By Leo Babauta
Today we’ll talk about the first of a handful of methods that make our learning more effective.
I’ve recorded a video that talks about the idea of “effective learning” and then explains a bit about our first effective learning methods â€” retrieval:
(You can watch the video above or download it here to watch on your device.)
So what is retrieval? It’s the act of trying to remember something you’ve learned (or perhaps you haven’t learned it yet) from your memory. This simple act is harder than just exposing yourself to the information (watching a video or reading, for example), but that difficulty is good when it comes to learning. It makes the learning more durable, more effective.
Some key ideas when it comes to retrieval:
- Quiz yourself. When you’re done reading material or watching a video, don’t just feel like you’ve learned something, because what you’ve learned is mostly temporary. Make yourself take a quiz on the topic, and you’ll retain it much better.
- Retrieval interrupts forgetting. Basically, right after you learn something, you start to forget it. But if you force yourself to try to retrieve it before you forget, you’ll forget less.
- Try quizzing before you study. This might seem weird, but if you quiz yourself before you learn something, you’ll learn it better when you are exposed to the material. This pre-quiz gives you an idea of what you don’t know, and when you read about that information, you say, “Aha! That’s one of the things I didn’t know.” For example, if I asked you, “What’s the capital of Montenegro?” and you don’t know the answer … when you finally hear the answer (“Podgorica”), you’ll remember it better than if I just told you, “The capital of Montenegro is Podgorica” straightaway.
- Flashcards are awesome. A great way to quiz yourself if you’re learning information (as opposed to a skill) is to use flashcards â€” either paper ones or computer flashcards. (Suggestions below!) This is a form of retrieval that works brilliantly, in my experience.
- Quiz regularly. Quizzing right after you learn something is great, but it’s really important to quiz yourself on a regular basis. If not every day, then at least once every few days. This forces you to bring it back before you forget.
OK, that’s great … but how do you apply this to what you’re learning?
- Flashcard programs. Paper flashcards work great, but computer flashcards are even better. Why? Because they often use a system called “spaced repetition” that we’ll talk about in a bit. For now, download a free flashcard program called Anki that I absolutely love. (There are others, like Supermemo and Mnemosyne, but Anki is better in my experience.) Anki is free for most platforms, but seems to be expensive on iOS.
- Studying a subject. There are online quizzes for pretty much any topic. Find a bunch of them, quiz yourself before you learn and then after.
- Learning a skill. What if you’re learning a martial art, a sport, drawing? You can’t use flashcards for skills. Well, the best way to force yourself to retrieve a skill is to practice it. And not just any practice … practice like you play. If you’re going to learn basketball, practicing free throw shots is great, but it’s better to actually play a pickup game with other people defending you, forcing you to try to use the skills you’ve been learning. So practice the skill, then use it in a game. If you’re going to learn to sew, watch some tutorials, then try to actually make a purse or a dress. Don’t just watch videos on sketching a face … actually sketch! Don’t watch videos on learning guitar â€” play some simple songs!
- Learning a language. My favorite course for learning languages is Pimsleur. These, like Anki, use “spaced repetition” for phrases that you learn, but they also ask you regularly to recall phrases you’ve already been exposed to. For example, the Spanish tape might tell you that “Â¿DÃ³nde estÃ¡ el baÃ±o?” means “Where is the bathroom?” … and then after a few minutes, they’ll ask you how to say that phrase. You’ll have to recall it before you forget. But even if you just use free lessons online, the key is to try to use the phrases as soon as you can, regularly. Have a language partner to talk to, use Anki flashcards, or just try to speak the language as much as you can. Every day, try to use at least a few of your phrases.
- Skill and knowledge combos. There are some things, like chess, where you’re learning a bunch of knowledge but you’re also training skills. Well, the key is to put those skills and knowledge into practice. Find key chess positions and really try to solve them, finding the best move. Play against other people online or against the computer. As you do, review your games to see where your weaknesses are, and then study and practice those areas.
- Learning to code. If you’re learning to program, you can’t just read about it … you have to actually write code! Codeacademy is a good way to start, because you are required to use the knowledge you learn soon after learning it. But once you’re past that, try to do very easy coding projects to use your knowledge as soon as possible. The same goes for html/css â€” build some simple websites to get started!
OK, you get the idea. For whatever you’re learning, find ways to force yourself to retrieve the knowledge or practice the skills, regularly â€” perhaps even every day.