To learn effectively we should spend enough time to let new information soak into our memory before we move on. Every cognitive process requires time and effort if we want to remember something for the long run. We need to give a meaning to new information based on our current knowledge. How does this new thing connect with what we already know? How does this new thing build upon our current knowledge structure? Why is it important? Is it valid according to existing knowledge? Does it change anything in our current structure?
To encode new information make associations, find examples/counterexamples, use your imagination to think of an analogy or a pattern.
Are you learning a foreign language? Form examples with the new vocabulary. Think of words that sound or look similar to new words. Can you remember any synonyms? Any antonyms? Close your eyes and visualise yourself using new words in a real life scenario with a native speaker.
Have you just learned a new mathematical formula? Solve a couple of problems with this formula. Are there any exceptions? Can you derive the formula on your own on a blank piece of paper? Can you explain to your parents what’s the purpose of this formula? Why do we need it? Explain this formula to someone that doesn’t know anything about mathematics. Why is this formula consistent with other formulas that you already know?
Let’s say that you are reading about the European Union. The moment I am writing this article the number of EU states is 28 whereas the number of Eurozone states is 19. How can you remember these two numbers? Look at them for 5 seconds. Can you relate these two numbers somehow? I am sure you have already come up with an idea. For example, 1 + 1 = 2 and 9 – 1 = 8. Or just focus on 19 and add the last digit to 19 to make 28. This simple quick observation costs 5 seconds but it can lock these two numbers in your memory making it hard to forget. Oh, and before I move on, I just wanted to let you know that Alexander Fleming discovered the penicillin in 1928.
Now who starts a learning session with a blank piece of paper? Almost no one. Most of us open our books or notes and start reading. And after we read, we reread and reread and reread. Big mistake. What will help you to learn effectively is not rereading but self-testing. What can you remember from the last time? Recall first! Rack your brains! Look up in the ceiling until you bring something to the surface! Do you think this is a waste of time? No, it’s not. It’s the only way to build strong memories. The more you struggle to remember something the stronger roots it will grow in your memory. If you didn’t manage to recall it, encode it better. How can you secure it better in your memory? Recall it again after a couple of days. Target it again!
Flashcards is a great way to practice recall. Use traditional flash cards or electronic ones. Anki is a great software to make electronic flash cards. Use flash cards for anything you are trying to learn: language vocabulary, historical events, medicine, anything.
When you take notes, use the Cornell notetaking system. Divide the sheet into two columns. Take notes on the right column and use the left column for the corresponding questions. When you review your notes cover the right column with your hand and try to answer the questions on the left column. Confirm. Did you get it correct? Leave space in your notes so you can use it while you practice recall. If you didn’t get something correct add comments, encode it better, add supporting information, draw an “attention” sign. Always start reviewing your notes with self-testing. Make it hard as you are being tested every time you review your notes.
Tell me now how many courses and books are out there that promise they can teach you a language or anything in 7 days? Infinite. Correct. Is it possible? Have you learned a language in 7 days? Do you know anyone that has? If you do, please let me know because I want to meet that person.
Research has shown that to learn effectively we need to space our study sessions. We need to allow a little bit of forgetting to happen. Recall information that starts getting rusty in our memory. Do you struggle? Does it take time to bring to the surface? That should be your goal. It’s only then When you glue it to your long-term memory.
When you mass your studying into one single session you feel you are making great progress. But that progress is only short-term! Space your learning out in time and when you go back to carry on, always start with self-testing.
Stop going to those “ultimate hands-on crash-courses”. This only suits the course organisers who teach you “everything” over a single weekend and walk away with all your money at once. It doesn’t suit you.
Imagine your long-term memory as a garden with plants. Each plant is a bit of information in your memory. You need to go back often enough to water your plants. How can you water your plants? With self-testing. We explained that earlier. Water your plants with recall practice if you don’t want to see them die. Bear in mind that you can’t water your plants only once even if you throw a ton of water on them. You need to space the watering process. Do the same with your learning.
Have you realised what I’ve just done with the previous paragraph? I used an analogy to connect self-testing and spacing with the process of watering plants in a garden. Do you remember encoding? I just wanted to remind you. I went back to it. I spaced it out.
And then it comes to the learning styles… Today we all believe we are a certain type of learner (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic etc.) However, there is no scientific evidence that we should learn according to our “preferred learning style” if we want to achieve maximum learning results! Instead, science says we should learn in different modes and work with our weak sides. It’s only then when learning becomes effective. Don’t stay within your comfort learning zone. Stretch yourself. Explore new material from different sides.
Do you prefer pictures? Start reading.
