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2016/12/03 - Memorising The Tube ...
Recently I memorised the period table of elements. When I tell people that, the response has generally been a moderate pause, followed by a rather puzzled - "Why?"
So I thought I'd explain.
And it took ages.
Ironically, we then forgot about it.
A year or so later, after attending a retail show in Harrogate we were on the train coming home and we remembered. Coincidently, I'd been reading about "Spaced Repetition" (SR), a technique that allegedly helps one remember huge amounts of information efficiently and effectively.
So on a whim I decided to have a go.
On the train journey from Harrogate to Leeds I whipped up a simplistic, user-hostile version of SR (Spaced Repetition). Then found the text of the poem - "Cargoes", by John Masefield - and loaded it into the system. Finally, on the journey from Leeds to Liverpool we memorised the poem.
Yes, both of us. I didn't particularly want to, but I was driving the software (as I said, user-hostile) so I ended up memorising it too, even though I didn't particularly want to. It was distressingly effective.
Scroll forward another few years, and as a bit of gratuitous showing off I decided that, since I was giving a series of talks in Norway, I would learn some of my talk in Norwegian. Once again I turned to my implementation of SR, and once again, it was extremely effective.
But it was on my laptop, and I don't always have my laptop open and on. I wondered if I could make it a web-based implementation, so I futzed about for a bit, and hey presto, there it was. Now I could learn, or revise, anywhere I could get a 'net connection on my phone.
So that was nice.
So over a period of about 4 weeks I learned "Ozymandias", the entire periodic table of elements, and the dates of accession of English monarchs from 1066. This is how I came to memorise the periodic table - it was just a convenient set of data to drop into the system and see how well it worked. It wasn't that I specifically wanted to learn the periodic table, it was simply a convenient thing to learn while testing the system. Ending up knowing it is just a side-effect, although not entirely unwelcome - there have been some interesting stories to learn along with it.
But then I noticed something.
The dates didn't stick. The elements did, Ozymandias did, but the dates got muddled, or were more difficult to recall. I wondered why, and speculated that it was the absence of any kind of underlying structure or pattern.
Rachel started to tell me stories about who succeeded whom and why, and that helped a bit, but what really turned the tide was putting in not just the dates of accession, but the period of reign. In that way when asked about Henry III I would say 1216 - 1272, and the 1272 would prompt me to remember that Edward I followed Henry III, and so there was a chaining effect.
And that seemed to work.
So for me, Spaced Repetition might work best - or at all - if there is some sort of underlying structure or pattern, and the "atoms" in the system should be such that the pattern is somehow exposed, or exploited.
Which then leads me to an open question.
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