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LEARNING RETENTION: Active Recall and Spaced Repetition

"What are you reading, watching, memorizing, and applying that make you an exceptional man?" -Stephen Mansfield

Learning is a meta-skill that is arguably the most important.

The school has taught us a lot, but unfortunately learning is not one of them.

Learning is how we adapt to changing circumstances, situations, and environments.

Learning enables us to create new "maps" and review old ones to navigate the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world with confidence.

Intelligence is created by the long-term accumulation and compounding of usable learning and information.

We collect and provide this information by consuming and retaining it.

  • Consumption is input - what comes in.

  • Retention is what's left after a leak.

Think of your brain like a bathtub.

Retention Bucket showing Consumption and Drain
Retention Bucket

The drain serves as the exit and the faucet as the entrance. Everything you read and take in comes out of the faucet. You forget everything, and it all goes down the drain.

Let's talk about learning retention methods (Active recall and spaced repetition) today to correct that.

Active recall is a method of learning that goes beyond simple review and entails actively pulling knowledge from memory. The theory behind this method is that knowledge retention is facilitated by strengthening the brain connections linked to information that are retrieved from memory. There are several ways to do active recall, including using self-tests, quizzes, and flashcards.
Spaced repetition works by presenting knowledge at increasing intervals, with longer gaps between reviews as the material is successfully retained. This method takes advantage of the spacing effect, which is the tendency for information to be remembered better when provided in spaced-out intervals rather than all at once. Spaced repetition promotes better information consolidation and retention by spacing out reviews.

Active recall and spaced repetition Framework

This is a tactical framework to improve retention. It involves five steps:

(1) Inspiration through reading and watching

(2) Unstructured note-taking and bookmarking

(3) Summarization

(4) Metaphorize

(5) Develop Notion

Steps are in ascending, but I follow them dynamically and iteratively.

Let's go over the steps...

Step 1: Inspiration through reading and watching

Retention starts with inspirational consumption.

I divide it into two types: • Forced: Compelled, internal or external. • Inspiration: Driven entirely by your inner inspiration.

If you've been to school, you know how consumption looks like. Mandatory reading is a book you are told to read even if the subject does not interest you.

This is the foundation of many traditional learning methods - and yet another reason most of us are bad at memorizing!

Inspirational consumption is when you truly feel the pull of eating—it's when you enjoy the process of consumption.

Inspirational consumption is important for retention because of two reasons. 1. Inspiration is a prerequisite to flow. More flow state, more retention. 2. Motivation encourages participation. Engage with the content, and retain the content.

Inspirational consumption is the foundation of retention.

Step 2: Unstructured note-taking and bookmarking.

When you start consuming, you should have a note-taking system in front of you.

When going over items for the first time, keep your notes unstructured as clean and free-flowing as possible. Notes to be taken about:

• Key Ideas

• New Insights

• Explanations gets you "Hmm" or "Wow!"

• Other connections of the topic

• Confusion and Questions

Keep in mind that this first round of notes is meant to be unstructured. Writing something down helps thoughts stick.

Step 3: Summarization

Zoom out and view your unnecessary text.

What was the most interesting and original insight or idea? What is the most confusing thing?

Aggregation is where you save content by focusing specifically on creating patterns around text in specific areas.

If the text doesn't need to form a group of points, integration is where you start to combine them.

It doesn't have to be perfect, but you should start creating better visuals when you reuse content for this purpose.

Consolidating is when information begins to be collected.

Step 4: Metaphorize

Metaphor (Analogy) is one of the most effective but little-known retention tools. This is where you can take newly learned information and turn it into a broader mental map. You make clear comparisons and connections between new learning materials and existing materials. When I start the metaphor process, I look for a connection - something that connects new information to some information already in my brain.

Step 5: Develop Notion

Imagine the new notion as a muscle that will atrophy if left unattended. You must exercise it frequently and early.


Here are some ways: • Bring it up in chat • Talk to your friends about it • Try to teach others • Spaced Repetition

If you apply the notion, it will last and grow. Spaced repetition is the most formal and powerful form of repetition, so let's take a deeper look.

Forgetting Curve - History and Research

German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was the first to recognize how it affected retention.

He released “Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology” in 1885, which is regarded as a seminal book in the discipline.

Ebbinghaus covered his most well-known discovery in this article, the Forgetting Curve.

The FC depicts the exponential decay of freshly acquired knowledge; it is acute in the first 20 minutes, substantial for an hour, and then levels off after a day.

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve
Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

Spaced repetition is a scientifically proven method of enhanced retention.

It is a method in hich any information which is consumed in spaced intervals over a longer period will be processed into long-term memory.

It uses cognitive recognition (our brain's way of converting short-term memory into long-term memory) to help you retain new information.

Spaced repetition has the effect of flattening the memory retention decline curve.

Solution to Forgetting Cuve - Active recall and spaced repetition
Active recall and spaced repetition

Understanding the science is useful, but to apply Spaced Repetition for your purposes, you must put it into practice.

Active recall and Spaced Repetition - Taking Action

Here's how it works:

Let's say you're trying to learn some facts about Quantum Computer (its history, concepts, use, etc.).

If it's for a college exam, you can do it "old school" - have some espresso, put your mind to it, and hope you remember it for the next day's exam.

But you no longer go to college - you want to learn for life, not just for an exam. You want it to stick. So instead of the old way, you do the new way - spaced repetition. You eat new information at 8am in the morning.

Next, begin “Repetitions” where you repeat what you learned and fill the memory gaps: • Repetition 1: 9 am (1 hour later) • Repetition 2: 12 pm (3 hours later) • Repetition 3: 6 pm (6 hours later) • Repetition 4: 6 am (12 hours later) • and so on at increasing intervals...

Why is this working? To explain it simply, imagine the brain as a muscle, with each repetition representing a "twist" of the muscle.

Regular exercise forces you to continually work your muscles with higher loads. The muscles are being forced to expand by you.

As much as this fits the procedure, I add it straight under "opinion" in my insurance policy because I believe it to be the best.

“Acquire with the intention to retain, and retain with the intention to grow.” - Lester Wunderman


Learning more is not enough - you have to remember most of what you learn.

Thanks for reading and if you like this article, please share it with your social circle.


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