Optimal learning stays with you forever!

Life learning is forever

Learning is forever, the knowledge gained belongs to you forever! This is so because knowledge gained is intangible and stored in your brain. Hence, nobody can reach out for it and “steal” it away from you unlike other physical possessions like money and properties!

As the saying goes “Give a child a fish to feed him for a day, teach him to fish can feed him for life.” Hence, a skill learned is a skill gained.

Recognising humans as the ”most intelligent living organism’ on earth, one cannot deny that knowledge gained through continuous learning is an important part of our lives which is only second to basic survival needs like air, food, water and a shelter over our heads.

However, it is also very important for one to learn the right way so as to optimise one’s learning capacity and one way to do so is to first formulate the knowledge that we are going to learn. Thus, the speed of learning will depend on the way you formulate the material. The same material can be learned many times faster if it is well formulated as there is an underlying assumption that you will proceed with learning using spaced repetition, i.e. you will not just learn once but you will repeat the material optimally.

Below are 20 rules of formulating knowledge in learning:

1. Do not learn if you do not understand

Trying to learn things you do not understand may seem like an utmost nonsense. Still, an amazing proportion of students commit the offence of learning without comprehension. Very often they have no other choice! The quality of many textbooks or lecture scripts is deplorable while examination deadlines are unmovable.

The materials you learn may often seem well structured and you may tend to blame yourself for lack of comprehension. Soon you may pollute your learning process with a great deal of useless material that treacherously makes you believe “it will be useful some day”.

2. Learn before you memorize

Before you proceed with memorizing individual facts and rules, you need to build an overall picture of the learned knowledge. Only when individual pieces fit to build a single coherent structure, will you be able to dramatically reduce the learning time.

Do not start from memorizing loosely related facts! First read a chapter in your book that puts them together (e.g. the principles of the internal combustion engine). Only then proceed with learning using individual questions and answers (e.g. What moves the pistons in the internal combustion engine?), etc.

3. Build upon the basics

The picture of the learned whole does not have to be complete to the last detail. Just the opposite, the simpler the picture the better. The shorter the initial chapter of your book the better. Simple models are easier to comprehend and encompass. You can always build upon them later on.

Do not neglect the basics. Memorizing seemingly obvious things is not a waste of time! Basics may also appear volatile and the cost of memorizing easy things is little. Better err on the safe side. Remember that usually you spend 50% of your time repeating just 3-5% of the learned material! Basics are usually easy to retain and take a microscopic proportion of your time. However, each memory lapse on basics can cost you dearly!

4. Stick to the minimum information principle

The material you learn must be formulated in as simple way as it is only possible. Simplicity does not have to imply losing information and skipping the difficult part. Simplicity is imperative due to the way the brain works. There are two main reasons for which knowledge must be simple:

•Simple is easy

By definition, simple material is easy to remember. This comes from the fact that its simplicity makes is easy for the brain to process it always in the same way. Imagine a labyrinth. When making a repetition of a piece of material, your brain is running through a labyrinth (you can view a neural network as a tangle of paths). While running through the labyrinth, the brain leaves a track on the walls. If it can run in only one unique way, the path is continuous and easy to follow. If there are many combinations, each run may leave a different trace that will interfere with other traces making it difficult to find the exit. The same happens on the cellular level with different synaptic connections being activated at each repetition of complex material

•Repetitions of simple items are easier to schedule

I assume you will make repetitions of the learned material using optimum inter-repetition intervals. If you consider an item that is composed of two sub-items, you will need to make repetitions that are frequent enough to keep the more difficult item in memory. If you split the complex item into sub-items, each can be repeated at its own pace saving your time. Very often, inexperienced students create items that could easily be split into ten or more simpler sub-items! Although the number of items increases, the number of repetitions of each item will usually be small enough to greatly outweigh the cost of (1) forgetting the complex item again and again, (2) repeating it in excessively short intervals or (3) actually remembering it only in part!

Here is a striking example:

Ill-formulated knowledge – Complex and wordy

Q: What are the characteristics of the Dead Sea?A: Salt lake located on the border between Israel and Jordan. Its shoreline is the lowest point on the Earth’s surface, averaging 396 m below sea level. It is 74 km long. It is seven times as salty (30% by volume) as the ocean. Its density keeps swimmers afloat. Only simple organisms can live in its saline waters

Well-formulated knowledge – Simple and specific

Q: Where is the Dead Sea located?

