.” While the theory of Dual Coding is still controversial, the process is quite promising. [2, 3]

One study found that students were able to improve their ability to memorize a piece of information by drawing a complimentary image. A more elaborate form of dual coding - the memory palace - is used by competitive memory champions to encode large volumes of information. The memory palace requires the user to imagine a palace full of weird objects. Each object is a symbol of something the user is trying to memorize. By walking through the palace in their mind and examining these objects, the user can recall the related information. [4, 5]

As impressive as the memory palace is, I’d suggest something less complex and more pragmatic for Billy: construct a mind map. A mind map combines verbal and visual information in a way that is easily digestible. It has the added benefit of allowing Billy to see how all of the information he’s gathered relates to each other and where there are gaps in his knowledge. As we discussed in the Feynman Technique video, identifying gaps in our knowledge is key for learning effectively. Let’s take a closer look at constructing a mind map.

Constructing a Mind Map

I often hear people say they have trouble remembering what they read in a book. The reason for this is simple: they aren’t encoding or retrieving the information effectively. Readers will often highlight or underline passages they want to recall in a book. This is mostly useless. The reader would be better off constructing a mind map. 

1. Place the title of the book in the middle. 
2. Make a branch for each chapter. 
3. Read the chapter and make an additional branch for each argument in that chapter.

Every author is trying to convey a message to the reader; they are trying to make an argument. Actively reconstruct the author’s argument as you read along and you will remember the book a lot better. The mind map is one of the best ways to do this. It forces you to take the verbal information, and organize it visually. Visually representing the information will help you see how all the bits of information connect to each other, and where there might be gaps in your understanding. As a result, you’ll have a greater comprehension of the material which will make it easier to remember.

Of course, encoding is just one-half of the puzzle. The other - and arguably more important - half is retrieval.

Spaced and Repeated Retrieval

Studies show that we can retain information for much longer when we repeatedly retrieve it from our memory. A memory is strengthened with each subsequent retrieval. Furthermore, studies show that our memories are strongest when our retrieval sessions are spaced apart. For example, it’s better to study a piece of information for 1 hour a day over 3 days than 3 hours in 1 day.  [1, 2, 6]

Leitner System

Let’s call each retrieval session a study session. A common question is: how far apart should these study sessions be? The answer really comes down to the individual, how far away the test is (if there is one), the difficulty of the material, and how much time is available. 

But, a good system to use is the Leitner system. The intervals between each successful study session should be increasing. In this case, successful means you correctly recalled the information you were trying to memorize. [7]

For example, you may want to recall some information after 1 day and, if you’re successful, try again after 2 days. Then 3, then 5, then 9 and so on. Let’s call this the Leitner hierarchy

Everyone’s hierarchy will look different depending on many factors and it really comes down to the individual to optimize their own. However, if you fail to recall a piece of information on the 9th day, for example, you have to reset its position in the hierarchy. You have to bring it back to the beginning. If I fail to recall it on the 9th day, I will have to try again after 1 day, then 2, then 5, and so on.

Each successful movement up the hierarchy will strengthen that memory. If you start this spaced and repeated retrieval at the beginning of a semester, you probably won’t have to study much at the end. Most of the information will already be solidified in your memory. 

Cramming

Naturally, I know a lot of people are going to be watching this in preparation for an upcoming exam. This system still works for cramming: you just have to use much shorter intervals. When I’ve had to cram 100s of flashcards overnight, I would use intervals of 1 minute, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, 5 hours, then 24 hours. Of course, cramming isn’t recommended but using spaced and repeated retrieval can make it more efficient: you won’t waste time going over the same information over and over again. 

We’ve optimized the processes of encoding and retrieval, independently. Now, let’s look at optimizing them together.

State-Dependent

Our ability to recall information is state-dependent: we benefit by being in the same state for recall as we were for encoding. This includes mood, environment, and caffeine levels. One study found that students who studied in an intoxicated state were able to recall the information better when they were intoxicated than when they were sober! So, state really matters. For this reason, I suggest Billy studies in the room he’s actually going to write the exam - if possible. Also, since he drinks coffee while studying, he needs to drink coffee for the exam as well. This will keep Billy’s state as equivalent as possible and improve his ability to recall information during the test. [2, 8]


Conclusion


Using these 3 tricks, there is no way that Billy won’t get into Allstar Academy! Oh…