How to Remember More of Anything You Learn Without a Lot of Extra Work

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You know about memory techniques. remember-more

And you know they can be effective.

But you also know that they sometimes take a lot of work, can be clumsy to implement, and take time to get used to.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always preferred techniques and strategies that are easy-to-implement, effective, and I can start using quickly.

Having written last time about how the wrong impression of memory can prevent you from learning a language, today I’ll be sharing a memory-improving strategy with you.

And the best part is that there’s nothing extra to learn, no techniques to master, and you practically don’t have to change your language-learning activities at all.

Simplicity is What Keeps You Going

When I started learning languages the belief that haunted me was that you needed all kinds of fancy techniques to learn a new language.

And so I started to scrounge the Internet…

There were all kinds of people praising their own techniques as the single best method for language-learning success. The amount of different techniques is staggering.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but most of the systems are complicated and hard to implement. And when a system is complicated it takes a lot of EXTRA WORK.

And the worst part is that they make you resist using them after the initial honeymoon period.

In the beginning you’re likely to be excited about it. But when the expected results don’t show up it’s easy to feel that you wasted a lot of time — leaving you with the feeling that the system did you more harm than good.

The lesson I learned from all this is that simplicity wins the day.

You need simple language-learning techniques and strategies to make sure you’ll actually USE them. TWEET THIS

The Forgetting Curve and Spaced Repetition

The Forgetting Curve is a hypothesis about memory retention in time.

It states that you forget between 50% and 80% of what you learn today if you don’t repeat it by tomorrow.

And if you don’t repeat it, this memory loss goes down even more, until, on day thirty, you only remember 2-3% of the learned material!

Pretty depressive, I hear you say.

Luckily, there are ways to make the Forgetting Curve work for instead of against you.

How?

Spaced Repetition.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the term.

It sure sounds like something from Star Trek. 🙂

But it’s really just the technique of repeating something — in increasing intervals — just before you would forget it.

Because of the timely repetition, the information is better retained in your memory. Studies have shown the effectiveness of Spaced-Repetition learning.

According to this article about the Forgetting Curve from the University of Waterloo, Canada, you need to repeat what you’ve learned on the following days:

  • Day Two
  • Day Seven
  • Day Thirty
  • Day Ninety

Now, there’s software like Anki that lets you make flashcards to use with Spaced Repetition. But if you’ve never used it, it would break my earlier promise that you practically didn’t have to change your language-learning activities.

Flashcards with spaced repetition do have potential, though — especially for vocabulary. But it’s not for everybody. Some people prefer a more natural approach to learn vocabulary.

Deadly Combination

Using a Forgetting-Curve based Spaced-Repetition strategy is a really powerful way to improve your memory retention.

There are lots of different ways to implement this but as I said earlier: the simpler the better.

Since complicated systems can breed inner resistance, it makes no sense having a very sophisticated system that you don’t use.

So how can you implement this in the most simple manner so that it doesn’t get in your way to language-learning success?

It’s simple (surprise, surprise).

You just have to repeat what you’ve learned every 2nd, 7th, 30th and 90th day.

Now, okay — I’ll admit — there are some rules to the system.

If you repeated everything in its entirety, you would quickly end up with an enormous workload. You would be repeating so much that you’d barely be able to learn NEW stuff.

The key is to write down the stuff that’s difficult for you and what you think is important to remember.

It can be anything from vocabulary and grammar explanations to pronunciation aids and exercises.

This will become what you will be reviewing and redoing.

Use a big spiral-bound notebook for this. The action of hand-writing these things down will help reinforce the stuff and lock it better into your memory.

This simple system helps to improve your memory retention considerably and can be used with any language-learning activity — even to get the most out of real-life conversations.

For every language-learning activity that you do, you write down that what’s new (what you didn’t know already) and that what gives you trouble (what’s difficult for you).

Here’s how to implement it with a main language course

Write down the unit number on top of the first page of your notebook.

Mark the day you start the unit as Unit X Day 1 in your agenda.

The first time you go through the unit be selective and write down only new words, phrases and sentences, explanations and the names or numbers of exercises that seem especially difficult.

