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5 Top tips to win the Memathon

As many of you will be only too aware, this January has been seeing a great battle taking place across the Memrise platform, as thousands of Memrisers compete for the $1000 Memathon prize, which will be awarded to the person who memorises the most new words in January.

The competition’s proving hugely motivating: we’re seeing lots of excitement, and record traffic levels- people are answering more than 10 million tests daily!

Now the point of the Memathon isn’t exclusively doing better than everyone else. Like the London Marathon, its real value and purpose is to give us all the chance and motivation to improve.

Having said that, of course it’s much cooler to win the Memathon than to come 4562nd. Just like in the London Marathon. And I can’t personally imagine, besides a waxwork at Madame Tussauds, any greater honour.

Now because I’m on the Memrise team and I have a decade of experience in using advanced memory techniques, I’ve munificently allowed you all a 19 day head-start in this challenge. But I’m now on it, and I’m going to do my best to win.

For my personal challenge, I’m aiming to learn the first 2000 words of Polish. Enough for an A-level, and for 98% of spoken language. We’ll see if it’s enough to win the Memathon. I kind of doubt it, but I’ll concentrate on my own performance and not waste time worrying about anyone else.

Now, this challenge would be a good deal easier if I were on holiday and had all day to work on it. But I’m trying to do it while working full time at Memrise, and what with beginning the Memathon 19 days late, having no experience of Polish or Polish pronunciation and having quite a bit on, this is in some respects an intimidating challenge.

So to be able to do it, I’ll have to be very focused and cunning in how I do my studying.

Here are the five top principles I’m putting into practice to enable me to learn 2k words at a rate of 200 a day, for the next ten days.

Feel free to come join me- there’s no magic here, just technique- and it’s worth saying that the background to all of these specific techniques is the total confidence one can have, and which everyone should have, that if one creates memories in a vivid, precise way and reviews them and practises them correctly (as Memrise allows) then those memories will thrive. It’s simple, really.

1. Very brief, very regular learning sessions.

We all have busy lives. Finding the time for learning is half the battle, and when you’re learning 2000 words in ten days, you need to exercise almost military precision with the use of your time.

Fortunately, it’s anyways best to break your learning into little chunks: learning for 10 minutes at six different points in the day is superior to learning for an hour straight. There are lots of reasons for this, but the essence of it is that memories need to be digested, in much the same way as food. Leaving gaps between meals ensures better digestion.

For my Memathon, I’m using the Pomodoro method, a time-management system invented by a procrastinating Italian philosophy student. I use it anyway at work to give my day a rhythm and focus: 50 minutes of work, then a ten minute break; repeated all day: all regulated by a simple Pomodoro count-down timer.

As of today, though, I’m using the 10 minute break for studying on Memrise (a form of relaxation, after all). So I’m spending the last 10 minutes of each hour learning, and the rest working. This should allow me to fit two hours of learning every day between 8 a.m.- 8 p.m. without disrupting the work in any way. Yum.

2. Heavy use of Mems

Sometimes one can’t quite be bothered to use a mem- one thinks to oneself “this one will go in without any help, it’ll be fine”.

You can get away with such a lax attitude in everyday Memrising, but it’ll kill you in a Memathon, where your greatest enemy is going to be confusion between items, and repeated errors: two problems which vivid mems greatly reduce.

Mems exaggerate the differences between words, stopping them from con-fusing into each other. And it’s totally worth spending a bit of time to create a vivid mem that comes easily to mind, and making sure that you call this mem to mind every time you answer the question.

So I’ll be using a mem for every single word and phrase I see: sometimes I’ll use someone else’s mem, other times I’ll actively create a mem and share it with the community; I’ll also occasionally just make an internal mental note.

3. Subvocalisation of the words

It’s good in learning to use as wide a range of modalities as possible: the more of our senses we engage, the richer and more robust the memories.

So as I go along, I’m going to make a special point of verbalising the words in my head, and of gesturing as I say them in my imagination where appropriate. This should help the words gain personality, and to add another dimension of memory – that of the mouth’s movements. Of course, I’m going to sound pretty stupid in the office, but no change there.

4. Aim for perfect sessions

Because of the unusual amount of time I’ll be spending learning over the next ten days, I’ll need to be very careful to keep focus: I want to avoid as far as possible wasting time by not paying attention during a learning session, and so failing to encode a set of words properly first time round.

To make sure every session is of a high quality, I’m attempting to keep my percentage correct for each learning session as near as possible to 100% (review’s another matter). Normally, I pay no attention to this metric. But by setting that expectation, I’m forcing myself to focus really fiercely and to, for instance, see ahead of time when a word is going to be difficult, and really spend time with it up-front to ensure I’ll be able to spell it when I’m done.

Just as with the strong usage of mems, this is all about going slow to go fast. Strong memories may take longer to encode, but their reliability in the long term pays that investment back in style: the memory requires much less time spent consolidating it.

5. Reviewing all learning before sleep

It’s been clear to me since childhood that something magical happens during sleep to memories: you can go to sleep with a confusion of new learning, and wake as if some magic gnome has been working overnight reorganising and tidying up your memories.

The science of this is really coming along, and the importance of dream-sleep in tidying and solidifying memories is broadly accepted. As this article rather comically puts it, …“sleep serves to stabilise [new] memories against the deleterious effects of subsequent wakefulness.” I’ve always found wakefulness deleterious.

So, to learn 2000 words in ten days and really remember them, I’m going to need to put my brain to task during sleep. To do that, I’ll review all my words just before sleep. And I’ll review them again as soon as I wake. What I’m effectively doing is telling my neurones before sleep: “hey listen guys and girls, I’ll be getting some sleep. Would you mind keeping on the job for me for the next few hours and really prioritising the growth of these here memories”.

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So those are my five top tips for excelling at the Memathon.

If anyone wants to join me- here’s the Polish course I’m learning. Comprehensive Polish

By the way, I’ll buy dinner for anyone who beats me to the end of this course.


If you want to track Ed’s progress, follow our Twitter account @memrise, we’ll be uploading his best mems and learning performance daily!

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