Are you reading about the events of the Second World War? Close your book and watch a documentary on YouTube covering the same events.
Are you studying English by reading a passage in silence? Stop for a minute. Read it out loud and record it with Google Translate. Did Google Translate pick the words up correctly? If so great. You just practiced pronunciation. Press the record button now and listen. Focus on the words that you don’t pronounce correctly. There you go. Reading, speaking, listening. At zero cost.
Always remember this. If you want to make your learning easy, you will have to pay a price for it later. The price of forgetting. Effective learning (long-term learning) should be effortful and hard. Hence, avoid practices like cramming, rereading and speedreading. These practices make you feel you are learning fast. However, the results are only temporary.
I know some of the above may sound controversial. But this is not my personal opinion. It is what science says about how we should learn. I only managed to dig this truth out after diving into research papers and changing totally the way I learn. Because the way I used to learn was far far away from the optimal. I wish I knew all this when I was a student. But no academic institution dedicates a separate module to how we should learn. Educators believe that we know how to learn. Unfortunately, we don’t. Because the characteristics of effective learning are counterintuitive. We are poor judges of future performance based on current performance. Just because you feel you remember everything now, doesn’t mean you will remember it in the future.
What you should do is to nurture curiosity, motivation and love for what you are learning. Find genuine interest in it. Effective learning happens when you are in a sort of meditation state. Fully absorbed, trapped in a book, film, documentary, interview, talk etc. It’s then when the magic happens.
PS: Special thanks to Maggy for making the below beautiful illustration for me. You can find her at email@example.com.
Are you ready for some Russian vocabulary? I hope so because I have created Anki electronic flashcards with the 10000 most common Russian words. At the back of every card in addition to the word definition in English, you will also get audio pronunciation and links to Google Translate, Yandex Translate, noun declension/verb conjugation rules, and examples. And if that “10000” sounds a little overwhelming, I have also made smaller decks of cards with the 1K, 1.5K, 2K, 3K, 4K and 5K most common Russian words. All I need from you is some motivation.
Anki is a flash card software which uses a spaced repetition system. That means that a card shows up at spaced time intervals. The length of each interval depends on how well you remember a card every time you review it.
The desktop version of Anki is completely free and available for all platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux). You can download it here.
The first time you open Anki you should be able to see a Window like this:
Your new profile obviously has no cards at the moment. Now download one of my decks (Anki file) with the most common Russian words. Click here to download the decks.
After you download a deck, click on Import file on the above window. Select the file — Anki Deck — that you have just downloaded. Then click on the title of the Deck to start studying the words. Press Study Now on the following window. (Note: If the name reads “10000 most frequent Russian words” irrespective of the deck you downloaded, you haven’t made a mistake. Just rename the file. The reason is I used the big deck to create the smaller decks 🙂
The first card you will get is the following ( И – the most common Russian word!)
After you guess, click on Show Answer to confirm. You will instantly hear how the word is pronounced and reveal the back of the card with the following:
Google Translate link
Yandex Translate link
Wiktionary link (with rules on noun declension, verb conjugation and other useful information)
Yandex Examples (Examples with the current word on Yandex)
Frequency Index of the current word (1: Most Frequent).
For example, this is what you get after you press Show Answer on the card И.
Now you can use the links to find more about the word. After you explore the word and find examples, you can press Edit and make any changes at the back of the card. These changes will be saved and become available the next time you see this card. For example, you can add a couple of examples directly on the back of the card for quick reference.
Before you move to the next card:
If you managed to get it correct very easily press Easy. This means that you will be given this card again in 4 days as indicated above the button.
If you managed to get it correct but it wasn’t something really obvious press Good. This means that you will be given this card again in 10 min for revision.
If you managed to get it incorrect press Again. This means that you will be given this card again in less than a minute.
You can also use the following useful shortcuts:
Again: Press 1.
Good: Press 2.
Easy: Press 3.
Replay the audio: Press R.
Show Answer: Press Spacebar.
From my experience, I have found a convenient setup to work with Anki and a browser needed for the hyperlinks. I divide my screen into two parts: 1) Anki on the left-half and 2) Google Chrome on the right-half as shown below. Every time you click on a link in Anki, a new tab will open on the right without having to switch windows to see it. Obviously every now and then, you will have to close a few tabs in Chrome. A useful shortcut to quickly close tabs is Ctrl + W in Chrome. Also, if you pay attention below, as the targeted word here is a verb (сказать), the Wiktionary link title refers to the conjugation rules of the verb. If the targeted word is a noun, you will see there a link called “Wiktionary – Declension”. If the word is neither a noun, nor a verb, you just see a “Wiktionary” link.
