See How to Learn New Stuff Part 1


Can a system help you remember everything you have ever learnt?

In a previous WILT article, we learnt that testing yourself early was the best way to make sure you can recall new information.

But registering information in the library of your mind is only the first part of the story. How can you ensure that you can find that information when you need it – weeks, months or years afterwards? How can you burn it deep into long term memory, and still be able to recall it readily.

In 1885, the German scientist Hermann Ebbinghaus published a monograph called Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology, which included discussion of  ‘the spacing effect’ – it is possible to increase learning by correctly spacing practice sessions.

The best time to revise something is just before you are about to forget it – do it earlier than that and your effort is wasted, do it later than that and you are back to first base.

There is an optimal time period for each person to first revise new learnings (a few days)  and another longer period for a second revision (about a week) and longer again for a third revision (a few weeks) and so on.

Polish Professor Piotr Wozniak has devoted his life to learning in this systematized way,

In 2005 he was featured in a fascinating Wired Magazine article by Gary Wolf.

So, here is the WILT take on how to learn new things – 

1 When first introduced to new information, test your recall immediately and then again some minutes later, as described in our previous discussion. This process will produce a written question and answer – which it is important to keep.

2 Test yourself again on that information 3 days later, which is when you where just about to forget it.(if you can’t remember, relearn it and test again in 3 days. If you can, move to Step 3)

3. Test your recall again 1 week later.(if you can’t remember, relearn it and move back to Step 2. If you can, move to Step 4)

4. Test your recall again 1 month later.(if you can’t remember, learn it and move back to Step 2. If you can, move to Step 5)

5, Test again 3 months later.

How can you keep track of all this?


You could use a Tickler filing system for storing your future revision material in the right place, as described by David Allen in Getting Things Done. Instructions are available free on his web site, and elaborated on at

Or you could use a computer program to keep track of it all.

Professor Wozniak developed software called Supermemo to organize his learning. It has been available for Windows for some years, is now available online, and has recently been adapted for iPhone and iPad.These are the perfect devices for this purpose.

The basic program is free online or a free download from the iTunes store. You can use it to create your own courses, entering questions to test yourself in a number of formats.

You can also purchase language courses, including Chinese which at the moment is available at a half price $12.99. (you can download a demo with some basic courses for free)

Supermemo is a patient teacher. It will ask you the same questions every few days until you know the answer, and then ask you again to check your recall it at extended intervals. It never gets an exasperated look on it’s face the way I do when I’m helping the kids with Math’s homework.

We often think that a genius is born, not created. Not according to Piotr Wozniak. Gary Wolf reports that this is his prescription for becoming a genius.

“His advice was straightforward yet strangely terrible: You must clarify your goals, gain knowledge through spaced repetition, preserve health, work steadily, minimize stress, refuse interruption, and never resist sleep when tired. This should lead to radically improved intelligence and creativity.”

How do you best learn things? Do you have experience with learning systems? Your comments welcome below.

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What you Need for Uni – Part One


Today is the first day of University! (were they the longest holidays in history, or what?)

Over the last few weeks, Alex Kidman and the readers of the excellent Lifehacker site have complied a 2011 University Success Guide

The series of articles include –

Have you got any tips for our Fresher Friends? Let us know in the comments and we’ll compile our own Uni Success Guide.

Tip for Fresher Shanks – Don’t lose your ID on the first night in the pub if you want to go to the pub on the second night.


What I Learnt On 1st March in other years

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We’re back to the school routine around here – and one of us is also about to start the Uni thing.

What is the best way to learn new stuff?

A research team at the Purdue University lead by Prof Jeffrey Karpicke studied this question. Their work was published in the prestigious journal Science this week.

(A description of the study follows – you can go straight to the bottom line here)

Two hundred students were randomly assigned to one of four groups. The aim was to see who could best learn some written material – for example, details of how the digestive system worked.

One group read the material once, for five minutes.

The second group studied the material for four consecutive five minute periods – going over and over something is the traditional way of learning.

The third group, the ‘retrieval practice group’, read the material for five minutes, and then were asked to write down what they remembered in a free-form paragraph for 10 minutes. They then read the passage again, and then repeated the retrieval practice test.

The fourth group used the material to develop concept diagrams, or mind-maps, which is considered a way of demonstrating understanding of a concept, and is also considered a more progressive way of learning.

One week later, all four groups took a short-answer test that assessed their ability to recall facts and draw logical conclusions based on the facts.

The ‘retrieval practice’ group did 50% better on this test.

The Motto – Test early, test often.

The New York Times has a feature article with more details on this study.

Some points about memory and recall –

‘Remembering’ is a complicated process involving two main stages – laying down or storing data, and then the ‘retrieval’ of that data. In this study it appears that it is more important to practice the retrieval of information. than it is to focus on the storing of information. It is, after all, retrieval that is tested in examinations (our brains are pretty good at storing stuff – we store lots of stuff that we don’t really want to remember).

There was an article in New Scientist (I think) that suggested if you can’t immediately recall a fact (like someone’s name), don’t keep thinking and thinking until you do. You are creating a ‘pathway’ when you are retrieving a fact, and your brain will go down that same pathway when it next wants to recall the same thing. This is why there are some people’s names that you can never remember. The article suggested that you ‘give up’ quickly and look it up, rather than creating long ‘rabbit holes’ for your brain to go down again next time you try and recall it.

Interestingly, the students in the ‘retrieval practice’ group were less confident that they would do well. The testing process pointed out deficiencies in their knowledge and understanding. It is also hard work. So this ‘test early, test often’ approach is harder, and sometimes doesn’t feel as effective.

Re-reading material is falsely reassuring – we tend to think ‘Yep, I know that, I understand that’. What we are perhaps ‘remembering’ is that we have ‘read’ the information previously, rather than that we can know that information. or can retrieve it when required.

The bottom line: (attention Oliver, Alex, Lucinda, Harry and everyone else starting Year 11 or University)

In your evening study each day, try and write down from memory the key points from each lecture or class that you attended. 

Then use your notes to add any information you have missed.

Try and rewrite this new improved corrected summary from memory, again. 

Correct this latest version again, and keep this version for subsequent revision.

How often should you revise stuff?

I’m glad you asked – ‘Mind Burning’ is a subject for a future WILT.


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