BBC Future

How to learn like a memory champion

About the author

David Robson is BBC Future's feature writer. Follow him on Twitter: @d_a_robson

Man thinking hard (Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Companies are creating learning aids that tap the science of memories, says David Robson. Do they work in the classroom?

For most of his 20s, Ed Cooke had been hovering around the top 10 of the World Memory Championships. His achievements included memorising 2,265 binary digits in 30 minutes and the order of 16 packs of playing cards in just an hour. But at the age of 26, he was getting restless, and wanted to help others to learn like him. "The memory techniques take a certain discipline," he says. "I wanted a tool that would just allow you to relax into learning."

The resulting brainchild was Memrise. Launched in 2010, the website and app is now helping more than 1.4 million users to learn foreign languages, history and science with the ease of Cooke's memory powers. It has been followed by similar apps that also take the pain out of learning – both for individuals, and in schools, with some teachers finding benefits that even Cooke couldn't have predicted.

“It's very powerful – it does all the spade work of learning,” says Dominic Traynor, who teaches Spanish at the St Cuthbert with St Matthias Primary School in London, UK. “I would say we've covered a year's worth of work in the first six months.”

As Cooke first set out developing his idea, he turned to his former classmate at Oxford University, Princeton neuroscientist Greg Detre, to help update his tried-and-tested techniques with the latest understanding of memory. Together, they came up with some basic principles that would guide Memrise’s progress over the following years. The first is the idea of “elaborative” learning – in which you try to give extra meaning to a fact to try to get it to stick in the mind. These “mems”, as the team call them, are particularly effective if they tickle the funny bone as well as the synapses – and so for each fact that you want to learn, you are encouraged to find an amusing image or phrase that helps plant the memory in your mind. For example, in one German language course, the word “abend” for evening, is illustrated with a picture of Abraham Lincoln listening to a ghetto blaster, with the caption “Abe ends work in the evening”. It’s silly, but that’s the point – an absurd image is memorable.

To cultivate those memories, the app then sets you a series of carefully timed tests over the days, weeks and months that follow. Numerous experiments over the past few years have shown that the best way to build new neural pathways is to try and recall it afresh, helping subjects remember more than twice as much, over the long term, than just passively reading the material; self-testing also turns out to be more effective than creative techniques like drawing diagrams and mind maps.

Although you can find other apps designed for rote learning and drilling in this way, Memrise makes use of another trick. Detre had found that the most effective time to reactivate a memory is when you feel that it is half-remembered, half-forgotten – when you feel it’s on the “tip of your tongue” but you can't quite reach it. So the Memrise team have designed an algorithm that predicts the arrival of that agonising state, and then springs a test on you. Since the app constantly tracks your progress, over time it becomes more accurate at predicting your learning curve, helping you surf the waves of your memory to more efficient learning.

Fun learning

All of which may help take the pain out of learning; however, the big challenge was to make it fun too. “We're always having to compete for your attention when you look at the screen of your phone,” says Ben Whately, Memrise's chief operating officer. “The experience has to have as much light-hearted interest as something like Pinterest.” But the team have also tried hard to create a community of learners that encourages friendly competition – so users can upload their courses to share with other people looking to learn the same subject, and they can compare their rank on a leader board. “We needed people to be comfortable to share stuff on sites like Facebook in order for it to get up and running on such a big scale,” says Whately.

Unsurprisingly, it was the friendly competition element that captured the attention of Traynor's primary school pupils learning Spanish. “As soon as they come into the classroom, they want to see where they are on the leader board,” he says. And there are other advantages. Each lesson, Traynor tends to split the class into two – while half are doing the “spade work” on vocabulary learning on the school's iPads, he can teach the others – before the two halves switch over. By working with these smaller groups, he can then give more individual attention to each child's understanding of the grammar.

Even more powerfully, Traynor recently began encouraging his class to record and upload their pronunciation of the words onto the app – which they can then share with their classmates using the course. The sound of their classmates seems to have spurred on their enthusiasm, says Traynor. “They're constantly trying to work out whose voice they're hearing,” he says. “So they're giving more attention to the different sounds. I think it's improved their speaking and listening dramatically.”

Although most courses on Memrise deal with foreign languages, teachers in other subjects are also starting to bring the technology to their classroom. Simon Birch from The Broxbourne School in Hertfordshire, for instance, uses it to teach the advanced terminology needed for food technology exams, while his school’s English department are using it to drill spelling. "The benefits for literacy can't be overstated," Birch says.

The Memrise team are now hoping to develop further features that might help teachers like Birch and Traynor – by providing them with data on students’ progress, so they can see which bits of the course are failing to stick. And following Memrise’s success, other companies seem to be seeing the potential of applying the art and science of memory to learning apps. For instance, the Cerego app, which launched in September 2013, also times your learning and testing to boost recall, and its team have so far launched courses on brain anatomy, music theory and art history. The team’s preliminary tests on school students suggests that classes perform between 20-50% better using the app, and they are actively working with teachers and educational institutions to develop courses together.

So are we coming close to the relaxed, effortless learning that Cooke first envisaged? Traynor thinks so; many of his class are so hooked that they readily practice Spanish on their iPads at home, to the point that he now has to plan four or five lessons in advance. “That's the strength of it,” he says. “The learning just doesn't stop.”

Read more in the Future Education series.

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