I know that some of you are not absolute beginners and you would like to start from a more advanced word than И. In that case you can do the following:
Click on Browse on any of the cards.
Select your Deck on the window that pops up like below:
Click on due to sort the cards by that column (frequency order).
Click on any card on the Grid (the card up to which you are more or less familiar).
Press fn + left arrow to select all the previous cards (the familiar words).
Click Delete on the top right of the window.
After doing all the above you can start reviewing words with a frequency index greater than the one you wish. That’s all! You can now get cracking!
Last but not least, I want to bring to your attention the following points:
The above method should never be your principal method of learning vocabulary. It should be a complementary method which helps you catch important-frequent words that just slip through your day-to-day vocabulary net. If you want to explore effective language techniques for the Russian language, you can read the relevant section of my blog here. I have also written a book on how to learn Russian with all the necessary methods and material you need to learn Russian effectively without a teacher.
The default word definitions come from Yandex Translate website. They are not always the best because you can never get the best translation with any tool. Always, consult the links provided to find examples and more information about every word before you move to the next.
The list of the words has been compiled using this reliable resource here.
If you liked this post, don’t forget to share and leave a comment below to let me know about your progress and ideas! Enjoy!
The keyword mnemonics technique uses keywords and mental images to associate verbal material. For example, let’s say you want to memorize the French feminine noun affiche that means poster in English. For this, you could imagine a feminine looking fish attaching a poster to the wall.
This technique has become increasingly popular lately. It is also the core learning strategy of Memrise, an online language learning platform. Memrise was founded by the memory champion and author Ed Cooke.
I hadn’t practised this technique until I came across Memrise. I started fanatically creating mental images and keywords to memorize words in Russian. I realized that not every word is easy to tackle with mnemonics. However, I managed to use my imagination and come up with some surreal mental images that helped me to memorize a few Russian words. I got really excited! “This technique is gold”, I thought!
However, we have to be careful with how we arrive to “cause-and-effect” conclusions. Do I successfully remember these words because of the mnemonics per se, or because of the repetition of the retrieval process? In fact, I was over excited to confirm that this method works, so I kept going back to recall the mnemonics from my memory (retrieval process or self-testing). In that case, maybe it was the repeated retrieval process that helped me to memorize the targeted words.
For this reason, I decided to dig deeper into research. I found that lots of studies show a benefit of the mnemonics in the short-term, i.e. when someone is tested soon after a study session. However, when targeted words are not keyword-friendly, or someone receives delayed tests on them, the benefits vanish.
Hall (1988) conducted several experiments and showed that a control group outperformed the mnemonics group on English words that were not keyword friendly. Even when the mnemonics group was given the keywords, i.e. they didn’t have to waste time generating them, the control group performed better.
Condus, Marshall, Miller, Raugh & Atkinson (1975) investigating the long-term benefits of the mnemonics, they included a test soon after the practice and one after a longer delay of several days, or even months. These studies showed a benefit of the mnemonics method for both the immediate and delayed tests.
However, the promising results of the later research were compromised by the design of the experiments as the exact same groups were tested both on the immediate and the delayed tests. Given that the mnemonics group showed increased performance on the immediate test, this initial successful recall could have boosted the performance on the delayed test. In other words, the advantage in the delayed test performance for the mnemonics group could have been due to the retrieval practice (immediate test) and not due to the mnemonics per se (It is known that retrieval practice slows forgetting.)
For this reason, researchers tested different groups on the immediate and delayed tests. The results below show that although the mnemonics group outperformed a rote repetition (repeated study) group on the immediate test, the benefits on the delayed test vanished for those who received only the delayed test.
In a second experiment, after researchers nearly equated the performance of the two groups on the immediate test by giving more training to the rote repetition group, the repetition group performed much better than the mnemonics group on the delayed test as shown on the chart below:
This shows that the mnemonics are not as effective for long-term retention. This is probably because it gets harder to decode the mnemonic if lots of forgetting has occurred . For example, for the feminine looking fish we have lots of target words, “fish”, “poster”, “wall”, “feminine” etc. Which of these words corresponds to what?
Apart from the long-term retention disadvantage of the mnemonics, their critics also report the following:
Time is needed to train someone to generate appropriate mnemonics.
Time is needed to generate keywords and mental images.
There is no evidence that mnemonics are superior to traditional self-testing or repetition of study.
Mnemonics are limited in terms of learning domain to foreign languages. Even within that domain, not all the material is keyword friendly, i.e. it is not always easy to create keywords.