A: on the border between Israel and Jordan

Q: What is the lowest point on the Earth’s surface?

A: The Dead Sea shoreline

Q: What is the average level on which the Dead Sea is located?

A: 400 meters (below sea level)

Q: How long is the Dead Sea?

A: 70 km

Q: How much saltier is the Dead Sea as compared with the oceans?

A: 7 times

Q: What is the volume content of salt in the Dead Sea?

A: 30%

Q: Why can the Dead Sea keep swimmers afloat?

A: due to high salt content

Q: Why is the Dead Sea called Dead?

A: because only simple organisms can live in it

Q: Why only simple organisms can live in the Dead Sea?

A: because of high salt content

You might want to experiment and try to learn two subjects using the two above approaches and see for yourself what advantage is brought by minimum information principle. This is particularly visible in the long perspective, i.e. the longer the time you need to remember knowledge, the more you benefit from simplifying your items!

Note in the example above how short the questions are. Note also that the answers are even shorter! We want a minimum amount of information to be retrieved from memory in a single repetition! We want answer to be as short as imaginably possible!

You will notice that the knowledge learned in the ill-structured example is not entirely equivalent to the well-structured formulation. For example, although you will remember why the Dead Sea can keep swimmers afloat, you may forget that it at all has such a characteristic in the first place!

Additionally, rounding 396 to 400 and 74 to 70 produces some loss of information. These can be remedied by adding more questions or making the present ones more precise.

5. Cloze deletion is easy and effective

Cloze deletion is a sentence with its parts missing and replaced by three dots. Cloze deletion exercise is an exercise that uses cloze deletion to ask the student to fill in the gaps marked with the three dots.

For example, Bill …[name] was the second US president to go through impeachment.

If you are a beginner and if you find it difficult to stick to the minimum information principle, use cloze deletion! If you are an advanced user, you will also like cloze deletion. It is a quick and effective method of converting textbook knowledge into knowledge that can be subject to learning based on spaced repetition.

Ill-formulated knowledge – Complex and wordy

Q: What was the history of the Kaleida company?A: Kaleida, funded to the tune of $40 million by Apple Computer and IBM in 1991. Hyped as a red-hot startup, Kaleida’s mission was to create a multimedia programming language It finally produced one, called Script X. But it took three years. Meanwhile, companies such as Macromedia and Asymetrix had snapped up all the business. Kaleida closed in 1995

Well-formulated knowledge – Simple cloze deletion

Q: Kaleida was funded to the tune of …(amount) by Apple Computer and IBM in 1991

A: $40 million

Q: Kaleida was funded to the tune of $40 million by …(companies) in 1991

A: Apple and IBM

Q: Kaleida was funded to the tune of $40 million by Apple Computer and IBM in … (year)

A: 1991

Q: …(company) mission was to create a multimedia programming language. It finally produced one, called Script X. But it took three years

A: Kaleida’s

Q: Kaleida’s mission was to create a … It finally produced one, called Script X. But it took three years

A: multimedia programming language

Q: Kaleida’s mission was to create a multimedia programming language. It finally produced one, called … But it took three years

A: Script X

Q: Kaleida’s mission was to create a multimedia programming language. It finally produced one, called Script X. But it took …(time)

A: three years

Q: Kaleida’s mission was to create a multimedia programming language: Script X. But it took three years. Meanwhile, companies such as … had snapped up all the business

A: Macromedia/Asymetrix

Q: Kaleida’s mission was to create Script X. But it took three years. Meanwhile, companies such as Macromedia and Asymetrix had snapped up all the business. Kaleida closed in …(year)

A: 1995

6. Use imagery

Visual cortex is that part of the brain in which visual stimuli are interpreted. It has been very well developed in the course of evolution and that is why we say one picture is worth a thousand words. Indeed if you look at the number of details kept in a picture and the easiness with which your memory can retain them, you will notice that our verbal processing power is greatly inferior as compared with the visual processing power. The same refers to memory. A graphic representation of information is usually far less volatile.

Usually it takes much less time to formulate a simple question-and-answer pair than to find or produce a neat graphic image. This is why you will probably always have to weigh up cost and profits in using graphics in your learning material. Well-employed images will greatly reduce your learning time in areas such as anatomy, geography, geometry, chemistry, history, and many more.

