I hate rote learning as much as anyone can. My high school exams were a nightmare to prepare for. I detested the process of memorising facts, just so to vomit them out on an exam paper. So much so that I did not feature in the top few of my class till class 10. My teachers’ regular complain to my mum on open days at school was: “He has so much potential. He just needs to put in some efforts.”
The Indian education system made the words memorising and learning synonyms. Even during my days at one of the best engineering schools in India, I found that there were many who did much better than me because of their sheer ability to “maro ratta” (commit to memory). Ask them a critical question, one that doesn’t usually feature in an exam paper, and they would be clueless.
The UK school system is much less focused on memorising. A good portion of assessment is based on assignments done through the year. The US system, I get the impression from reading Moonwalking with Einstein, is quite opposed to memorising. I know that open-book university exams are quite common there. In the age of the Internet, it makes sense that rote learning is given as little attention as possible.
But memorising facts has an important role to play in almost all professions. For instance the more writing I do, the more I feel the need to be able to remember all the wonderful things that I read, just so that I am able to either cite them or use their ideas to develop new ones. Invention is a product of inventorying, as Joshua Foer explains.
To that end, I’ve decided that I need to take memorising seriously. So far I’ve been committing to memory without paying attention to how I do it. But as we know, to get good at something requires deliberate practice. So here is how I plan to do it henceforth.
I’ve created my own private version of Wikipedia. It’s a google doc where I store all the information that I know related to a thing or an idea. I call it conceptopedia because, even though it’s mostly full of facts, it is a place where I externalise the memories that helped me understand a concept (hoping of course that in time I will internalise them enough to delete them from there). Example of how an entry looks:
- Science writer Mark Lynas delivered a speech in which he admitted that he made a mistake by starting the anti-GM movement. Apparently he had changed his mind much prior to the speech. He even wrote a book called The God Species praising GM in 2010.
- 1st traceable genetic modification is that from 10,000 years ago when Turkish farmers mutated the Q gene on chromosome 5A of wheat. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
- 50 years ago scientists irradiated the barley to create a high-yielding, low-sodium variety called “Golden Promise”. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
- 20 years ago scientists inserted specific sequences into rice plants to create a version that synthesises more vitamin A. They knew what letters to insert but no idea where they went. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
- Now precise, multiple editing of DNA is here claims Ridley. And it is being done by a private enterprise. (Ridley, WSJ, 2013)
Wherever possible, they are hyperlinked to where I got that piece of information from if I need to refer to it again. I know that this is going to be an exercise that might take quite a bit of my time, and I’m trying to build tools to make it easy. One way is to use Evernote’s Clipper add-on in Chrome (there is even an iPhone app, EverClip) to save important pieces of information with the right tags. Then once a week or so I go through the clipped bits and add them to the conceptopedia.
I chose to read Moonwalking with Einstein early on in my #100bookschallenge for a good reason. I want to ensure that I retain a lot more than I usually do from reading these fantastic 100 books. Normally, after a few months, I only have a vague idea of what the book was about. This time it has to be better than that.
As I wrote in the review of the book, the book gave me tools on how to remember to-do lists, phone numbers and the order in cards in a deck. Whereas what I was looking for was how to remember ideas. Foer subtly mentions that things that you often remember are things that you paid really careful attention to. If some fact blew your hat off, then you will remember it. You will also want to share it with someone which will only reinforce that memory.
But not all facts are that amazing. So the alternative is to build mind maps. These can really work if done well, and I plan to find ways of making the most effective mind maps. The plan is to make a mind map of every article I write before writing it and of every book as I go along reading it. And of course I am planning to review each one, so that should help me synthesise that information in my head too.
What do you think about memorising? Are there any techniques you use to commit things to memory? Are there any tools for managing your notes that you would recommend?
Image from here.