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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.