The power of imagery explains why the concept of Tony Buzan’s mind maps is so popular. A mind map is an abstract picture in which connections between its components reflect the logical connections between individual concepts.

7. Use mnemonic techniques

Mnemonic techniques are various techniques that make remembering easier. They are often amazingly effective. For most students, a picture of a 10-year-old memorizing a sequence of 50 playing cards verges on discovering a young genius. It is very surprising then to find out how easy it is to learn the techniques that make it possible with a dose of training. These techniques are available to everyone and do not require any special skills!

Before you start believing that mastering such techniques will provide you with an eternal solution to the problem of forgetting, be warned that the true bottleneck towards long-lasting and useful memories is not in quickly memorizing knowledge! This is indeed the easier part. The bottleneck lies in retaining memories for months, years or for lifetime!

Experience shows that with a dose of training you will need to consciously apply mnemonic techniques in only 1-5% of your items. With time, using mnemonic techniques will become automatic!

8. Graphic deletion is as good as cloze deletion

Graphic deletion works like cloze deletion but instead of a missing phrase it uses a missing image component. For example, when learning anatomy, you might present a complex illustration. Only a small part of it would be missing. The student’s job is to name the missing area.

9. Avoid sets

A set is a collection of objects. For example, a set of fruits might be an apple, a pear and a peach. A classic example of an item that is difficult to learn is an item that asks for the list of the members of a set. You should avoid such items whenever possible due to the high cost of retaining memories based on sets. If sets are absolutely necessary, you should always try to convert them into enumerations.

Enumerations are ordered lists of members (for example, the alphabetical list of the members of the EU). Enumerations are also hard to remember and should be avoided. However, the great advantage of enumerations over sets is that they are ordered and they force the brain to list them always in the same order. An ordered list of countries contains more information than the set of countries that can be listed in any order. Paradoxically, despite containing more information, enumerations are easier to remember. The reason for this has been discussed earlier in the context of the minimum information principle: you should always try to make sure your brain works in the exactly same way at each repetition.

In the case of sets, listing members in varying order at each repetition has a disastrous effect on memory. It is nearly impossible to memorize sets containing more than five members without the use of mnemonic techniques, enumeration, grouping, etc. Despite this claim, you will often succeed due to subconsciously mastered techniques that help you go around this problem. Those techniques, however, will fail you all too often. For that reason: Avoid sets! If you need them badly, convert them into enumerations and use techniques for dealing with enumerations.

Ill-formulated knowledge – Sets are unacceptable!

Q: What countries belong to the European Union (2002)?A: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom

Well-formulated knowledge – Converting a set into a meaningful listing

Q: Which country hosted a meeting to consider the creation of a European Community of Defence in 1951?

A: France

Q: Which countries apart from France joined the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952?

A: Germany, Italy and the Benelux

Q: What countries make up the Benelux?

A: Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands

Q: Whose membership did Charles de Gaulle oppose in the 1960s?

A: that of UK

Q: Which countries joined the EEC along the UK in 1973?

A: Ireland and Denmark

Q: Which country joined the EEC in 1981?

A: Greece

Q: Which countries joined the EEC in 1986?

A: Spain and Portugal

Q: Which countries joined the EU in 1995?

A: Austria, Sweden and Finland

Q: What was the historic course of expansion of the European Union membership?

A: (1) France and (2) Germany, Italy and the Benelux, (3) UK and (4) Ireland and Denmark, (5) Greece, (6) Spain and Portugal and (7) Austria, Sweden and Finland

Note that in the example above, we converted a 15-member set into 9 items, five of which are 2-3 member sets, and one is a six member enumeration. Note that the sum of information included in this well-formulated approach is far greater than that of the original set. Thus along simplicity, we gained some useful knowledge.

All individual items effectively comply with the minimum information principle! However, you should take those steps only if you have any problems with retaining the proposed set in memory.

10. Avoid enumerations

Enumerations are also an example of classic items that are hard to learn. They are still far more acceptable than sets. Avoid enumerations wherever you can. If you cannot avoid them, deal with them using cloze deletions (overlapping cloze deletions if possible). Learning the alphabet can be a good example of an overlapping cloze deletion:

Hard to learn item

Q: What is the sequence of letters in the alphabet?A: abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

Easy to learn items

Q: What three letters does the alphabet begin with?

