Principles of Ultralearning: 5) Retrieval

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
Finding the right memory at the right time can be like finding a particular book in a vast library

What did you have for breakfast yesterday? How do you find the area of a circle? Why do black surfaces get hotter than white ones?

If you tried to answer any of those questions, then you tried to retrieve a memory.

Retrieval is our ability to recall memories.

You can’t use a new skill if you can’t remember how to do it.

Classic studying advice involves highlighting key points and re-reading your notes. The former has been found to be next to useless, and re-reading notes isn’t much better.

The best way to remember something and have it stick, is to try to remember it without clues, just trying to summon up that memory.

Practice retrieval over longer periods of time each attempt

When Should You Test Yourself?

The sooner you test yourself the better.

After the first time, you should increase the amount of time from test to test.

If you have simple question and answer formats to what you want to memorise then you could try a spaced-repetition flashcard app like Anki, which is free on to download on your PC or Android.

What Is The Best Way To Test?

Increasing the difficulty of testing will make your learning more efficient.

If you have a choice between a quiz with no clues and a multiple-choice one, the multiple-choice will be more comfortable, but you will learn more from the quiz, even if you get more answers wrong.

Young tells of a study that shows that the very act of trying to retrieve an answer is enough to improve your memory.

This is because each time you try to retrieve a memory, your brain follows the same pathways, getting stronger each time.

It’s like walking the same path through a field over and over, eventually a permanent impression is made in the mud.

Young offers some tactics for retrieval, in addition to flashcards, which you saw a moment ago, there’s also:

Free Recall

If you’re learning from a book, try reading a whole passage, then write down every point you remember without looking at the book.

You can re-read the section after to see if you missed anything important.

Try again with as many passages as you like or the same passage if you want to memorise it.

Question-Book Method

As you are learning material, write down a question where the answer is something you will want to remember later, then only write where to find the answer, like a page number and the book it’s in.

You can quiz yourself later and you will be able to find the answer to check.

You can write the answer on another bit of paper, so you can re-use the question later.

Self-Generated Challenges

Sometimes what you want to learn can’t be tested as simple questions and answers.

You may have learnt a new technique you want to use in programming.

You can challenge yourself to use the new programming technique to solve a problem, such as using a new algorithm to calculate your weekly budget or to find pi.

Closed-Book Learning

You can work on your Drills or Direct Learning project without looking back at your notes or books, to make sure you have to retrieve the knowledge yourself.

Don’t give in to the temptation to read over your notes, until after you’ve done the test.

All these methods can feel uncomfortable, but they’re effective.

Think of it like working out for your brain, when you do a workout for your body, it’s usually the ones that are most difficult that give you the most improvement.

To see the rest of the principles you can go here or buy the book here.

Principles of Ultralearning: 4) Drills

Not this kind of drill…Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

Think about something you are learning. What’s the part you find hardest to improve? That’s the thing you work on.

Focusing on the parts you enjoy feels nicer, but it is not the best way to learn. To improve, to really improve, you need to focus on what you really struggle with and attack that problem ruthlessly.

Remove the Noise

Drills take away all the parts of what you want to learn, except the one aspect you want to improve.

If you’re playing guitar, you need rhythm, pick technique, finger placement etc. To drill, you would pick one of these and work at just that.

Direct-then-Drill Method

Last week, we looked at why Directness is the best way to learn a whole skill.

Drills are the opposite of Directness. They help you improve a small slice of a skill.

They remove all the real-world subtleties you can’t simulate, doing nothing but drills would mean you wouldn’t be able to Transfer your skills.

Drills are for improving weak spots, not replacing your whole project.

To overcome lack of Transfer, you work directly on the problem, then drill your weak point, then go back to directness and cycle through as needed. Keeping all that precious Transfer.

How Do You Drill?

Designing a good drill, requires that you know what to drill, how to do it and that you actually do it.

Time Slicing

Take a small piece of the main skill and work on it. Once you’ve mastered it, use the small piece as part of the whole again, for example:

Go over the few tricky bars in a song, then practice the whole song.

Take the same type of shot in football, then play a match.

Go over key phrases in a new language, then talk to someone in that language.

Cognitive Components

Skills are actually multiple smaller skills put together. Removing all the other parts you need to focus on, allows you to hone in on the one bit you want to drill.

Going back to the guitar example, if you wanted to work on rhythm, you could strum the beat of the song and mute the strings with your hand, so you don’t have to worry about the melody or your left hand at all.

The Copycat

Copying other work reduces the amount of thinking required to create the drill, so you can focus all your mental effort on the drill itself. You don’t have to work so hard to design a drill if it’s already been designed.

If you wanted to practice being more succinct in your writing, you could take someone’s essay and try to summarise it in fewer words. You could even do it with your own writing.

Magnifying Glass Method

If you can’t find a way to extract the specific sub-skill you want to improve, spend more time and effort on it instead.

If you want to do better research for projects, spend 10 times longer than you normally would.

Prerequisite Chaining

Start learning a skill without learning all the things you “should” learn first.

You can waste a lot of time and a lot of motivation learning all the basics you think you should learn first.

For example, when learning to draw, you can just start drawing, but you may realise that things at a distance don’t look right, so you learn perspective, you carry on drawing, suddenly things don’t look 3d enough, so you learn proper shading, rinse and repeat.

Whereas if you started off with perspective and shading, you might never have enjoyed drawing in the first place.

Drills aren’t fun, but they are an effective way to aggressively improve. Learn the rest of the principles here.

Let me know some ideas you’ve had for effective drills below.