I have been working with a great friend on a learning tool that gives you super powers, and I am very excited for it to launch today. I have been dogfooding it for some time but it’s also just the beginning of the journey to help people succeed through learning and retaining knowledge. The tool is Active Recall, and people are using it to become language proficient, study for exams, retain key knowledge for work, and so much more.
This is my story using it as a lifelong learner.
I wish I understood the power of spaced repetition and active recall as a kid. I believe it would have been life changing, and that it would have resulted in better results in school, life, and work… and all the while saving me time.
We know about the value of compound interest in growing wealth, and the best time to start compounding if you haven’t already, is today.
This is the story I would love to be able to time travel with, to share with a much younger me, and I hope it is helpful as you start your compounding journey.
How I became a lifelong learner
When Walmart acquired my small startup over a decade ago, I remember reconciling the fact that I was brand new to retail, with the knowledge of how Walmart was famously data driven. I knew I needed to up my game as I dove into this new domain, and pondered how.
My wife is a teacher, and we have discussed and debated learning and education the entire time we have known each other. This resulted in a deep dive into the research on how to best study. How can you optimize your time, and get results?
The magic of spaced repetition
The first step on the journey was spaced repetition, and learning how I had gone so wrong with my study habits. Put in the work. Keep repeating. Read and re-read. It turns out that this is wrong-thinking, that is wasteful of time, and doesn’t even work!
Once you start digging, you find that there is a lot of research out there on learning, and books such as Make It Stick bring it all together. It turns out there are two important pieces to the puzzle of long lasting memory. The first piece is to ensure that you are quizzing yourself vs simply reviewing. This forces you to actively recall the material which strengthens your memory.
The second piece is about being quizzed right at a time when you struggle to reach for the answer. This is where the “spaced” in “spaced repetition” comes in. To serve the question up at the right time, the gap in time grows longer when you find the answer, and shortens when you have forgotten it.
After I read this, I admit…. I didn’t quite believe it. Surely constant repetition is better? But it turned out to work wonders in practice. Previously, when I would re-read a passage, I would unwittingly deceive myself, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content. Now, when I spaced out the study with larger and larger intervals, my recall was drastically superior.
Thus, the life changing habit was born…
The Active Recall habit
I have a morning routine, and it includes ~five minutes of using Active Recall as I hit “Study All”. It connects me to the knowledge that I want to have available. It gives me confidence that I have access to my knowledge, which will help me though-out my day:
“The very processes that teachers care about most–critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving–are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).” — Daniel T. Willingham
What shocks me to this day, is that it only takes me a few minutes, thanks to the power of the exponential backoff of the prompting interval.
As I go through the day, I am capturing knowledge as I go. I don’t worry about taking time right then to make the content perfect, as I often don’t have time right away…. so I focus on capturing it and putting it into the Unsorted folder for later gardening.
At a later time, usually when at my laptop, I go through the unsorted content. I clean it up, and I use some tricks to make it more effective for recall and synthesis, such as:
- Your brain casts around for answers, it results in generation which creates and firms up associations. Build associations that make sense to you, and your brain can find the path easier.
- Much of our brain is tied to visual processing. Lean into that power, and use images in your content to build association. A picture is definitely worth a thousand words.
- If you think of an emotional moment in your life, it’s probably quite easy to visualize. Emotions result in strong association, so lean into that too. One example that tells the tale is how I put names to faces. When I met someone named Justin Toupin, I put his information into Active Recall and pictured him being hit in the face with two bowling pins. A lil gruesome I know, but it gets across the point. I never forgot Justin Toupin again!
- Create more questions to hit the knowledge from multiple angles. Find the atoms and build from there. An example here is studying the history of World Cup football (soccer for some of you ;). I start simply: For a given year, which country hosted the World Cup? Then I added more knowledge… which country won? Who was the other team in the final? What was the score? Finally I can have compound questions where a given year results in the full score between both teams and includes where it was played.
What do I put in my knowledge base?
After years of using Active Recall and growing my knowledge base, I have seen how it spreads to so many areas. My knowledge base now includes:
- Work related. I am in technology, and I have probably the bulk of my cards here. I have general information on the technology I need to understand, engineering, product management, management in general, as well as the lessons I have learned throughout my career. I love how Active Recall is both a general purpose platform (you can put any information into it) but is also purpose built for certain content, such as code!
- General knowledge. There is a ton of knowledge that I want to capture and save, on all kinds of topics. When I took a boating exam, I put the information into Active Recall and it is always fresh in my memory. Geography, Science, Health, History, Sport, and on and on. When I read a non-fiction book, I now capture all of the lessons. In the past I would read something and forget 99% of it after the fact… after all that time that I invested in reading it! Now? The important information is always there.
- Personal information. Information on people, both my loved ones (What was the name of my uncles first hairdressing salon? What instruments could my Grandad play?), new connections (What was the name of $NEW_PERSONS children?), and… myself (Who was my favorite teacher? How much solar power does our house produce? What is the silent Notepad.exe story?) It is always fun to get a “tickle” when this information pops up. This is why I often put information in that isn’t a Question / Answer…. but just pops up as I enjoy having it back in my consciousness! Quotes from things my kids did and said is a particular pleasure 🙂
Over time, you may not need all of this information top of mind. This is when I suspend that content. Now, it’s available to me via search, but doesn’t come up in studying.
Active Recall gives me what feels like a super power. I am so excited for you to start and share your journey. There are so many other tips and tricks that I am excited to share, but for now… welcome to lifelong learning!