I learned to read and write Chinese from a native Chinese teacher for almost two years. Apart from my terrible pronunciation, I was reasonably good at it. Then my teacher got busy elsewhere and, sadly, I was too lazy to revise on my own. That was two years ago. Since then I have forgotten almost every character.
I was talking to my son about it and he suggested I check out a memorizing technique called “spaced repetition.” He said he uses it, and it definitely works. It’s not a hack; it’s based on the science of forgetting.
Spaced repetition system (SRS) is similar to using flash cards, a method to remember anything you really would like to remember. It is not about retrieving old memories—like you suddenly want to recall the name of an actor in a movie. You first have to decide what you want to remember and make a flash card for it. But rather than just pull out a card at random, SRS helps you schedule when you review a card. It helps you memorize things much more efficiently, by spending the least amount of time and effort.
Let’s say you want to remember someone’s birthday. If you try to recall the birthday every day just to ensure that you don’t forget, then you are spending far too much time testing your memory. It’s an inefficient way of remembering something. Alternatively, if you wait too long, let’s say two months, then your memory is long gone, and you have no chance of retrieving it. Short-term memory recall is easy; but long-term is tricky.
Spaced repetition, as the name suggests, is about space (meaning time) and repetition. You decide what you want to remember, and start quizzing yourself. If you get it wrong, quiz yourself again the next day. If you get it wrong, do it again. And keep doing it. However, if you get it right, then you wait a longer time before repeating it. That’s why it’s called spaced repetition—you increase the gap.
There are several SRS apps, including a popular one called Anki, but I find them a bit nerdy. I prefer what is called a Leitner Box, a system of flash cards that is based on the principle of Spaced repetition.
Designed by a German science communicator Sebastian Leitner in the 1970s, you can even make one yourself. Take something like a shoebox, and partition it into six or seven sections with cardboard pieces. In the first section put some flash cards of things you want to remember. You can make these cards yourself.
You don’t just the flip the flash cards at random; you follow a prescribed method. You put the cards in the first section, and start. Move to the second section the ones you get right and keep the ones you get wrong in the first section.
Repeat the process the next day. After going through the first section, review the cards in the second section. The ones you get right move to section three, but the ones you get wrong move back to section one.
The key thing is, if you get a card wrong in any section, it moves all the way back to section one. Keep at it for about 20 to 30 minutes each day.
If things you are you trying to remember are interconnected like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, such as learning a language or memorising a chapter from a text book, you are more likely to remember them. But if they are in isolation, then it will be harder to learn.
There is a simple and elaborate comic by Nicky Case (ncase.me/remember/), who does a terrific job of explaining complex theories with the help of interactive graphics. Called How to remember everything forever-ish, he explains the science behind it by going back to a theory called the forgetting curve, on how memory decays over time.
He says if you work at SRS diligently for 20 minutes a day, “you can store whatever you wish into long-term memory.” That’s where I went to find out how to start, and I would highly recommend the site.
It’s very scientific, and not difficult. I had a box of Chinese flash cards that I hadn’t opened in a couple of years. I’m trying the Leitner box and SRS, and so far it’s working. Now it’s a question of how long I want to continue.
Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.