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Repeat smart – how to learn and remember quickly

How to learn and remember quickly

Is the role of repetition in learning a foreign language so important? Following recent discoveries in the field of the brain’s functioning, and the postulates of neurodidactics, is such a strong focus on repetition still justified? Or is it easier to organize effective memorisation and creating neural pathways in such a way that repetitions are not necessary? This would free up our “capacity” to use the stored information.

How to learn by heart quickly – Repeat to remember

What does repetition do for me? In order to answer this question, it is worth following the path of information before we remember it permanently. All information is first picked up by our senses and flows into the sensory memory block, also known as ultra-short. The vast majority of information contained in this block will be forgotten by us after a few seconds or fractions of a second.

The few things that we focus our attention on will go to the next block, i.e. working memory , also known as operational memory. They will stay there longer – several dozen seconds. However, due to the small capacity of this block, they will have to give way to subsequent portions of information that keep flowing into it.

The only way to preserve information is to get to the next, final block, i.e. long-term memory where, as the name suggests, the information is already stored in a permanent form.

What causes some information to go to this block and other things to remain at the level of working memory and, as a result, be deleted to make room for other items that are constantly flowing in?

Quickly memorising things and being sure that the information moves to our long-term memory is determined by our motivation, the depth of information processing and the time we spend on mastering the material – that is, how many times we repeat the material. Repetition at the stage of transferring the memory from working memory to long-term memory is necessary because traces of memory at the working memory level are fragile and unstable. Repeating them consolidates and strengthens them. On the neurological level, this corresponds to increasingly stronger and more permanent connections between neurons at the synapses that make up the memory. Repetition is a continuation of learning at this point, but extended over time. Distribution over time, in turn, allows you to take advantage of the pause effect, which consists in the fact that we remember material given and repeated over small time intervals more effectively than in one combined and large dose.

Effective repetition, meaning what??

The simplest solution is mechanical repetition , that is, the literal repetition of the information in the same form in which we first encountered it. Such repetition, however, does not build additional connections with the information already existing in our brain. It will give good results mainly when recognising the material, but much poorer results when trying to actively use that information. This is quite common when learning a foreign language – we can do tests well and translate a foreign text into our native language, but we have a problem with constructing statements, i.e. active use.

We will achieve much better results when, as part of the revision, we try to achieve deeper levels of information processing , e.g. by summarising a text, or paraphrasing statements rather than their literal reproduction.

The question remains, when is the best time to do this revision?

The first repetition systems focused more on the correctness of repetitions than on reducing the time needed for their implementation. This was the case with Sebastian Leitner’s system, described in the 1970s, which assumed a constant rhythm of repetition and a constant way of reacting to success or failure during the repetition. This system can still be found today in traditional tabs in the form of a sandwich system.

On a higher level, there is an organised repetition system recommended for use with Mind Mapping by its creator, Tony Buzan. It is not individual information that is repeated in it, but entire related structures presented in the form of a non-linear network. The rhythm of repetitions assumes that the first of them is completed 10 minutes after learning the material with Mind Mapping, and the next ones after 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 6 months and 1 year, respectively. The open form of Mind Mapping allows you to freely modify and combine the repeated content with other information, so it favours the linking of the material with the knowledge already possessed or acquired.

The creators of memory algorithms such as SuperMemo went in another direction, focusing on the ergonomics of repetitions, which should be as rare as possible, but at the same time performed at a precisely calculated moment. This moment is the time when the process of forgetting a specific piece of information begins, and not when we set the time of its execution in advance mechanically. This forced a change in the organisation of the material into individual pieces of information or competences that we can track during the process of transformation into permanent memory traces.

What does the SuperMemo method give learners?

The effect, confirmed by scientific research, is startling and shows us how to quickly remember words : 3,000 words and phrases, i.e. a level of communication that can be mastered in 30 days , investing just 30 minutes a day .

How to use repetitions throughout the day

Can we repeat at any time during the day?

Basically, yes, but we’ll do best during the afternoon intellectual peak between 4:00 PM and 9:00 PM, when long-term memory is the most active.

Using Mind Mapping for repetition forces the repetition of the entire structure of interconnected information, which in turn results in deep processing of knowledge.

Repeat so as not to forget

When the material is translated into a multisensory form, when it is organised, related to the knowledge we already have and refreshed several times, it turns from an impermanent trace in working memory, one that is susceptible to disturbance, into a permanent trace existing at the long-term level.

This means that the information included there is available to us at any time – we can then use it freely in our intellectual operations. Unfortunately, at the level of long-term memory, we also lose information – or access to it. This phenomenon has still not been fully explained and it is not entirely clear:

  • whether unused memory traces disappear,
  • whether the actual neural tissue itself in which memory traces are encoded decays,
  • or whether the newly arriving knowledge disrupts previous memory traces, changing them and making access difficult.

In any case, we know that information covered by declarative and discontinuous knowledge is the most vulnerable to loss (i.e. knowledge of “what”, e.g. a list of Polish rulers), and much less knowledge of procedural memory (i.e. “how”, e.g. our bicycle riding skills).

Due to the fact that we are unable to clearly indicate the reasons for forgetting, are we able to counteract this phenomenon?

Yes, as long as we refresh from time to time the information that we do not use in our practical activities or our work. A classic example is when we think about how to quickly remember words in a foreign language . Here, memory algorithms such as SuperMemo, which can precisely calculate the date of the next repetition, are unbeatable.

What do we gain from this?

Time and efficiency!

Time, because instead of chaotic repetitions, we have strict deadlines for them.

Efficiency – because once we remember the material, we do not lose it from our memory. And then we can devote more time to its active use, which is crucial for language learning.