Ever had the desire to learn a tough skill, but couldn’t find the time or energy? You can learn more in 10 minute sessions than you could in 3 hours if…

Length: 869 words, 4-6 minute read

Subject: I discuss how to use a flash card program to speed up your learning and increase retention with little effort required. I also cover some of the memory biases that affect learning.

Ever had the desire to learn a tough skill, but couldn’t find the time or energy?

Would you love to learn how to draw well from imagination, or master a tough language like Japanese, or develop any skill that requires a lot of practise?

Maybe you’ve attempted to learn a tough skill before and set aside a few hours a week to practise it. You perhaps make a little progress at first, but every week feels like starting from the beginning again and you wonder how you’ll ever get anywhere at such a slow pace. And of course, you wont. But it may surprise you to learn that

You can learn much more in 5x 10 minute study sessions than you ever could in a single 3 hour session a week

This reason for this is explained by two memory biases Рthe testing effect and the spacing effect.

The testing effect is a memory bias which explains how memories are strengthened each time we recall them. The more quickly you can utilize the testing effect, the better your retention will be.

Similarly, the spacing effect is a memory bias that explains how gradually increasing time between information recall can improve neuronal connection strength and speed up learning.

To make use of these cognitive biases, you need to streamline your learning. It’s no good trying to read through a huge textbook in 10 minutes a day and then attempting to recall as much as you can. Fortunately, there is an excellent program you can use for free to help exploit the testing and spacing effect.

Anki – the closest you can get to 0 effort learning

Anki is a flash card program that I use every day. I study every morning as soon as I wake up, feeling half asleep and unfocused, but I’m still able to learn tons without ever feeling like I’m even putting much effort in.

Learn via Anki

Statistics of my kanji deck in Anki

And yet, I was able to use it to memorise >1750 joyo kanji along with their readings in 8 months.

To put that in context, most native Japanese take their entire school lives to learn the joyo kanji – and many can’t recall all of them in adult life.

My progress isn’t by any means extraordinary when it comes to Anki based learning. I’ve heard of many people learning these kanji in 6 months or less. The reason Anki makes it so easy is that it automatically handles spacing of cards to utilize the spacing and testing effects.

Cards that you answer easily are moved back and shown less frequently. But cards you continuously fail can be shown daily until they’re drilled into your head.

Anki was the ideal solution to memorizing the kanji, but it worked so well that I’ve since started using it to memorise everything. Since cards can be customized with sound, images and text, it’s possible to practise anything with Anki if you’re creative enough about it.

The self generation and verbatim effects

Part of the learning process with Anki is in creating the flash cards themselves. This utilizes another two memory related biases – the self generation effect and the verbatim effect.

The self generation effect describes how content you create yourself is easier to remember and the verbatim effect similarly explains how we find it easier to memorise the gist of what has been said, rather than the exact wording.

So as you work through your textbook, or whatever content you have that you wish to learn, you’re going to be streamlining and rewriting that information in the question and answer format that works best for a flash card.

Don’t make the mistake of copying a chunk of text straight into the reverse of the card and expect to memorise it. Rewrite the same content in your own words and you’ll find your retention and understanding of the material will be far better.

Anki life

As I said, you can learn anything with Anki if you’re creative enough about it. Why not try using it to practise drawing? Have a flash card that says ‘draw a head from memory looking 45 degrees right from the camera’ and judge success by how accurately you’re able to do it. Anki will naturally push you towards practising what you’re not good at, leading to faster failing and hence faster improvement.

Any kind of daily Anki use is going to help you out. I find the cognitive boost that flash card practise gives me in the morning so beneficial that I’ll probably continue to memorise things even when I’ve run out of Japanese related cards. In fact I first learned of the memory biases mentioned in this article from an Anki deck I recently completed.

If you’re interested in using Anki yourself, you can download it here.

I have plenty more to talk about when it comes learning. In a future article I’ll cover some more of the memory biases, the memorisation via stories method and go into more detail about how the brain stores information.