I released a new episode of Sources and Methods today. This week I spoke with Lynne Kelly, author of ‘The Memory Code: The Secrets of Stonehenge, Easter Island and Other Ancient Monuments', a fascinating exploration of the intersection between history, archaeological sleuthing and memory techniques. We delved into the contents of her book as well as the practical applications she found for these ancient skills.
I’ve been fascinated with the work that Lynne has been doing on the history of memory and her own personal memory ‘experiments’. If you need some inspiration as to things you might learn (or ways you might learn them), head over to her blog and the page entitled ‘My 33 Memory Experiments’. She generously includes photos and explanations of how the various systems work. Her latest groups places them in even further context. As someone who’s been following her memory experiments for a while, I found the book really useful to understand why she was picking a certain technique over another.
She’s about to start a new project involving memory skills, education and schools (she discusses that in the podcast around the 34-minute mark) and I look forward to reading about the outcome.
I haven’t written much on this blog about the memory course I wrote and launched a few months back. Its target audience is Muslims hoping to learn the non-canonical Asmaa al-Husnaa or 99 Names of God.
The point of the course isn’t so much to learn the 99 Names. They have their uses, to be sure, but I chose them mainly as a proxy to teach some basic memory techniques and skills that will have relevance and use throughout your life.
The course of emails lasts for a week, but as part of the package you get:
- daily emails containing the course’s core lessons
- 13 custom worksheets and handouts to practice the daily email lessons
- a summary sheet at the end of the week with an overview of the main principles of the course
- recommendations for ways to apply the principles in your daily lives and in other studies
- support through the Incremental Elephant community on the forum
I haven’t done that much marketing or outreach except what has been easily to hand, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the numbers of users trickling in bit by bit. Some recent feedback from users:
“Thank you for setting up this helpful course! It's been fascinating to learn the memory techniques and tips you've offered.”
“Overall, I'm quite pleased that this course gave me the incentive to memorise the names properly and I also learnt other interesting things (can see now how this could easily become an obsession!). The emails were readable and contained about the right amount of information to make it doable in one week. Your didn't make any grandiose claims and the price was very reasonable. Jazakallahu kheyra. I'll recommend this to others.”R.H., United Kingdom
R.H., United Kingdom
I’ve also been pleased how those who finish the course have gone on to develop interests in more advanced memory techniques beyond the foundations contained in the email lessons.
[This is a cross-post via the Spaced Repetition Foundation blog, where it was originally published]
Maybe Spaced Repetition isn't the best word. It's only descriptive after the fact, once someone has explained to you about Ebbinghaus and his experiments learning sheets of random numbers during the 1870s. For a general audience, we probably need a better term to help people understand what you can do with Spaced Repetition. We also need better examples and models of people who use it in a variety of domains of their life.
The first use case or scenario in which many encounter spaced repetition software or uses is language learning. And yes, it is great for learning vocabulary in an efficient manner. You can see how people have found ways to blast through large numbers of words by using things like Anki or Memrise.
But it would be a waste to limit our understanding of what Anki or spaced repetition can do to just learning vocabulary lists. It can be used for so much more. Indeed, expanding people's awareness of the various possibilities is an important reason why Matt, Natalie and I decided to set up this foundation.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a few moments to write down some thoughts on how you can use Anki and Spaced Repetition in other areas of your life. This list isn't in any particular order. You'll find that most things involving information or learning can be somehow coupled with the use of spaced repetition software, and the extent of your use is basically only as limited as your creativity.
- Birthdays -- learn all the birth dates of your friends and family. This probably works best in conjunction with some other system like the major system for remembering numbers, but you might be able to brute force this through.
- Kindle Clippings -- using Anki's in-built cloze deletion tool, you can blank out key parts of your kindle clippings to remind you of things you read in previous months or years. This way, books that you've read needn't be confined to vague memories. You can be more deliberate about what you're learning. Even things like book titles could be something you could learn with Anki. Consider a card which tests me on the author's name and the title (based on a short description). This way I avoid having those moments where I forget the title of the book but remember the contents pretty well.
- Magazine articles / things online as you're reading
I do this a lot. Whenever I'm reading online articles -- in Instapaper, let's say, which is the place where I read most things -- I'll save the highlights of passages I want to keep in my reference library. At a later date, I'll go through those highlights and see what I want to remember for the longer-term. I'll then transfer the clipping or highlight into my Anki library.
- New English words -- I'll occasionally come across technical vocabulary that is new to me while readying. If it's a word that I find myself looking up often, I'll save that entire sentence into Anki and use the cloze deletion method to set up an appropriate test.
- People / Faces
Matt seems to use this far more than me, though I'm starting to do it more often. The idea is that you find a picture of people you meet in meetings or in work contexts (Google Images or Facebook works well for this) and test yourself on their names and maybe one or two key facts about them -- that they're a vegetarian, perhaps, or that they just had a baby, or whatever it is. You can even do this pre-emptively. I once did this prior to a conference/event on Afghanistan. The conference home page had everyone's name and photo (those who were speaking / attending) so I just downloaded the lot, made cards for everyone as well as what their job/specialism was. By the time I arrived at the conference I knew everyone's name and who they worked for and what they worked on. It was a far more relaxed and personable experience than previous events of that kind. I don't get invited to speak at such events any more really, so I have no use for this, but I imagine many readers would find this useful.
