The Study Better Manifesto
The premise of the manifesto is simple: see what the research behind learning, memory and expertise tells us and how can we apply it to real life.
We will see how an American journalist decided to investigate people who could remember seemingly impossible amount of information and and went on to apply their tricks to become the 2006 U.S. Memory Champion (remembering a deck of cards in minute and a half) or the story of Roger Craig who won one of the highest amounts of money in a single Jeopardy! episode.
The effort is there (given how much time we spend in libraries), but we can improve the technique. You might be surprised to hear that the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise runs 900+ pages and is devoted to the single question of how people become experts, from swimmers to chess players. One answer is deliberate practice (we will explore the topic later), which holds as one if its main tenets to rigorously improve technique. Let’s improve our study habits then:
1. Why You Should Test Yourself
One of the most common techniques for studying is to re-re-read the material numerous times. The problem is that it gives a false sense of confidence and actually does not increase learning. In the words of Professor Karpicke, who is behind a lot of the research on active recall, students get the ‘illusions of competence.’ But do not take my word for it, here is the graph that compares testing yourself on the material and just reading over it few times:
It comes from this New York Times Article that well summarizes Professor’s Karpicke’s results.
Cal Newport, an associate professor in Computer Science at Georgetown University (and also, the author of several books on the subject of studying and the man behind the most widely read and truly fantastic blog, Study Hacks) asserts that passively reading the material just does not cut it, you need to be able to recall the material unaided. In technical classes, you should do the problem sets without looking at the solutions and being able to summarize a concept from scratch without looking at your notes.
The overconfidence bias and Dunning-Kruger effect have long been studied – the feeling of illusory superiority, people rating their ability much higher than where they actually stand. Keep the fact that in a 1981 study, 93% of American drivers ranked themselves as better than the average driver. (Ironically, when I discuss this with people, they confidently tell me that they do not fall prey to this bias or any of the cognitive biases.)
The problem is that we hate testing, but we do have to keep in mind that even a hard test that we fail helps learning.
Professor Bjork advocates for adding ‘desired difficulties’ in the study process – changing context while studying both physical and topic-wise, introducing tests, etc. Bjork’s advice to current students is that we stop merely exposing ourselves to information, but to make learning an active process such as mapping the ideas onto concepts we already know and implement key finding that ‘when you practice retrieval you make the information more likely to be recalled in the future.’
The goal of any exam is to find holes in your knowledge. Find them first.
This is exactly what Roger Craig did in devising his system to win at Jeopardy!, he quizzed himself on the variety of topics, he did not passively reread them. Given the volume of data points (around 200,000 past questions – no big deal), rote memorization would not work.
So, the question he faced was simple. A lot of facts to learn to win big. Some of them you know well, some not.
He knows that you have to test yourself, that is certain. You learn a fact, but when do you retrieve it again to ensure it stays in your memory?
How do you optimize the process?
He used Anki, a software tool that lets you create your own flashcards, but the beauty behind it, is that it uses an algorithm based on how well you know the material (Repeat Soon, Hard, Good, Easy) to know exactly when to ask you again, based on the principle of spaced repetition & the forgetting curve which we will explore next.
(If you are wondering how to implement the idea of testing yourself, here is a practical guide by Cal Newport, aptly called ‘The Single Most Important Study Strategy”)
2. Spaced Repetition – How To Exploit the Spacing Effect
Although repetition is essential for knowledge, rarely any of us do it. We prefer the ‘massed’ approach, a.k.a. cramming, which works for exams, but is not beneficial for long-term retention. The problem with repetition is that we do not know when to go over a material again (and now you know it means testing yourself on it). If you do it too soon, it is pointless, your memory is too strong. Too late and we run in the opposite problem.
Some clever people have developed an algorithm to remind you at exactly the right time depending on your perception of how well you perceive to know the material.
Here is the visual presentation behind it:
It comes from the SuperMemo website and I recomend that you explore the numerous articles about the science behind the concept.
In one sentence the idea is this: memory and retention of the answer in the long-term will be very strong if we spread the studying over time which can be done efficiently through SuperMemo or Anki’s algorithms based on the forgetting curve.
Now, let’s get some real-life examples of how this has been used:
Let’s now turn to Harvard Medical Students. This TIME column has a sub-heading this text: ”A simple technique dramatically improved the memory recall of Harvard Medical School students. Try it for yourself.” The idea of course is spaced repetition. The article suggests using e-mail reminders sent on variable intervals, but in my opinion it is less optimal than using Anki – you do not know when to send that e-mail, you might waste time going over material you know very well (remember that answering a question on Anki you classify it on a scale from Hard to Easy.)
Does it mean that we can have better retention with less studying? Effective learning by one definition is minimizing the number of repetitions necessary. A curious paper on language retention compares 13 sessions spread out over 2 months vs. 26 sessions (!) over 2 weeks. When retention was tested after 1 to 5 years the people who studied half as many sessions had the same recall if they are spread over a period of time four times as long. Now that’s efficiency.
