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Day 22/04/2013

Remembering to Strengthen Your Memory

Ever since reading Moonwalking with Einstein last summer, I’ve become a bit obsessed with the workings of memory. Maybe not so obsessed that I’ve made great gains in my own memorization ability, but as I prepare to return to the classroom, I’m eager to teach my students how to improve their own memories. I know that a good number of educators today think that memorization is an evil word–the stuff of a bygone and regrettable era in schooling. But I disagree. For example, I teach Latin, and vocabulary words must be learned. Yes, you can learn foreign vocabulary words through context rather than through drills, but in a (mostly) unspoken language like Latin, you would have to endure frustratingly slow progress. Historical facts must be learned so that students can think and write critically about events, people, etc. Characters and details of novels must be committed to memory so that you can make connections between different works. We have to have knowledge before we can analyze it. Even in the era of Google, the knowledge we have in our heads goes a long way. Just ask cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.

There are a few things that cognitive scientists have found to be especially helpful for committing information to long-term memory:

  1. the spacing effect – Study something, then wait a good amount of time, then study it again. That’s not meant to encourage cramming for an exam by reviewing a semester’s worth of material the night before. Rather, regularly revisit old material. Every time you do, you are moving it closer to long-term memory.

  2. the testing effect – We tend to think of tests as things that evaluate how much we know. Instead, we should think of how powerfully testing can enhance our learning while we’re trying to learn it. After you’ve studied something, take a test on it, or write down everything you remember about it. Short-answer tests work better than multiple choice tests, but any kind of review test helps. Retrieving information more often helps it stick in your memory. Flashcards essentially work on this principle, but flashcards, though effective, have a good number of shortcomings.

  3. interleaving – I wrote about this in an earlier post, where I focused on math and grammar. But it could help with learning just about anything. When you make your review tests, change the format of the test questions. It’ll help keep you on your cognitive toes while you’re learning. The more you have to concentrate, the more effectively you learn.

  4. elaborative encoding – Everyone had at least one teacher who encouraged the use of mnemonics. For algebra, PEMDAS. Or for taxonomy, “Kings Play Cards On Fat Green Stools” (Kingdom, Phyllum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species). Mnemonics are just one way of encoding information into your memory for later retrieval. Or you might associate information with images you create in your mind (as Joshua Foer describes in Moonwalking with Einstein). The more complex, specific, and emotional you make your memory cue, the more effectively you might remember it.

I mention all these things because there are two new websites that are trying to bring the science of memory to the masses. I learned about Memrise through a great article by Joshua Foer. It is designed to be a playful, fun place to learn new facts. It presents information, then quizzes you on what you just learned. The question formats are interleaved–sometimes they’re multiple choice, sometimes short answer. It also provides “mems”–its term for methods of elaborative encoding. Some mems are provided in different lessons, but you are also encouraged to create your own by uploading pictures, typing hints, etc. The process of committing information to long-term memory is based on a gardening metaphor. First, you “plant” new information (e.g., new Spanish vocabulary, the capital cities of foreign countries), by studying the information and being immediately quizzed on it. Elaborative encoding for each new item, followed by a series of questions to help you remember better. It uses some hidden algorithms to decide when the right time has passed for you to revisit your new knowledge and “harvest” it. You get an email urging you to revisit what you learned a few days earlier, so you log in and get quizzed once again–the spacing effect in action. From then on, you “water” your knowledge by going back again and again. If you miss a question on the quiz, the site drills that question and answer into your memory by bringing it up more often. The site essentially creates adaptive flashcards, but unlike flashcards, Memrise doesn’t allow you to sorta, almost, kinda get the answer and convince yourself you know it. It’s also set up like a game where you get points for studying and getting answers right, and each lesson has a leaderboard listing others who are studying the same material.

The other site, Cerego, is a little less warm (no gardening metaphor this time), but equally scientific (perhaps even more so, at least as the marketing suggests). It takes advantage of these same basic memory principles, but so far I haven’t gotten any email reminders to “harvest” my learning. It uses a cool chart to graph how strong your memories are and how much progress you’ve made. At the moment it’s in an invite-only beta phase, but it’s worth asking for an invitation if you’re interested. I waited a couple months to finally be invited, but I’m guessing that the speed is picking up. I concede that I’ve spent more time on Memrise than I have on Cerego, so I need to commit more time to Cerego before I evaluate it any more.


Most of what we think we know about our memories is, well, wrong. There is science to the way memory works, and these two sites offer not only ways to understand how memorization works but also ways to effectively commit things to long-term memory. Overall, these are very well-done websites with a lot of potential for teachers and students. They also stress the incremental nature of learning: it’s better to work little by little over a long period of time than to try to cram everything into your brain in one, last-minute cram sesh. Here’s hoping that my students next year will use these sites and stop with all the cramming. But I know as well as anyone that old habits tend to die hard.

Some Memory Resources from “The Literature”:

Butler, A.C. & Roediger, H.L. (2007). Testing improves long-term retention in a simulated classroom setting. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19, 514-527.

Cepeda, N.J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J.T., & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. In Psychological Science, 19 (11).

Karpicke, J.D. & Roediger, H.L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. In Science, 319, 966.

McDaniel, M.A., Howard, D.C., & Einstein, G.O. (2009). The read-recite-review study strategy: Effective and portable. In Psychological Science, 20, 4.

Pashler, H., Rohrer, D., Cepeda, N.J., & Carpenter, S.K. (2007). Enhancing learning and retarding forgetting: Choices and consequences. In Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14 (2), 187-193.

Rohrer, D. & Pashler, H. (2010). Recent research on human learning challenges: Conventional instructional strategies. In Educational Researcher, 39, 5, 406-412.

Schwartz, B.L., Son, L.K., Kornell, N., & Finn, B. (2011). Four principles of memory improvement: A guide to improving learning efficiency. In The International Journal of Creativity & Problem Solving, 21(1), 7-15.

Willingham, D. (2008-2009, Winter). What will improve a student’s memory? In American Educator, Winter, 17-25.

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