Morse code training program uses cognitive science to speed learning and improve retention

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When Aaron Parks KC8FQD was having trouble learning Morse code, he complained about some of his frustrations to his wife, Dr. Jessica Parks. As an expert in memory and cognition with a PhD in experimental psychology, she immediately recognized a few ways he could dramatically improve his learning speed and retention.

Working together they created Skilman Introduction to Morse Code with a companion program called Morse Code Speed Builder: 5 to 12 Words Per Minute.

Based on the Farnsworth method, they designed it from the ground up to be different than other programs on the market. “The course is structured to walk you through the learning process step by step so you don’t get lost along the way. The individual exercises are designed to encourage engagement and participation,” he says.

Since launching the program this spring, they’ve already managed to create quite a buzz. “We’re pleased to have more than 150 happy customers so far and sales continue to accelerate,” he says. “So far, the feedback has been strongly positive.”

The program comes on 6 compact discs and the files can be loaded into an MP3 player for convenient playback. When you buy the program, you also get the digital files to use immediately if you don’t want to wait for your CDs to arrive.

Whether you decide to use their program or study on your own, they’ve put together a few tips to help you learn Morse code more effectively:

1) Divide your study into chunks that will fit into short-term memory

Eventually you’ll want to commit Morse code to your long-term memory, but before that it’ll have to go through your short-term memory. Work on 3-4 characters at a time. Once you think you have those committed to long-term memory, go on to the next group.

2) Practice meaningful rehearsal

This may sound obvious, but you won’t get far by putting a code tape on in the background and hoping to learn by osmosis. You’ve got to be an active participant in learning. Meaningful rehearsal is what moves those characters from short-term memory to long-term memory. So favor interactive exercises over passive ones.

3) Stay engaged by using a variety of exercises

If you do the same thing over and over, it’ll get boring and your eyes will glaze over. At the very least, mix up sending and receiving practice. They’re both important if you plan to get on the air and they’ll reinforce each other. If you zone out, you’re wasting your time.

4) Commit to a couple of short study sessions every day

A short study session is about 20-30 minutes. It may seem crazy, but it’s well known that human attention only holds up about that long. Once your attention falls off, you’re not getting a good return on the time you’re investing. Cramming works in the short-term, but for long-term retention, it’s better to space out your learning evenly over time. If you make it a part of your routine and work on it a little every day, you’ll get a little better every day — but one or two daily sessions is enough.

5) Don’t get discouraged by the interference effect

When you start out learning Morse code, the first several characters you learn will come pretty easy, but all of a sudden it changes. Everything slows down like it’s a struggle just to learn a single additional character. And what’s worse, it may seem like the ones you already know are getting harder to recall. Lots of people give up at this point.

Surprisingly, this sudden drop-off in apparent learning is actually good news. The reason why the new characters don’t come as easy is because the ones you already know are interfering with learning them. You have to have really learned those characters to have them interfere with learning more so you know that you must have already made significant progress.

Interference effect goes both ways, though. The new characters you’re learning interfere with the old ones. While it seems like all progress has ceased, you really must be learning the new characters to be experiencing this type of interference. This is the point where having a good attitude, a solid routine, and engaging exercises will really help.

Editor’s note:
Aaron and Jessica have graciously allowed AmateurRadio.com to give away the first hour of their Introduction to Morse Code course to our readers at no charge to help you get started. Good luck!

Skilman Introduction to Morse Code – Lesson 1 (24:02) Download

Skilman Introduction to Morse Code – Lesson 2 (24:32) Download

Matt Thomas, W1MST, is the managing editor of AmateurRadio.com. Contact him at [email protected].

13 Responses to “Morse code training program uses cognitive science to speed learning and improve retention”

  • peter kg5wy:

    Very good programs.
    Will there be one for 13wpm to 20wpm soon??

  • Ernest, AA1IK:

    I can’t understand why people are still pushing this very laborious and discouraging way to learn Morse code. Its awful! It dissuades more people than it helps.

    Learn code at 5 wmp and you’ll have to relearn it at 13, and again at 20 WPM. Only by abject determination did I learn code, this way.

    Far better is to ‘learn it once’ at 20 wpm. It takes just a little bit longer but then you have something ‘you can use’ on the air. A dit at 5 wpm is still just a dit’ at 20 wpm.

    Memorizing the alphabet, numerals and prosigns are just a necessary part of the process, but it is not the entire process.

    http://www.g4fon.net/CW%20Trainer.htm

    THIS is a much better way. Use this trainer to ‘get you going’, and then use the ‘send file’ feature! I made up a list of common words and repeated them 30 times. Casual listening at higher speeds will, ‘EVENTUALLY’ cause you to ‘recognize’ entire words and phrases that are common in a QSO.

    I’ve proven this with people that have absolutely no knowledge of code. After just a few minutes of training, they can easily recognize 3 even 4 letter words at 20 wmp.

    This G4FON trainer is very good. It works.

    de AA1IK

    Ernest Gregoire

    73

  • Matt W1MST:

    I understand your point, Ernest — though I do think some people will benefit from an audio program like this one. I know they encourage you to be an “active participant,” but I really like listening to things like this while I’m driving.

    There’s nothing I like more than being productive (or at least feeling like I am) while I’m driving, mowing, running, etc. It makes the time spent easier to justify if I’m engaged in self-improvement in the process.

    So, while G4FON may be excellent, I think different programs can benefit different personal learning styles and situations.

  • Aaron KC8FQD:

    Hi Ernest. Thanks for your comments. I agree that learning code at a character rate of 5 WPM is not a good use of a students time. As Matt mentioned, our course uses the Farnsworth technique, so we send each individual character at 18 WPM. The space between characters is increased to reduce the average rate to about 5 WPM, giving a beginner time to recall the letter. When increasing speed, this space is reduced, but the characters themselves are sent at the same speed. So, there’s no need to relearn, just increase the rate of recall. 18 WPM is fast enough to ensure that the student learns the character by sound rather than by counting, so further increase in speed beyond 18 WPM is smooth too.

  • Ernest, AA1IK:

    Aaron, KC8FQD There is a caveat to slow character speed. The mind functions as a look up table when code is slow, the mind does a ‘look up’ to see what ‘ …_ means! When code is received by the brain as a complete sound, or ‘word’, the brain recognizes it as such, a word and not individual letters.

    For example hearing RST the mind does not have to listen to each individual letter. It simply ‘Knows’ what that means. The same is true for other common code phrases CQ, SK, Name is, etc. These can be ‘recognized at significantly faster speed, as ‘sounds’ or words.

    Learning code by recognizing entire words speeds up the process significantly! Isn’t that what its all about, communication, and fun!

  • peter kg5wy:

    I don’t think we all need to get analytical about learning the code.
    Any code training program is OK and beneficial!!! