Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Finally Posting Again: Small Timer = Huge Success

I haven't been posting anything for quite some time for a number of reasons, but it all comes down to trying to strike a balance with posting things and keeping up with the thousands of other things I want to keep up with.

This is the main reason, though: for the past couple of months, I have been testing the use of a timer to "prime" memories for long-term retention by reviewing new material after 1 minute, 3 minutes, 10 minutes and 1 hour. It has been very successful at helping me commit very new things to memory. This includes:

-New Chinese characters
-Words in an unfamiliar foreign language for which I don't have an immediate frame of reference (Hindi, Russian, etc.)
-Location based mnemonic placeholders (Method of Loci) (More on this later)
-Dates and other number-based information

It has also been very helpful at committing to memory things that I already have an "edge" with, but it ensures that I almost always recall it after the first interval in SuperMemo. For example, in the past I would often learn a new Japanese or Chinese word, put that word into SuperMemo, but I couldn't quickly recall it when I had to review it for the first time in SuperMemo, often 4-9 days later. I would get the item wrong, then maybe get it wrong once more (2-3 days later), and after that I usually had no trouble remembering it. Since I began using this timer method for introducing material, very little has been forgotten when I review it for the first time. Words that I learn can be used almost immediately, which wasn't always the case in the past.

Since my previous post, I have added about 5,000 new flashcards to SuperMemo using the timer method to introduce and acquaint myself with the material. I have also been incrementally reading and learning various things related to science, art, religion, history, etc. (Which doesn't require using a timer to commit), but the bulk of my "experiment" time has been devoted to testing my capacity at learning difficult material using the timer.

Size of flashcard sets
I learned anywhere from 10 flashcards to 100 flashcards at a time (I went as high as 120 once or twice), and I found anything beyond 30 or 40 to be cumbersome, overly taxing and caused me to dread the review process. The "sweet spot" (For me, at least) seems to be 25-30 flashcards per set of new material. If the information is extremely difficult, 10-15 flashcards seems to be better.

Makeup of material
I found it helpful to mix extremely difficult material with slightly easier material. I'm not sure if this is for my own motivational benefit, but it was helpful at keeping me motivated. For example, one set of new material could consist of: 10 new Japanese words, 5 mnemonic items, 5 Chinese characters and 5 Hindi words. The mnemonic items and Japanese words are almost always easy to recall, while the new Chinese characters and Hindi words take a bit more effort. The smaller "easy victories" made it easier to exert myself at learning newer, unfamiliar stuff.

"Stickiness" factor
Since I began using a timer to commit "unsticky" information to memory,  it has almost always become "sticky" and therefore easy to remember in the short and long-term. A few items would be forgotten, but of the 5,000 or so items that I have learned over the past couple of months, a VERY small percentage of them have been forgotten (Less than 2%). In the case of those items, by simply "relearning" them using a timer to space out the short-term review intervals I've been able to "make sticky" those items also.

How I've integrated it
Whenever I have about 1 hour and 15 minutes of time, I start by reviewing the 25 new flashcards once or twice, then I start the first timer. After this, I surf the internet for a minute until the timer goes off; I then review the flashcards again and set the second timer for three minutes. During this time I typically do a small task (Clean up the immediate area, read a book, etc). After the three minute timer goes off, I review the flashcards and set a timer for 10 minutes. At this point I have quite a bit of time to do various things (Chores, prepare simple food, watch a TV show or news, incremental reading, etc.). After the 10 minute timer is done I review the cards again and set the timer for one hour. During this time, I can work on any extensive or engrossing task, and I often forget about doing flashcards until the timer goes off again. If necessary I can start learning another set of information during this hour, but I've enjoyed not doing that and chilling out a bit.

Thus, by adding just a bit of structure, I've found that I can quite easily integrate learning new, "unsticky" material while going about my day to day activities (Or at least the down time I have) so that I'm not spending 100% of my time on flashcards, but I still feel like I'm using my time wisely. As long as I have prepared material to learn, I can easily do 4 or 5 sets on a normal work day, which nets at least 100 new cards per day.

Having found a balance, I have been able to more precisely control the flow of new material into SuperMemo without overloading myself or creating a glut of incorrect responses. (For me) The obvious implication is that committing new languages to memory can become a very streamlined, steady and less painful process than it usually is. The same goes with things such as programming, medical information, etc., or careers that require committing "unsticky" frameworks of knowledge to memory. I'll elaborate on the language aspect in a future post, it's a different subject altogether.