Going back to Memrise, Ed Cooke and his team, apart from mnemonics, rely heavily on repeated retrieval practice using sophisticated algorithms. So, their system throws you a certain word several times spaced with intervals that are optimized for effective learning.
As a conclusion, you should use mnemonics for keyword-friendly words when you learn a foreign language but make sure you refresh them frequently in your memory. In general, testing and spaced practice are proven methods that promote effective, long-term and durable learning. Stay tuned, I will soon come back with more interesting results…
We have 3 winners from the last italki prize competition:
1) Daniel Smith
2) Emmanuel Tartagal
3) Sarah Kim
The guys above each wins $40 to spend on italki private language lessons! I would like to thank you all for your participation and very useful intelligence you gave to me regarding your difficulties learning a language and your needs! I promise to do my best to help!
I am working on some big plans to create the best methods and resources for language learners, and I need your help.
I would like you to answer just 3 questions as much in detail as possible! It would be a massive help and there is something in it for you – scroll below:
1) What is your favourite website or software which helps you learn a language and why?
2) What is your favourite method for memorising new words?
3) What is your biggest difficulty in learning a language?
What’s in it for you??? I thought you’d never ask!
I am going to give away three iTalki promo codes, each one worth 400 points ($40), to three lucky participants. Italki helped me to practise my Russian with native speakers at very affordable prices. To learn more about iTalki please read my article here. In addition, everyone who takes part will be the first to get access to my upcoming ebook ‘Learn Russian the smart way’, for FREE.
Please send the answers to: firstname.lastname@example.org until the 7th of August 2015!
Visualisation is the process of creating mental images with a certain purpose. Top performers know very well the importance of picturing themselves succeeding in their minds before they do in reality. Michael Jordan always used to take a last shot in his mind before he took one in real life. Muhammad Ali always visualised knocking out his opponent well before entering the ring. Researchers in the Cleveland Clinic Foundation compared people who trained to build their muscles to those who just visualised themselves training. The ones who trained in reality increased their muscle strength by 30%. However, the ones who just performed mental workouts increased muscle strength by almost half as much (13.5% – see scientific paper here).
Visualisation can be applied to language learning too with astonishing results. Jane Arnold, a professor of language teaching methodology at University of Seville, has extensively written about this (see sample pages of her book here). She recalls that her interest in visualisation was prompted by an American Scholar who saved hours of studying by visualising himself speaking fluently in Italian and French before travelling to Europe for summer conferences.
Imagine you walk home after work. You probably spend this time thinking about your busy schedule, tomorrow’s meeting, the bills you have to pay etc. Instead of doing that, why don’t you start a conversation with yourself loudly in Russian? Maybe you want to practise the days of the week, the verbs you learned yesterday, or talk about your plans for the evening. If you are a beginner, take a chance to look around you and describe what you see. For example, you can say things like:
Что это? – What is this?
Это большой дом – This is a big house.
Это красная машина – This is a red car.
Сегодня хорошая погода – Today, the weather is good.
Люди идут по улице – People are walking on the street.
This is an example of a multisensory learning method which involves visual, auditory and kinaesthetic elements. You see an object in real life and you pronounce the word loudly while you walk. Research has shown that it is very effective to pair a word with an actual object this word represents. This process is similar to learning a word by associating it with an image. At the same time, you improve your pronunciation as you are forced to speak the language. Also, you can make this method even more powerful by adding an acting element. Pretend you are an actor, or a teacher. Change the tone of your voice, speak dramatically, whisper, shout with surprise! That will even more stimulate your auditory and kinesthetic senses and help you memorise better.
I remember when I first came across the word ‘следовательно’: therefore. No matter how many times I tried to memorise it, I kept forgetting it! I realised I had to find a different way to get it into my head. ‘It’s a long word’, I thought. ‘Let’s try to break it down to see what happens…’ But, how do you break down a word, if you can’t see any other words in it? Google Translate is a powerful tool for this purpose because it provides instant translations as you type. So, if you start typing ‘следовательно’, you gradually get the following results:
If you pay attention to these four words, you can easily create a story to link them all together. For example, I can see here an investigator who follows the footprints and… therefore finds the truth! That’s it! Now, it is impossible to forget the investigator who solved the mystery! You have just managed to learn easily four words instead of just one. More importantly, these words are strongly connected with each other.
I was grateful to give a talk on how to learn Russian with effective techniques at Oxford University Russian Society a few weeks ago. Hope you enjoy it! Also, feel free to subscribe here and I will notify you when my new ebook ‘Learn Russian the smart way’ is free to download on Amazon.