The best kept secret to improving your memory

Remember more through ‘spaced repetition’

Remembering stuff is hard.

My usual technique is reading while making grunting noises, lifting and forcing the facts into my brain, bench-pressing each line until little beads of sweat form at my temples.

Luckily, there is a scientifically tested strategy that is proven to work better than brute will or force. (Plus it requires less deodorant.)

The answer is found in what’s called spaced repetition. It’s as obscure as it is life-changingly useful; I don’t know why it’s not part of mainstream education yet. Here I’ll go over the theory briefly and then propose my own simple reading technique based on this principle. I also suggest a couple of software programs you can use to help you remember just about anything.

A(nother) really old, smart German guy

Hermann Ebbinghaus’s (try to remember that name) research on memory in the late 19th century led to the development of what he called the ‘forgetting curve.’

This forgetting curve graph shows us five curves. Each curve represents an engagement with a specific set of material, say a vocabulary word. After the first time you see a new vocabulary word (the first engagement), your brain “forgets” the word quickly. Thus, a steeper curve.

Forgetting means not being able to recall the word without being prompted. The point at which you “forget” is marked with the horizontal grey line.

The next time you see the word and its meaning (the second engagement) it takes your brain longer to forget the word. The third time, even longer. Therefore, the material stays above your recall threshold longer.

Because of this discovery, Ebbinghaus concluded correctly that the best way to remember stuff is to space out your review sessions in increasing increments of time. The most efficient way to do this is to engage with the material again right before you’re about to forget it.*

Researchers are still trying to discover just how long our recall ability lasts between engagements. Engage too quickly and your brain never lets you jump from curve one to curve two, counting shortly spaced reviews as only one engagement. Too much time in between engagements and the material has completely slipped below your recall ability and you again get stuck on the same curve.

Divide and Remember?

Several memory software companies claim to have found the perfect algorithm.

Researched and developed in the 1970s and 80s, SuperMemo chops up all your information into flashcard sized items, recycling them back onto your screen at the perfect moment. (Or so they claim.) This means, however, that everything is game for the chopping block—your online magazine articles, textbooks, e-mails, language vocabulary lists—you name it. The eccentric founder of SuperMemo, Piotr Wozniak, lives his entire life by this fragmented algorithm, sleeping, exercising and answering bits of e-mails whenever his model tells him to. It has allowed him to learn several languages fluently, but makes him seem batpoop crazy to the rest of us plebeians struggling along trying to remember what day it is. (It’s 2015, right?)

Then there’re slightly more mainstreamed companies like Anki. Built as a user-input flashcard program, Anki works off of a similar algorithm to SuperMemo. Each time a flashcard pops up, users rate the card based on how well they remembered it. This allows Anki to determine the length of time until it shows that flashcard again.

Pimsleur language learning software operates on spaced repetition theory as well, and quite effectively. I’ve started studying Russian using their audio CDs and am remembering almost everything. Because the lessons are all listen-and-repeat with prompts, Pimsleur gives you a huge boost in pronunciation too. (Just click the link in my banner ad…heh.)

A simple reading strategy for memory

While my method below has not been developed through decades of algorithm research, I believe it does a fairly good job at approximating the increasing periods of time necessary for spaced repetition. Plus it’s simple, user friendly and doesn’t require you to take a scissors to your biology text book.

Here are the steps:

  1. Flip through the entire length of what you are about to read. It could be one chapter, a research paper or even a whole book. Make mental note of chapter titles, topic sentences and summaries.
  2. Put the book down and do something else. Make this time no less than five minutes but no more than thirty.
  3. Now read the first two sections. Depending on your reading material this could be the first two chapters or it could be the first two headers or whatever.
  4. Put the book down. Now try to recall the first section.
  5. Use the 5Ws to get you started. Who were the characters, the players, the authors? What happened? Where is it set? When did it all occur? Why is it important?
  6. Pick the book back up and read through section three.
  7. Stop and try to recall the second section keeping with the 5Ws.
  8. Proceed until the end of your reading for the day. When you finish, give yourself a short break (as long as it takes to read one section) before recalling the last section.
  9. Again, take another break. Answer e-mails. Have lunch. Stop thinking about what you read for awhile. This break should be longer, at least a couple of hours but not longer than one day.
  10. Next, write a simple outline of what you just read. You can choose how much time you want to put into this from just a few bullet points to listing major and minor characters, subplots, writing out theorems, etc.
  11. Immediately compare your outline to what you read, skimming back through the text and adding to and correcting your outline.
  12. Take another break but this time wait at least 24 hours before going back and reviewing your notes.

It’s important to note that when you return to the material in future engagements, you shouldn’t simply read over the information again. You need to quiz yourself on the content. (Like answering the 5Ws.) Just like with a vocabulary word flashcard where you make yourself recall the definition, you should be doing the same type of thing with your math theorems, comparative politics, etc.

You may need to adjust the times somewhat for your own biology. In general, if you find yourself not remembering things when you go back a second or third time, you need to shorten the time in between your engagements. If recalling the information is really easy on your second or third time, you can wait longer until you engage the material again.

And seriously–check out some software for memorizing stuff, like mnemosyne. It might just change your life.

Good luck out there on the memory slopes—have fun and hang 10!


*(Incidentally this curve also proves why cramming for a test works really well. The next time your professor tells you to review, review, review, you can tell her she’s partially correct.)


http://lifeinthefastlane.com/learning-by-spaced-repetition/ – More thoughts on spaced repetition from a fellow life student





http://psy.ed.asu.edu/~classics/Ebbinghaus/index.htm – A compilation of Ebbinghaus’ writings

http://archive.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/16-05/ff_wozniak?currentPage=all – A neat article about the uber-disciplined Piotr Wozniak


http://www.gwern.net/Spaced%20repetition – A comprehensive look at spaced repetition. Gwern is probably one of the neatest things on the internet you’ve never read. Get lost in this site for a few years.

https://www.examtime.com/blog/study-hacks/ – Tried and true suggestions like drinking water and getting enough sleep. Also useful. And necessary.