Write down the translations (for words, phrases and sentences) in your native language at the other side of the page.

The next few times you go through the unit (let’s say you have three initial passes) you’ll start to notice what’s difficult for you. Write it down. You can be less selective here because it becomes clear what you’ll need to remember.

Mark the day you complete the unit as Unit X Day 2 in your agenda. It doesn’t matter if you worked eight days on the unit. Also set reminders for day 7, 30 and  90.

On day seven you make another single pass through the whole unit.

On day 30 and 90 you only use your notebook to review and redo the difficult stuff. Test yourself by covering the translations and vice versa.

Be flexible about your dates. Sometimes you may have to move a day around here and there. Don’t exaggerate but don’t fear it either. The Forgetting-Curve hypothesis makes a lot of sense but it’s unlikely that repeating something on day 31 instead of day 30 leads to a much bigger loss of the learned information.

Your notebook should look something like this:

language-course

 

The great thing about this method is that you can move through a language course faster because you will be reviewing and redoing the difficult stuff later on and can leave what you already know pretty much behind.

Not Just for Beginners

One of the advantages of this method is that it’s great for whatever stage you’re in.

Just starting out? Use it to quickly and easily remember more of what you learn. Make it the engine of your language-learning.

Looking to break out of the intermediate stage? Read, Listen, speak — and write down in your notebook what you want to remember. Then, use the same intervals to learn and repeat the material. Just make sure you repeat it a lot in the first two days.

Added Bonus

Not only does this system give you a simple way to remember more without the hassle of some of the more famous memory techniques, it also gives you a great overview of what is difficult for you.

You’ll know exactly — it’s right there in your notebook — what you should work on. Have difficulties with the future tense? Irregular verbs? Some grammar structure? Work on it!

There are some things you can do to improve this system even more — to raise its effectiveness. Maybe I will dedicate a future article to it. For now I recommend you use it the way I described above. Never be afraid to experiment, but be aware of unwillingly putting obstacles in your path to speaking another language.

Your Turn

So, now I shared mine, what’s YOUR favorite technique to improve memory retention? Is it simple like the one I shared or more complex? Let’s talk in the comments.

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Comments

  1. Hi Noel,
    Very interesting article!
    I need to know if I got everything straight. I guess that there could be many other similar ways to get the same goal, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, if you have already tested both the effectiveness of this method and its simplicity. 🙂

    First of all, the required material is just a spiral-bound notebook and an agenda. Right?

    I write down on the notebook everything I have been struggling with, such as words, phrases and even whole sentences when I can’t handle yet its difficult grammar structure, for example. I write down on the top of the page of my notebook a unit number (e.g. 1, 5, 46), then I’ll copy this number on my agenda.
    Something like this:
    today is 01/09 (1th sept)
    I’ll write down on my agenda that “lesson” number (let’s say N. 5) on the dates:
    2/9 (5)
    8/9 (5)
    1/10 (5)
    30/11 (5)
    and I’ll have to repeat the unit lesson, or part of it on these dates.

    Thanks for sharing your experience on this subject, Luke.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi Luke,

      Glad you liked the article. Hope you can put it to good use.

      Sure, there are many ways to accomplish the same thing. There’s isn’t one method or technique that beats all others by a 500% margin. And that’s just a reason more to keep things relatively simple.

      Yes, just a spiral-bound notebook and an agenda is all you need.

      There are four repetition days in this method. Day 2, 7, 30 and 90. It is helpful to put which of these days it is in your agenda as well.

      So it would look like this:

      2/9 (Day 2 Lesson 5)
      8/9 (Day 7 Lesson 5)
      1/10 (Day 30 Lesson 5)
      30/11 (Day 90 Lesson 5)

      Remember to always repeat something more on the first two days. If it takes you more time to repeat something big, like a unit of a language course, then just mark the day you complete your initial passes as day 2 — even if it took you three days.

      Also, I mention in the article to set reminders for the other repetition days (7, 30, 90) when you mark day 2. In reality, I would often only set day 7 first. Then, on day 7 I would set 30 and so on…

      This allows for a little more flexibility.

      If you can’t study on day 7 for three days, the whole schedule becomes a mess.That’s why it’s sometimes better to set the next repetition day on the day you complete the previous one.

