What is the easiest way to learn? David Robson meets a group of scientists and memory champions competing to find techniques that make facts stick... fast.

Face to face with the world’s leading memory experts, my mind is beginning to feel very humble. Ben Whately, for instance, tells me about the famous mnemonist Matteo Ricci, a 16th Century Jesuit priest who was the first westerner to take China’s highest civil service exams. The exam was an excruciating ordeal that involved memorising reams of classical poetry – a task that could take a lifetime. “Only 1% of people who took them passed them, yet Ricci passed them after 10 years, having not spoken any Chinese before.”

Can psychology give us all the same astonishing command of our minds? That’s Whately’s aim. With former memory champion Ed Cooke, he’s already designed a learning app, Memrise, that uses some of the mnemonist’s principles, as BBC Future has described in the past. Now they’ve teamed up with researchers from University College London to launch a competition to find the best possible way to enhance their techniques. Memory experts from across the world were asked to conduct experiments to find the easiest, and most effective, way to memorise new information.

I’m here to observe the first round of judging. It offers a fascinating exploration of the way our memories work. Whether you are a university student cramming for your finals, or have simply yearned to pick up some tourist French, their insights could take the pain out of digesting facts.

The competition’s task is superficially simple, says Rosalind Potts at UCL. “We wanted to know if you had an hour to study a list of 80 words, what do you have to do in order to remember them a week later.” The task is made more difficult by the fact that those 80 words are all Lithuanian. The entrants had to test the strategy on participants and compare them to a group who were not using any particular technique.

Despite the fact that world-leading scientists entered the competition, some approaches failed to lead to any improvement in memory recall. “It shows how difficult it is to translate scientific principles into real-life learning,” says David Shanks, also of UCL.

Boredom, for instance, proved to be a hurdle: one team found a subject falling asleep during the hour-long word-memorising session – despite the fact they were being paid with cakes to take part in the study. “It happens,” says Yana Weinstein at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, who is also on the judging panel.

Notwithstanding those minor hiccups, many teams found some benefits – as much as doubling the amount their subjects recalled. Rather than focussing on one single technique, they tended to use combinations of the following strategies:

1) Embracing ignorance. Self-testing is one of the best ways to improve recall. For me, the most surprising, and potentially useful twist, on this technique was a strategy called “errorful generation”. Without any training, subjects were forced to guess the meaning of the Lithuanian words. “They will always be wrong the first time round,” says Shanks – yet psychological studies have shown that the initial mistakes subsequently make the words stick. “It’s remarkably better than if you had studied the word.”

Simply recognising your own ignorance, it seems, primes your mind into action – doubling the recall compared to a group who didn’t use the technique. This builds on the idea of “desirable difficulty” in psychology – by making a task a little bit harder, it can engage your attention and construct firmer foundations for later recall.

2) Surfing the memory’s waves. You can easily waste time over-studying. So many of the entrants had designed algorithms that cleverly work out how strong your memory for each of the 80 words is, so they could rekindle it once you had started to forget. Memrise’s app has one version of this approach that you can use for now – and the entrants may suggest ways to further refine it. Alternatively, you can rely on your intuition to help time your learning – leaving longer and longer periods before you retest and learn from your mistakes.

One entrant also experimented with giving short breaks to the participants during the word memorising task – allowing them to watch a video of a waterfall – potentially allowing the information to sink in. When you’re studying, it’s certainly worth taking short breaks to ensure that fatigue doesn’t overcome your natural abilities.

3) Buffet studying.  It might seem tempting to chunk the material into themes and learn them one by one – so some of the entrants organised the words into categories and themes. But one team found that simply cycling through all 80 words was effective. Whately points out that memory champions memorising a pack of cards take a similar approach – rotating quickly through the whole pack rather than learning it block by block.

If that sounds confusing, research does at least suggest that you should add variety to a study session. It’s better to spend small blocks of time on a variety of subjects and skills – rather than concentrating on a single topic. Think of it as taking from a buffet, rather than eating a set dinner.

4) Story-telling. Any form of “elaboration” can help reactivate those synapses and seal the memory. One entrant asked the participants to build a story with the words they were learning, for instance. Cooke and Whately were also excited to see one team implement a “memory palace” – in which you try to link the words to objects in a room.

The program they designed might show a picture of a living room and give you the Lithuanian word “lova” – bed. You could then imagine your lover laying on a sofa bed. Once you have mapped out your learning in this way, you should be able to retrace your steps and recall the word with ease.

This was, in fact, the technique that allowed the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci to learn Chinese to such an advanced level – and it also lies behind Cooke’s ability to remember 2265 binary digits in less than 30 minutes. The team’s computer program may simplify the process by making it more automatic.  “If this does turn out to be the winner – that’s a serious discovery,” says Cooke.  

The judges’ energy is infectious, but I can’t help wondering if all this is still removed from the kind of learning we need in everyday life. Indeed, for a previous assignment, I had tried to use mnemonic techniques to learn around 1000 words of Danish – and although it was useful to help me memorise the individual words, it didn’t translate to the spontaneous recall needed to hold a conversation, on the fly, in a bar or restaurant.

Cooke agrees it’s just the first step. “A lot of this stuff is what I call nurturing and scaffolding while you are getting the memory down,” he says. “It’s a brace – it’s there as long as you need it.” Importantly, he thinks the same methods could easily be used beyond language learning to all kinds of disciplines – history, maths, or trivia for a pub quiz. “Repetition testing, spacing – all these techniques work for almost everything.”

Having short-listed five entries, the team are now in the process of uploading them to Memrise’s website. This will allow them to pit the techniques head-to-head to find the ultimate winner for a prize of $10,000. The advantage for Memrise is to find ideas that might improve their app; for Potts and Shanks, it will help them see which combinations of techniques work best in the real world – while testing them on many more volunteers than would be possible in a typical lab study.

Learning game

The judges hope to run the competition every year as they further refine the art of memory. In the future, there may be many more inventive approaches to consider. Shanks, for instance, points to one project that failed to enter this year, but may still be a promising strategy for the future. “They were building a video game where you shoot the spaceships out of sky, and completely incidentally, the spaceships have Lithuanian and English words on them,” he says. “I thought it was a brilliant idea.”

The real challenge for these memory experts, however, isn’t just to make learning quick and effective. As every student knows – the biggest obstacle to learning is distraction, whether it’s the idea of sunbathing in the park or switching on the TV. We may need many more competitions before we can overcome that hurdle.

If you fancy testing the short-listed entries, you can sign up for the trial here on Memrise’s website.

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Think of learning like a buffet, rather than a set dinner