This paper by Kornell compares studying GRE vocabulary with a massed vs. spaced approach. In the massed approach, each study session, participants studied a small amount of word-pairs repeatedly (8 times each). In the spaced, people studied a higher number of word pairs, but went over each flashcard twice. Results?
Spacing was more effective for 90% of participants, yet 72% believed after the first study session that massed is more effective. As we all believe that a massed approach is better for studying (cram it), for long-term retention and learning, spaced is better.
We can see how spaced repetition can be implemented in designing a course via this post on teaching linear algebra. The professor knew about the research, but ‘you can tell the students until you go blue’ for the need of periodic review, they would not listen, hence homework assignments were cumulative always integrating problems from earlier in the semester. Sadly it is not unusual when reviewing for a final exam to find some concepts from the beginning of the semester as being completely novel as you have never encountered them. The verdict after the exam was that the material ‘really stuck’ and students ‘gave up studying for the exam after half an hour because I already knew all of it.’
3. How An American Journalist Became The U.S. Memory Champion?
Joshua Foer, the journalist in question, has a book on his fascinating journey becoming the U.S. memory champion.
Before we jump in the juicy stuff, let me just say that he has an exercise in the book that asks you to remember a shopping list. I read the book last year. It would be very hard to get that shopping list out of my head.
- The Loci Method (Memory Palace)
The idea behind the memory palace goes back to ancient Rome where it was introduced in rhetorical treatises such as Cicero’s De Oratore and is used by memory champions to recall lists of words, decks of cards, etc.
You imagine yourself going through a familiar route and encounter images along the way. The exercise in the book on the shopping list asks you to do just that, walking through your home and stumbling upon different images of the products you have to buy. But this is really boring , hence not memorable. The next step is to make it really vivid.
- Make it visceral, vivid & emotional.
The key here is that each image has to be memorable and here is where the fun begins. Exaggerate everything, make a scene ‘so unlikely’ that it is impossible to forget. As we aim to ‘expand the minimum amount of cognitive resources’ , we do not pay attention to the boring and banal of everyday life. Two things that are quite memorable are sex & jokes. Another of Foer’s suggestions is to make each image animate.
The more bizarre, the better.
The concept relates to what Scott H. Young calls ‘visceralizing’ when studying – make every idea an experience. If you want to go deeper, download his free eBook and read the chapter on how to visceralize.
You get extra points if you make it rhyme.
4. Expertise: What is Deliberate Practice & How to Avoid Pseudowork
Earlier we came upon the concept of deliberate practice. It’s the cornerstone of expertise and unfortunately it is not very fun. If you hear someone talk to you about the ’10,000 hour’ rule tell him that you’ve been singing in the shower for more than that, but you are far from a professional singer.
The 10,000 hour have to be deliberate.
Joshua Foer did not just learn about the memory palace and the other mnemonic techniques and went on to win. He consulted with K. Anders Ericsson, known as the go-to person for how people become experts in different disciplines (from lawyers to chess players, fascinating stuff). Joshua gives a much better presentation of the idea than I can in this video.
The idea behind deliberate practice is a ‘highly structured activity aimed at improving performance.’ It is a relentless focus on improving technique and getting feedback as soon as possible. (You might see the link to the need of testing yourself.)
The painful part is that it usually involves pushing past plateaus. After your brain become s familiar with a problem you are in the autonomous zone, it becomes a habit – you hit a plateau. If you are a piano player, you go over the segments you have learned and enjoy playing, but you do not push for things that are more difficult. As Joshua Foer tells in the video above, the mediocre figure skaters during practice went to do the same repertoire of techniques while the best found themselves constantly failing, pushing outside their comfort zone and trying harder jumps.
It is hard to develop expertise when you are in the comfort, autonomous, habitual zone. Go back to the cognitive phase which is when you encounter a novel problem.
Again, deliberate practice is highly focused. The problem is that we stay busy and usually measure work by the amount of time we spent. “I literally spent my whole day in the library.” Well, a lot of times that involves what Cal calls ‘pseudowork‘. Facebook and lolcats take over.
I like Cal’s equation: Work = Time Spent * Focus Intensity
While we realize this, it hardly turns into practice. We think how the next time we will study we will be these laser-focused machines and the temptations of cyberspace will not take hold.
Better, be like Ulysses and put wax in your ears when he encountered the Sirens. Why rely on willpower to not succumb to them when he can simply not hear them?
The tool I use is Freedom: It blocks all your internet access for a specified amount of time which is especially useful during lectures with boring professors. Social media is by far the biggest challenge if you need to do your work online – try AntiSocial. Other software in the same category: Self-Control & RescueTime.
Distractions are evil, which is why Professor Arash Abizadeh at McGill University does not allow laptops in his class citing this study correlating use of laptops and performance in class and he is not alone.