      Of course, it’s much better to keep up with your schedule, but sometimes there are outside influences that we can’t change.

      Thanks for your comment, Luke.
      Noel

  2. Thanks again Noel. I think I’ve understood.
    See you next, Luke.

  3. Noel van Vliet says:

    You’re very welcome, Luke.

  4. “And when a system is complicated it takes a lot of EXTRA WORK.”

    I hear you loud and clear. I’ll try your suggestions this month and see how I go.

    I’ve made it my hobby to check out the different language learning techniques, so I’ve spent a lot of time learning methods and not as much time as I should on actually learning languages. Ok. I do find learning methods exciting though!

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Catherine!

      Ok, great! I’d love it if you let me know how it goes.
      I’m always interested in feedback to tweak an approach and make it better.

      Yes, all those techniques and methods are very interesting. But as you rightly point out there’s the danger that we actually keep looking for the silver bullet instead of actually learning the language. Especially for those persons that aren’t that self-critical. Lots of distractions out there. 🙂

      Thanks for you comment.

      Noel

  5. You could probably use a tool like Boomerang to automate the 2-7-30-90, thus saving more time.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, Noah.

      Although I haven’t used that tool, I think it’s a great idea.

      The faster the implementation of a system, the more time you can actually spend on learning the language.

      If we have two memory techniques and method X is 20% more effective than method Y but takes 30% longer to execute it basically neutralizes the effectiveness of method X completely.

  6. I like the sound of this, Noel. It combines a simple, manual SRS with a layout resembling Cornell Notes (the bottom section being devoted to the grammar patterns & explanations – which can be folded over during latter reviews, presenting instead (on the reverse of the fold) test questions about the grammar.)

    As I was writing out my understanding of your system and thinking about how I would apply it to my Chinese learning, it occurred to me that this is a knowledge based review system and does not adequately cater for the skill side of learning a language. I would add to this system one or several daily Deliberate Practice sessions covering the four skills: reading, writing, listening & speaking.

  7. Noel van Vliet says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Barry.

    Whether it’s just a knowledge based review system or something more depends entirely on how you use it!

    I didn’t mention it in the article (maybe I should update it) but when I was doing a language course that had short individual exercises within a unit that gave me trouble, I would simply note the exercise number down and do that exercise again when it was time to review. The exercise could involve any of the skills you mention.

    The same goes for stuff like, let’s say, a short difficult newspaper article. You just reread it. If it’s larger you can just do the paragraphs that trouble you.

    So all skills can be perfectly represented in the system.

  8. Dear Noel,

    It’s your great website full of useful information! English is my second language and I am still learning it. Your tips about remembering are awesome and useful. I hope you will post such specific data driven articles regularly.

    Thanks

  9. Great tips…to learn many important things without much efforts. There are many things which we need to remember but we cant remember them but these tips would really help us to keep those tings in mind.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Great to hear you like it, Mike.

      Yes, it can also be used for other stuff, it’s not just for language learning.

      Thanks for stopping by again!
      Noel

  10. Hi Noel,

    I came across your website a few months ago and started using this method in both my Korean and Spanish language study. Spanish is a new language for me but I’ve lived in Korea for 17 years and have studied the language with varying degrees of commitment over the years. I am retaining SO much more using this method than with all of the things I have tried in the past. I’m also picking up Spanish much more quickly than I did Korean, though of course Spanish is much more similar to my native English. Question for you and sorry if it’s been addressed in a comment that I didn’t see. When I get to my 90 day review of material, what do I do with vocabulary or grammar that I haven’t retained? Does it go back in as something new and get reviewed on the 2, 7, 30, 90 schedule or should it just be reviewed again at some other interval? Thanks for the great information and great site.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Thanks, Cindy.

      Great to hear that it’s working for you!

      Great question, as well.

      I think that what you haven’t retained after 90 days is just something that needs a little more attention.

      For example, for words you could use mnemonics (especially memory palaces are very effective) or simply planning to use them in a conversation works well, too.

      Grammar is slightly more complicated but sufficient exposure to the specific grammar construction usually works well.