A: ABCQ: Fill out the missing letters of the alphabet A … … … E

A: B, C, D

Q: Fill out the missing letters of the alphabet B … … … F

A: C, D, E

Q: Fill out the missing letters of the alphabet C … … … G

A: D, E, F

The above items will make learning the alphabet much faster. The greatest advantage of the above approach is that is it easier for psychological reasons: the student does not have to stop repetitions to recite the whole sequence and can only focus on a small part of the learned material. Still it is recommended that he recite the whole alphabet after making the repetition. However, once all individual pieces are well remembered, reciting the whole should be a pleasant and speedy action that produces little frustration.

11. Combat interference

When you learn about similar things you often confuse them. For example, you may have problems distinguishing between the meanings of the words historic and historical. This will even be more visible if you memorize lots of numbers, e.g. optimum dosages of drugs in pharmacotherapy.

If knowledge of one item makes it harder to remember another item, we have a case of memory interference. You can often remember an item for years with straight excellent grades until … you memorize another item that makes it nearly impossible to remember either!

Interference is probably the single greatest cause of forgetting in collections of an experienced user of SuperMemo. You can never be sure when it strikes, and the only hermetic procedure against it is to detect and eliminate.

Still you should do your best to prevent interference before it takes its toll. This will make your learning process less stressful and mentally bearable. Remember that even the simplest items can be completely intractable if they are similar to other items. Use examples, context cues, vivid illustrations, refer to emotions, and to your personal life

12. Optimize wording

The wording of your items must be optimized to make sure that in minimum time the right bulb in your brain lights up. This will reduce error rates, increase specificity, reduce response time, and help your concentration.

Less optimum item: cloze deletion that is too wordy

Q: Aldus invented desktop publishing in 1985 with PageMaker. Aldus had little competition for years, and so failed to improve. Then Denver-based … blew past. PageMaker, now owned by Adobe, remains No. 2

A: Quark

Better item: fewer words will speed up learning

Q: Aldus invented desktop publishing in 1985 with PageMaker but failed to improve. Then … blew past (PageMaker remains No. 2)

A: Quark

Or better:

Q: Aldus invented desktop publishing with PageMaker but failed to improve. It was soon outdistanced by …

A: Quark

Or better:

Q: PageMaker failed to improve and was outdistanced by …

A: Quark

Or better:

Q: PageMaker lost ground to …

A: Quark

Note that the loss of information content in this item is inconsequential. During repetition you are only supposed to learn the name: Quark. You should not hope that the trailing messages on the ownership of PageMaker and the year of its development will somehow trickle to your memory as a side effect. You should decide if the other pieces of information are important to you and if so, store them in separate items (perhaps reusing the above text, employing cloze deletion again and optimizing the wording in a new way). Otherwise the redundant information will only slow down your learning process!

13. Refer to other memories

Referring to other memories can place your item in a better context, simplify wording, and reduce interference. In the example below, using the words humble and supplicant helps the student focus on the word shamelessly and thus strengthen the correct semantics. Better focus helps eliminating interference. Secondly, the use of the words humble and supplicant makes it possible to avoid interference of cringing with these words themselves. Finally, the proposed wording is shorter and more specific. Naturally, the rules basics-to-details and do not learn what you do not understand require that the words humble and supplicant be learned beforehand (or at least at the same time).

Building memories on other memories generates a coherent and hermetic structure that forgetting is less likely to affect. Build upon the basics and use planned redundancy to fill in the gaps.

14. Personalize and provide examples

One of the most effective ways of enhancing memories is to provide them with a link to your personal life. Personalization might be the most effective way of building upon other memories. Your personal life is a gold mine of facts and events to refer to. As long as you build a collection for yourself, use personalization richly to build upon well established memories.

15. Rely on emotional states

Emotions are related to memories. If you learn a fact in the sate of sadness, you are more likely to recall it if when you are sad. Some memories can induce emotions and help you employ this property of the brain in remembering.

If you can illustrate your items with examples that are vivid or even shocking, you are likely to enhance retrieval (as long as you do not overuse same tools and fall victim of interference!). Your items may assume bizarre form; however, as long as they are produced for your private consumption, the end justifies the means.

16. Context cues simplify wording

Providing context is a way of simplifying memories, building upon earlier knowledge and avoiding interference. This will help you simplify the wording of your items as you will be relieved from the need to specify the context of your question.

