How to use “strategic micro-reviews”

[This page is partly a complement to the How to create more memorable images and deal with difficulties page]

Have you heard about those “strategic micro-reviews” that everyone is talking about? No of course you haven’t, it’s just a silly expression I invented. But the process I’m describing – while it’s nothing new or revolutionary – is certainly worth using and exploring. I can’t know for sure, but my guess is that most skilled memorizers are consciously or unconsciously commonly doing something similar. I don’t know why I’ve never seen this strategy be clearly explained and recommended before.

What the hell is a “strategic micro-review”?

I use this expression mostly to describe a particular form of review that one can do very quickly while you’re first learning something. For example, if you’re learning a bunch of names, you can ask yourself (without cheating) “What’s that name I just learned? And that other name I learned right before?” As we’ll see, you can use micro-reviews in all kinds of circumstances, whether you’re studying for an exam or trying to memorize a list of words as quickly as possible.

I find micro-reviews to be particularly useful while you’re building a memory palace. Let’s say that you just placed 2 images on a table and 2 images on some other piece of furniture nearby. Doing a “micro-review” here would mean taking just a second or less to ask yourself “What did I just imagine here?” and/or “What are the words that I’m trying to memorize here?”. You can also use this opportunity to focus on how those few images can be linked to one another. Since you created the images just a moment ago, you should be able to answer in no time. And you shouldn’t have to check the answers. If you can’t do that, it means you did something wrong.

If you’re not trying to go fast, you can take your time and make sure that the answers are very clear in your mind. Personally, I often try to make micro-reviews a very quick – almost instantaneous and almost subconscious – integral part of the initial memorization process. I will even use them in a limited way when I’m trying to break a personal speed record. That means that I will usually limit myself to recalling just the last 1 or 2 or sometimes 3 or 4 elements I just learned. And I’ll aim for a “good enough” but imperfect level of mental clarity. There isn’t necessarily a conscious division in my mind between the moment I’m first creating an image and learning something and the moment I’m “micro-reviewing” it. I’m probably doing both things in quick succession, but it can be fast enough that it will feel almost simultaneous.

Potential costs and benefits:

  • Using “micro-reviews” might slow you down a little when you’re first starting to try them out. It might even seem like they are breaking your rhythm, forcing you to constantly switch between learning and reviewing modes. However, as I said I think it’s possible to learn to use this strategy in a very fast and efficient manner. Fast enough that it won’t feel like an additional task, but more like something you’re almost doing almost subconsciously and instantaneously.
  • I find that they help solidify your newly improvised images and they substantially reduce the subsequent amount of forgetting.
  • For larger amounts of data or for longer-term memorization, other more demanding forms of review will of course be necessary. Still, I think there’s a decent chance that using micro-reviews during the initial learning process will reduce the number of future revisions that you will need.

Why do they help?

You’ve heard before about the value of “retrieval practice”, of testing yourself to make sure you know something well and, more importantly, to strongly reinforce the neural connections linked to those memories. I think micro-reviews are helpful because they’re a form of retrieval practice. They’re a very quick and limited form, not nearly as powerful as a “real” review where you’re recalling something you’ve learned minutes or hours, days or weeks or months before, but they’re still useful and worth doing. Especially since it’s often possible to do them in just a fraction of a second.

Other forms of micro-reviews

So far I mostly discussed how micro-reviews can be used in the context of practicing or while creating a memory palace. But of course, similar strategies can be used in a multitude of other circumstances as well. You can ask yourself quick questions about any information you just learned. You can do so while reading or watching a video for example. You can take two seconds to review a specific piece of information while you’re in the middle of listening to a lecture or a documentary. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to press “pause”, but if you keep the format of your question very short and simple, you should be able to get back to listening quickly without too much trouble. You can even use the same process in the middle of a conversation with someone else.

And finally, I’ve talked about using micro-reviews while you’re first learning something, but it’s also possible to use them for pieces of information you’ve learned a little while ago.* At various semi-random moments throughout the day – while walking or washing the dishes or waiting to fall asleep – you can have all kinds of quick questions like those popping into your mind:

  • What were the names of those people I met yesterday?
  • What was that funny joke that my friend told me?
  • Last time I reviewed the periodic table of elements, what were the two elements I forgot and the other two I misremembered and mispronounced?
  • That author made such a fascinating point in that podcast I listened to this morning. Can I still recall it well?

* One could say that in those cases, we’re talking about just some plain old normal reviews. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. It doesn’t matter how you want to call them. The main point I wanted to make is that you don’t always have to wait until you’re actively sitting down for a dedicated revision session. Very brief forms of review can be inserted at any moment throughout the day, even when you’re seemingly busy with something else.