      When there’s grammar I’d like to learn, I always write down a phrase or two in my notebook and a very short translation/explanation. This is usually better than large explanations as they’re not likely to stick.

      That something isn’t retained isn’t a bad thing. It’s like a guide. It tells you what to work on.

      Noel

      • Thanks, Noel. Good point – if I haven’t retained it with the reviews I’ve done, it’s time to try a different memory method. I do a lot of model sentences for grammar (have started an Anki deck of them) but Korean grammar is so different from English it’s tough. Because there are so many connectives and endings that add meaning, I have to basically treat it like vocabulary. Anyway – thanks again, gracias, and 감사합니다!

        Cindy

  11. Dear Noel,

    I am having few queries about repetition days concept.

    1] Suppose if I am reading a lesson which is having 80 pages and if I am able to complete only 20 pages on day 1, than on day 2 should I repeat the first 20 pages and than start with the remaining pages or start with remaining 60 pages.
    2] Also, In your article your have mentioned ” Mark the day you complete the unit as Unit X Day 2 in your agenda. It doesn’t matter if you worked eight days on the unit”. Then in this case do you mean to say that on eight day I should start my 2nd repetition form page 1 [beginning]which might take another 4 days as I have already ready the topic once.
    Kindly please clarify the same.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hey Suchit,

      Nice to see you around here.

      1.You could do that. You have to use common sense. I think if it’s purely a READING lesson and there are no exercises, you should pass through it and note down what you don’t understand and then repeat only these parts on the second day (and all the other days).

      2. I think the above also answers your second question, right?

      Any more questions? Let me know.

      All the best,
      Noel

  12. Johnson Cortelek says:

    Dear Noel,

    I truly appreciate this article and just have three questions so I can be fully illuminated on this style of memorisation. I intend to begin using your method, however as I study both Law & Business in University and Russian in my spare time, I am curious about how you recommend dealing with memorisation sessions overlapping.

    Here is an example of my query in practice: If I were to begin my first memorisation session for “Topic 1” on January 1st and repeated it again on January 2nd as per the instructions, but meanwhile hoped to begin “Topic 2” on January 2nd which of course would then be repeated on January 3rd.
    Adding a new Topic everyday would eventually require overlap to such a degree that every day after January 7th I would seemingly be covering 3 separate lessons everyday, until I reached 4 lessons a day on January 30th and so forth.

    1. Have I properly understood how the system works for those studying a new topic daily? From your experience, are there any tricks for combatting this workload while maintaining progress?

    2. What is your opinion on the daily method I outlined above, can such an information overload be counterproductive to memorising using this system?

    3. Throughout your experience have you found a more ideal variation for dense memorisation, perhaps shorter intervals or some form of synchronising similar topics? Maybe even another system altogether?

    I truly appreciate your feedback, thus far I have learnt equally from your article and your replies to other readers’ previous comments. Thank you for selflessly sharing your wisdom 🙂

    Kind Regards

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi Johnson,

      I still like this system even though I’ve tried many others since. For a few reasons:

      It’s simple.
      It works effectively enough.
      You’re writing things down – which helps memorization.
      You don’t have to use a PC or Smart Phone (depending on your source material) – as they can be very distracting devices.

      To answer your questions:

      1. I’m not sure I completely understand your question. Only on day 1,2 and 7 you make a complete pass through the unit. Also, what I did was make three initial passes through the unit, ideally on day one. If this took longer then a single day, I’d mark the day I completed these as day two in my agenda, even it was really day four. I’d then add 5 days to the date to set the seventh day, even it was really day nine.

      As I say in the article: “Be flexible about your dates. Sometimes you may have to move a day around here and there. Don’t exaggerate but don’t fear it either. The Forgetting-Curve hypothesis makes a lot of sense but it’s unlikely that repeating something on day 31 instead of day 30 leads to a much bigger loss of the learned information.”

      2. It depends on the size of the lessons.

      3. Well, another system that works and can be a lot of fun is building memory palaces. I did a case study on such a course. You can find it here:

      http://www.smartlanguagelearner.com/case-studies/how-to-learn-and-memorize-the-vocabulary-of-any-language/

      All the best,
      Noel

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