Forgetting to Remember

When it comes to our intuitions being completely turned around about something, two simple learning hacks definitely fit the bill. They also happen to be two of the most powerful learning strategies known to man and have some of the most robust science to back them up. Let’s take a look.

When we set out to learn something new we often don’t think much beyond the efforts we’re exerting in that moment. If we do, it’s to try our best to keep the new information alive in our minds and not forget it, studying it and restudying it, bouncing it up in the air like a tennis ball with a mental racket trying not to let it touch the ground.

But what if I told you that the secret to remembering is actually in the forgetting?

More precisely, it’s what happens on the other side of forgetting. Forgetting, and the subsequent mindful attempts to recall the information, is like a kiln to the wet clay of your freshly sculpted mental models. Called “spacing effects,” the act of recalling and then reconciling the distance (if any) between what is recalled and what you were trying to remember, is a tried and true method to firmly root the information in the hallowed ground of long-term memory. Of course to recall a thing, you must first forget it.

So the next time you feel you’re starting to get a handle on something that you’re learning, rather than just hoping it will stick or spending the next hour feverishly studying it, instead try letting it go entirely and move on to something else. After 10–20 minutes, once your brain has been fully absorbed in other things, come back to it and test yourself, attempting to reconstruct it with as much accuracy as possible without any help from notes — this is called “active retrieval” — and pay close attention to what comes back intact and where the gaps and hazy bits are.

Once you’ve fully exposed the weak areas, then you can open up your book or your notes or the website or whatever it is, piece it back together to perfection, and then forget it again as quickly as possible. Rinse and repeat, lengthening the time between as your recall becomes more accurate.

This second strategy is going to send your intuitions around organization into an outright revolt. While in almost every case organization is a good thing — including the initial task of learning a subject — when it comes to actually studying what you’ve learned, scrambling up your study materials is one of the most effective ways to ensure faster, more robust learning.

Known as “interleaved practice,” this technique exercises the mind during the learning process, forcing it to rapidly move between mental models.

This can be difficult at first because the feeling of clarity, precision and ease of understanding that an organized or blocked approach leaves you with is so comfortable and reassuring that letting it go just doesn’t feel right. Scrambled learning, by contrast, leaves you feeling, well, a bit scrambled, and more uncertain because your recall is considerably slower and less accurate.

This feeling of uncertainty is a symptom of the very thing that makes scrambled learning so effective. The key differentiator here is not how well you can move within a mental model once it’s constructed, but how many times you build the model in the first place. Moving around within an existing model is relatively easy. Once everything is in its place it tends to stay in its place. Rebuilding a model from scratch, on the other hand, requires considerably more work and leaves you with lots of missing pieces and feeling unsure about the pieces that are there.

Let’s take a look at an example. Imagine you’ve got a taste for craft beer and want to learn more about the various styles of beer, how they’re made and what ingredients they’re made from. Let’s say you’re tackling Stouts and Porters, each of which has five main styles. As mentioned earlier, your initial learning of a subject should be organized. You’d take Stouts as a group and then create multiple sub-groups by studying the details of each style and drawing meaningful connections that relate and distinguish each style. Perhaps you’d link American Imperial Stout and American Stout together, and English-Style Oatmeal Stout and English-Style Cream Stout, leaving Irish-Style Dry Stout as the stand alone to remember. Once completed, the entire group can be held in your mind as a unit and you can move easily between each of them relying on your mental model as a ballast and roadmap.

Now that you’ve got your mental models for Stouts and Porters up and running, let’s imagine for illustrative purposed you’ve got a set of flashcards for each group with the characteristics of the beer on front and the name of the beer on the back (you may go through a similar process without flashcards, but this will drive the point home). The natural tendency is to study Stouts, and then study Porters. While studying Stouts, the inner logic of your sub-groups remains intact as you move between them, and you can jump from American to Imperial to Oatmeal to Cream with ease because each of the elements help hold each of the other elements up. If you just stay in Stout world it can start to feel like you really have a grasp of the information. But do you?(See more here about illusions of competence).

Let’s take a closer look at what’s really happening. If you spend 10 minutes studying Stouts and then 10 minutes studying Porters in this fashion, you will have retrieved the mental model for each group a grand total of one time. If, on the other hand, you were to mix the groups up, nearly every other card would force you to drop one model in order to recreate the other. If you spend 10-20 seconds on each card, you will have practiced reconstructing each model 30–60 times!

This is the secret behind why scrambled practice packs such a punch. Your retrieval muscles are really getting a workout, and just like a good workout in the gym, you’re going to feel it. As Salman Khan’s five-year-old would tells us, the struggle is what makes your brain grow.

If you think about it, scrambled learning is essentially just a more elaborate application of spacing, our first strategy. It’s based on the exact same principle, only here instead of having something random playing interference during the spacing period, you’re filling it constructively with another subject.

Just to reiterate, the one place that organized learning will serve you well is during the initial formation of your mental models. You can’t practice rebuilding a mental model if you don’t know how it goes together in the first place.

Also, while I’ve been using conceptual learning examples throughout this post, these strategies can be applied equally as well to skill-based endeavors such as learning an instrument or learning to dance.

I promised you a tool in addition to these two strategies. Flashcards Deluxe — no affiliation, just love their product — is an app that will allow you to mix both spacing and scrambled learning together to great effect with anything you might want to learn.

Here’s how to use it. Create a new empty deck for each subject. Once multiple decks have been created, create a mixed deck that includes all of the other decks. Select Spaced Repetition in the mixed deck settings (you can adjust the spacing parameters for Spaced Repetition and Leitner which I really like) and you’re off to the races. I named my mixed deck STUDY, and when I have 5 minutes here or there, I’ll pull out the app, scramble my brain, and deepen my knowledge.

I also use Flashcards Deluxe for music practice. I keep these decks separate from the STUDY deck, but follow the same principles, mixing up my practice between different tricky sections, drills, scales and songs. This has completely transformed my play and lifted much of the load of trying to figure out what I should be practicing. If there’s interest I can go into details in another post.

If only I had known as a daydreamy kid with ADD that being forgetful and disorganized were actually secret weapons for achieving badassery. Ah well. Aside from embracing your inner powers of distraction, the big takeaway here is to always be open to questioning assumptions and challenging intuitions. Just as student evaluations of a teacher are often orthogonal to how good the teacher actually is, our assumptions about the best way to learn based on what feels right also warrant closer scrutiny.