How to remember anything, forever: the secret history

Posted on 13-04-2020

The best part of researching my new book, Teachers vs Tech, was getting to read a lot more about memory. Not just the academic research on memory – although this was fascinating – but the practical attempts by real people to come up with systems to improve their long-term memory and remember things forever.

Often, these are people who have taken on hard academic challenges, like studying medicine or foreign languages, and they realise that unless they improve their long-term memory, they won’t succeed. They are frustrated with the way that traditional methods of learning, involving books and lectures, aren’t ‘sticky’ – but they are also aware that trendier methods involving projects and groupwork don’t solve the memory problem either. They like to experiment and tinker, to try out new ideas, and discard what doesn’t work. They may be slightly eccentric. Very often, they are motivated by a sheer love of learning that goes beyond exams and achievement and is more about learning as a way of life. Here are a couple of my favourite articles from this secret history.

Hermann Ebbinghaus – Ebbinghaus is the father of modern memory research. He famously experimented on himself, timing how long it took for him to remember and forget dozens of nonsense syllables. His work introduced the idea of the forgetting curve, which is that when you first learn something, you’ll forget a lot of it after 24 hours, unless you study it again. So the best way to learn is not to cram your study into one session, but to spread it out over time – spaced-repetition. Ebbinghaus’s work has been replicated by a modern study.

Wired Magazine, Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm – this article contains an interview with Piotr Wozniak, who developed a spaced-repetition algorithm that would present content to you at the ideal moment – just as you were about to forget it. This algorithm, SuperMemo, sits underneath a number of different applications.

Piotr Wozniak, Effective learning: Twenty rules of formulating knowledge – this is an article by Wozniak on how to write a good flashcard. Break it down and keep it simple – you are better off having ten really simple flashcards than one with a complex block of text.

Michael Nielsen, Augmenting Long-term Memory – this is an article about how to use a spaced-repetition flashcard app to build your own personal memory system. This article is only a couple of years old but it is already quite seminal. I know a lot of people – including me – have changed the way they read and study based on the insights here. Thanks partly to this article, I now spend about 20 minutes a day reviewing my Anki library of 4,000 flashcards, and most of the books and articles I read get turned into a series of Anki flashcards too.

Nicky Case, How to remember anything forever-ish –  this is a really fun cartoon introduction to spaced-repetition, which has some lovely interactive graphs that illustrate the idea of spaced-repetition, and which integrates some flashcards into the explanation.

None of the articles referenced above are by people involved in primary or secondary education. A lot of what they are doing is about building personal memory systems, and they are aimed at adults, not school students. But I think there is enormous potential here for schools. It’s not realistic to expect our students to be like Piotr Wozniak, but it is realistic for us to take some of his rules about flashcard design and incorporate them into lessons. Maybe we aren’t all going to build a personal library of ten thousand flashcards, but perhaps every school student could have a library of cards based on the content they study in every subject in school. As Michael Nielsen says, the promise behind these systems is that they make memory a choice. Set up a system like this, and memory is not about random chance or laborious hours of study. If you choose to remember something, you can.