Thursday, May 17, 2012

(Theory) The Key To Memory Priming - Decontextualized Passive Review

The reason I began to investigate this methodology is mainly for one reason: English is my native language, but I found it very difficult to learn new vocabulary in English. I was able to learn many foreign language words with little trouble, but not so with English. It is not due to a lack of understanding of  the English language, so why would these words not "stick"? I think I've figured out why, and how to make them (Or any other knowledge) more "sticky."

The following is pure theory; but even if I am a bit off base, I think I am onto something.

Regardless of how good you are at remembering numbers, if you are reading this blog (You have a computer, access to the internet, understand a bit of English), you likely know that the first three digits of pi are 3.14. Why do so many people know this? Obviously we are not all as equally adept at remembering numbers.

What is the answer? Through sheer passive repetition our minds have been primed to remember it. Before you had to remember it for a test, you likely encountered the number many, many times at school, among your friends, on TV, etc. By the time you were quizzed on what pi is, because of so many passive encounters with the number, your memory had been perfectly primed to recall it; regardless of how adept you are at remembering numbers.

Thus, if you want to remember something that you typically aren't good at remembering (A historical date, a number, foreign/native language word, etc.), how do you prime your memory to remember it?

Decontextualized Passive Review

What do I mean by decontextualized? Let's say you have a list of information you want to remember; a list of foreign-language vocabulary words or maybe a list of important years in Chinese history. You can scan down the list and look at each item, but the order that you are looking at them will never change. It would be better to write each individual piece of information on an index card and shuffle the index cards and THEN review them. As you review each item, they will not be sequential or in a predictable order. Thus, you cannot mentally "coast" through the information as easily as you might if it were in a sequence. Obviously you do not want to write each piece of information on an index card, but in Supermemo a Topic is a basically a digital index card that is reviewed passively.

Why should it be passive? Because while you might be able to connect two pieces of information and understand the significance of both (In 1912 the Republic of China was established), one aspect of the information is not very "sticky" for your brain (In this case, the year 1912). If you were to try and memorize the information, you will likely fail to recall it a number of times and it might become a "leech" (In Supermemo, a leech is a flashcard that you have failed to remember five times. It is statistically proven that it will drain your time). But as you (daily) passively see the same information over and over again (Without the stress of trying to "get it right"), very quickly the information becomes more "sticky" to your brain. Obviously using mnemonics will hasten this process a great deal.

Review? As opposed to what? Rather than giving the information a cursory glace, information you are priming your brain to remember requires deliberate purposeful concentration. This only requires a few seconds of your time, assuming the information is not exceedingly wordy (Which would be a violation of
the "20 Commandments of Knowledge Formulation").

I am not recommending "brute forcing" information without any forethought (Like writing a Japanese character over and over again as opposed to using the Heisig system of "divide-and-conquer-through-mnemonics"). What I have been trying for the past month or so has been this: after taking difficult information and making the wording as simple as possible (English vocabulary, Russian and Hindi alphabets, creating mnemonic systems themselves, etc.), I simply look at that chunk of information every day until it no longer feels "foreign" to me. Once it feels this way, I turn it into a flashcard and leave the rest to SuperMemo.

Before I began doing this, certain flashcards would be marked as "wrong" repeatedly and never "get off of the ground" in my mind. Some difficult Japanese characters, many English words, and a number of mnemonic systems (Specifically a system for remembering numbers) were easy to understand but couldn't survive the initial few days of the first review. But once I began daily passively reviewing bits of knowledge, I've been able to learn just about anything I've thrown at it (Mnemonic systems, English words, various foreign language alphabets which I am unfamiliar, just about anything I can think of).

How do you do this? I do not know of a solution with other flashcard programs, but Supermemo allows you to create Topics, which are basically digital index cards that are reviewed passively. Simply create a topic for whatever piece of information you want to remember, and when you see it (After first concentrating on the information), reschedule it (CTRL + R) for the next day. Keep doing this until the information no longer feels foreign when you examine it.

Supermemo is designed to help you remember, not necessarily learn. But by daily reviewing certain information in a decontextualized fashion has helped me "weaken" the difficulty of the information enough that I feel that I can "capture" it in a flashcard (Hence the Pokemon picture).

