A little freaked out this morning when I saw this online Wired article dated yesterday, as it goes into great detail about the subject of one of my very own posts here on April 8, but I'll recover.
One man's name is Piotr Wozniak, and his story and method of devising a method to remember things long-term (as opposed to forgetting them soon after the test or class is concluded) is an utterly astonishing tale as far as I'm concerned. What he discovered through his own painstakingly detailed research on himself as the test subject, using handwritten logs over a period of time, served as independent verification of studies conducted in labs long ago that were somehow never publicized or seized upon by the intellectual community or the public. He knew nothing of those studies (he conducted his own self research back in the 1980's before such information was readily accessible to all).
The other hero is the man who created this field over a hundred years ago with his own research and observation. Here's an excerpt from Wired that talks about him and then about Piotr's SuperMemo program, but do your best to set aside 10 minutes or so to get through the entire article (which is actually about Piotr's method for employing working aspects of this mental phenomenon) yourself:
"In the late 1800s, a German scientist named Hermann Ebbinghaus made up lists of nonsense syllables and measured how long it took to forget and then relearn them. (Here is an example of the type of list he used: bes dek fel gup huf jeik mek meun pon daus dor gim ke4k be4p bCn hes.) In experiments of breathtaking rigor and tedium, Ebbinghaus practiced and recited from memory 2.5 nonsense syllables a second, then rested for a bit and started again. Maintaining a pace of rote mental athleticism that all students of foreign verb conjugation will regard with awe, Ebbinghaus trained this way for more than a year. Then, to show that the results he was getting weren't an accident, he repeated the entire set of experiments three years later. Finally, in 1885, he published a monograph called Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. The book became the founding classic of a new discipline.
Ebbinghaus discovered many lawlike regularities of mental life. He was the first to draw a learning curve. Among his original observations was an account of a strange phenomenon that would drive his successors half batty for the next century: the spacing effect.
Ebbinghaus showed that it's possible to dramatically improve learning by correctly spacing practice sessions. On one level, this finding is trivial; all students have been warned not to cram. But the efficiencies created by precise spacing are so large, and the improvement in performance so predictable, that from nearly the moment Ebbinghaus described the spacing effect, psychologists have been urging educators to use it to accelerate human progress. After all, there is a tremendous amount of material we might want to know. Time is short.
How Supermemo Works
SuperMemo is a program that keeps track of discrete bits of information you've learned and want to retain. For example, say you're studying Spanish. Your chance of recalling a given word when you need it declines over time according to a predictable pattern. SuperMemo tracks this so-called forgetting curve and reminds you to rehearse your knowledge when your chance of recalling it has dropped to, say, 90 percent. When you first learn a new vocabulary word, your chance of recalling it will drop quickly. But after SuperMemo reminds you of the word, the rate of forgetting levels out. The program tracks this new decline and waits longer to quiz you the next time."