- Reference materials -- You probably have things in your life that you're perpetually looking up. The time in-between looking-up probably is a matter of months (or maybe years). Just long enough to forget, but not long enough to forget that you once knew this thing. With Anki, those tip-of-the-tongue moments can become a feature of the past. No more remembering that you once new something.
Some examples: perhaps the precise proportions of a recipe you make every month or two. Yet every time you make the recipe you have to look up whether it is 1 part flour to 2 parts water, or 1:3. Anki can keep your memory fresh.
Similarly with important medical data, or phone numbers, or points of contact for certain work projects or people.
- Coding language -- I used this while studying coding this past summer, and have found it great for making sure that the conventions I learnt for one language didn't get forgotten while I worked on the next language / scenario.
- Revising things you should probably already know but maybe have forgotten
This, for me, is the subject of mathematics. I studied it at school, but since then have had less need for it. This past year I've returned to mathematics with the somewhat embarrassing realisation that even things like my times-tables aren't as solidly in my brain as I'd like. I can tell you what 6x7 produces, but I'll probably need to think about it for a few seconds. Enter, Anki. I've been drilling myself on times tables for a few months and have found a real uptick in the speed at which I can recall those answers.
You probably did a certain amount of this at school, but since then haven't added to the knowledge (or some maybe has been forgotten). Learning all the capitals of all the countries of the world (and being able to locate them on a map) isn't just an abstract skill. Things like this enhance your ability to understand and interact with the world. Instead, when you read a news article referencing a number of countries, you can place them on a map and realise that Ouagadougou is the capital of Burkina Faso and that it's included in the article for that reason.
Other niche things I've used Anki to help me with:
- brewing times for different varieties of tea, and also the ideal temperature of the water
- Ayas for the Qur'an (i.e. learning to recite these by heart). I know many use Anki for learning Bible verses, too.
- Learning the periodic table (alas, many years ago, in a deck now since deleted from my phone)
- The Japanese Kanji
Others use Anki for learning med-school data.
As I wrote above, the limit to what you can use Anki for is basically limited only by your creativity and imagination.
A friend was asking about using Anki to learn to recognise the districts of Afghanistan so I made her a deck that provides tests in the following way;
On the front of the card the question is presented along with a computer-generated audio pronunciation of the district name:
Then if you know it, you'll answer Badakhshan and then you'll click/tap through to the next screen to see if you got it right. You'll see this:
Then you can mark whether you got it right or not. There are around 400 districts to learn, so if you learn 13-15 new cards each day you'll finish the whole lot in a month.
Why learn all the districts of Afghanistan? Sometimes you'll hear someone talking about a particular place or part of the country, and without knowing which province they're talking about you might not understand the context or the conversation. Plus, a little bit of geography never hurt anyone.
Give it a try. And let me know if you manage to complete the deck. You can download the full Anki file here. Enjoy!
I arrived in Jordan this morning and am beginning my attempts to get to know the lay of the land. First thing is always geography. If I don't have those mental hooks to know that someone is talking about a particular muhafadha / governorate, I can't properly engage in the conversation / information, so the only way to do this at the beginning is to learn a bunch of those initial hooks in a more deliberate fashion. Later on, you can learn things naturally, incorporating new pieces of information as you hear it, but at the beginning you need that initial scaffolding.
To that end, I'm starting off with Memrise's Governorates of Jordan course, which teaches you all the names, plus their administrative capital town. I'll be doing the same with Amman's geography over the coming days, too, though no pre-written course exists so I will have to make one myself. For Amman, I can combine the more abstract map-work with travelling to see the various places with my own eyes. Then I can combine the two together for a solid grasp of the geography and different neighborhoods. In due course I will also be travelling around the various parts of Jordan for myself, but for now I have to content myself with learning all their names.
I’m very glad to be able to announce two new things I’ve been busy with over the past few months.
Firstly, I’m launching an email course showing how to learn long lists of items by heart. This course is outwardly directed towards Muslims, since the list that you learn over the course of a week, is a list of 99 Names of God — the so-called Asmaa ul-Husnaa. But the broad principles are the same for learning any long list of things, so don’t think you need to be a Muslim to take the course. The materials come with lots of handouts and supplementary information about memory and the like.
Note that this first course is part of something new I’m calling Incremental Elephant, a place where I can offer more courses related to memory, language-learning and productivity.
Secondly, as regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been blogging about technology, productivity, language learning and the intersection between the three for several years. Along the way, I’ve fielded dozens of questions from readers about which programme to use for this or that scenario, or which textbook to use when starting out with language x or y. I’ve increasingly been taking on longer-term clients to coach through these issues, so I’m taking the opportunity now to announce officially that I offer one-on-one coaching for language learning or productivity-related issues.
The language you’re learning doesn’t need to be one that I already know, because my coaching is usually targeting the meta-issues of how you’re studying rather than what you’re studying.
I offer weekly or biweekly Skype coaching sessions. This will include a mix of reviews of work you did the past week, planning your studies for the coming week and brainstorming techniques to get you over specific problems that are preventing you from moving forward. (For example, I’ve recently been working with someone who has problems declining verbs, so we’ve been tackling that from several angles using a variety of techniques).
More news on the Ph.D. front in a few months, I hope, but for now, go check out the 99 Names course and get in touch if you would like to discuss working with me to improve how you go about learning languages.
UPDATE: I've written up a more extensive explanation of what one-on-one language coaching involves, and what kinds of problems it's best suited to tackling. Read more here.