Again, this is an experiment that I've been playing with for the past month, so take it with a grain of salt. But it has worked wonderfully.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why Pre-Made Flashcards Are Not Useful (For Now)

Perhaps you have heard of the video game crash of 1983 (Here is the Wikipedia article about it). There were many contributing factors to the crash of the video game industry at that time, but one of them was a market lacking organization flooded with bad quality titles. How could you tell the difference between a good game and a bad one? In an age before the internet, this was much more difficult to figure out.

Right now, pre-made flashcards suffer similar problems. There are many flashcards available from many sources, but curation is practically nonexistent. Will there be good sets of flashcards out there? Yes. Are there reliably good sources that consistently publish flashcards that adhere to the "20 commandments of knowledge formulation"? Not as easy to find.

Why is this? While Spaced Repetition Software has advanced greatly, public acceptance has not; traditional and archaic learning methods prevail and show no signs of changing due to the global institutional dysfunction (Among many other things). In other words, people don't really care because they don't understand that SRS is superior to traditional learning. Also, the public as a whole has not been taught how to properly structure a flashcard. Thus, many of the flashcards that do exist are poorly constructed.

So while there might be a few good sets of flashcards out there, I've found making my own much easier than modifying poorly formulated pre-made flashcards and weeding out unnecessary ones (Which you will likely have to do). It is also easier to personalize your flashcards (Add pictures, reference memories, etc.) right from the start, thus making them more memorable.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Supermemo or Anki?

We live in a very critical and divisive world. We are divided and angered by the most insignificant preferences, be they computers, game consoles, shoes, stickers, what TV shows you watch, the list never ends. Granted not everybody plays into this, but in a media landscape that loves to judge, criticize and point out the flaws in others (Reality TV being one big contributor to this, I imagine), it has become much more acceptable to be angry about things that you don't need to be angry about. The anonymity of the internet doesn't help, either.

With the above in mind, at times, the same kind of pointless rivalry can exist within the world of flashcard systems.

There are many different flashcard systems out there, but two of the bigger ones you will likely see (Especially if you are using it for language learning) are Anki and Supermemo. There are many more (Mnemosyne, Skritter, etc.), but Anki and Supermemo seem to jump out as being the most popular.

Here is a quick list of pros and cons that readily come to mind for Supermemo

-More features
-Most advanced spaced repetition algorithm*
-More data about your memory than you can shake a stick at
-Incremental Reading
-Sleep tracker integration
-Flexible flashcard creation (Multiple images, sounds, etc.), made to encompass more than just languages

(* By "advanced" I mean that Supermemo 15.0 has been in development for a longer period of time than all other SRS programs out there. Put simply, it has the longest track record development-wise).

-Ugly compared to the simpler UI we have become accustomed to with modern technology
-Most of the features are lost to most users due to poor explanation, lack of simpler tutorial or lack of interest on the part of the user
-Most of the data about one's memory is not cared about by "casual" users
-Difficulty handling non-English fonts (Although this seems to have changed in Supermemo 15, I can write in Hindi, Japanese and Chinese with no problems).
-Must back up manually

While I have not used Anki for any length of time (I'm already committed to using SM every day), these seem to be the pros and cons as I see them. Just keep in mind I don't know this program very well:

-Simple(r) to use
-Free of features that some users may consider pointless (Sleep tracking, task lists, etc.)
-Made with language learners in mind (Specifically Asian languages)
-No font problems
-Sync your data through the internet
-Using Supermemo algorithm on the backend (SM-2)

-Algorithm is older than newest SuperMemo algorithm (Right now the algorithm is SM-15)
-No Incremental Reading support
-Fewer features that some users have grown accustomed to (Sleep tracking, task lists, etc.)

Think of it this way: Supermemo is like an apple, and Anki is like a banana. Both offer nutrition. While one person might prefer one fruit over another, it is better to eat a piece of fruit than a candy bar. Regardless of which you choose, keep this in mind. The effective use of ANY kind of SRS flashcard program is better than ANYTHING the modern education system offers by way of information retention. While Supermemo might have a feature that Anki doesn't, or Anki has a simpler and eye-pleasing style, they can BOTH be effective tools for learning (Especially for languages).

My advice? If you want to learn languages, start with Anki (Or any of the other programs offered online). If you find that you enjoy using Anki and want to try out a more advanced flashcard system, give Supermemo a try. If you want to learn something other than a language (Law, medicine, etc.), start with Supermemo.