17. Redundancy does not contradict minimum information principle

Redundancy in simple terms is more information than needed or duplicate information, etc. Redundancy does not have to contradict the minimum information principle and may even be welcome. There is little harm in memorizing the same fact as viewed from different angles. Passive and active approach is particularly practicable in learning word-pairs. Memorizing derivation steps in problem solving is a way towards boosting your intellectual powers!

18. Provide sources

Except for well-tested and proven knowledge (such as 2+2=4), it is highly recommended that you include sources from which you have gathered your knowledge. In real-life situation you will often be confronted with challenges to your knowledge. Sources can come to your rescue. You will also find that facts and figures differ depending on the source. You can really be surprised how frivolously reputable information agencies publish figures that are drastically different from other equally reputable sources.

With sources provided, you will be able to make more educated choices on which pieces of information are more reliable. Sources should accompany your items but should not be part of the learned knowledge (unless it is critical for you to be able to recall the source whenever asked).

19. Provide date stamping

Knowledge can be relatively stable (basic math, anatomy, taxonomy, physical geography, etc.) and highly volatile (economic indicators, high-tech knowledge, personal statistics, etc.). It is important that you provide your items with time stamping or other tags indicating the degree of obsolescence.

In case of statistical figures, you might stamp them with the year they have been collected. When learning software applications, it is enough you stamp the item with the software version. Once you have newer figures you can update your items. Unfortunately, in most cases you will have to re-memorize knowledge that became outdated. Date stamping is useful in editing and verifying your knowledge; however, you will rarely want to memorize stamping itself.

20. Prioritize

Effective learning is all about prioritizing. In incremental reading you can start from badly formulated knowledge and improve its shape as you proceed with learning (in proportion to the cost of inappropriate formulation). If need be, you can review pieces of knowledge again, split it into parts, reformulate, reprioritize, or delete.

You will always face far more knowledge that you will be able to master. That is why prioritizing is critical for building quality knowledge in the long-term. The way you prioritize will affect the way your knowledge slots in. This will also affect the speed of learning (e.g. see: learn basics first). There are many stages at which prioritizing will take place; only few are relevant to knowledge representation, but all are important:

Prioritizing sources – there will always be a number of sources of your knowledge. If you are still at student years: these will most likely be books and notes pertaining to different subjects. Otherwise you will probably rely more on journals, Internet, TV, newspapers, encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc. It is always worth being aware what is the optimum proportion of time devoted to those varied sources. As you progress with learning, you will quickly develop a good sense of which learning slots bring better results and which might be extended at the cost of others

Extracting knowledge – unless you are about to pass an important exam, it nearly never makes sense to memorize whole books or whole articles. You will need to extract those parts that are most likely to impact the quality of your knowledge. You will need some experience before you can accurately measure how much knowledge you can indeed transfer to your brain and what degree of detail you can feasibly master. Your best way to prioritize the flow of knowledge into your memory is to use incremental reading tools

Transferring knowledge to a memo – you may try to stick with the 20 rules of formulating knowledge at the moment of introducing your material to a memo. Probably the best criterion for choosing between formulating or just importing is the time needed for accurately formulating the item or items. If formulation requires more knowledge, more time, comparing with other sources, etc. you can just import. Otherwise, if you believe that formulating an accurate item is a matter of seconds, formulate it.

1.Formulating items – make sure that explanatory or optional components of the answer are placed in the parentheses so that your attention is focused on the most important part of the item. The parts in the parentheses can be read after the repetition to strengthen the memory in its context

2.Using forgetting index – you can use the forgetting index to prioritize pending items. The sequence of repetitions will naturally be determined by SuperMemo; however, you can request higher retention level for items that are more important and lower retention level for items of lower priority

3.Learning – the process of prioritizing does not end with the onset of repetitions. Here are the tools you can use to continue setting your priorities while the learning process is under way:

1.Remember – re-memorize items of high priority that have changed or which are extremely important to your knowledge at a given moment. If you choose Ctrl+M you will be able to determine the next interval for the currently reviewed item (its repetition counter will be reset to zero). It is recommended that you always re-memorize items whose content has changed significantly

2.Reschedule – manually schedule the date of the next repetition

3.Execute repetition – manually execute a repetition even before the repetition’s due date (e.g. when reviewing particularly important material)

4.Forget – remove the current item from the learning process and place it at the end of the pending queue

5.Dismiss – ignore the current item in the learning process altogether

6.Delete – remove the current item from your collection

7.Change the forgetting index of memorized items or change the ordinal of pending items

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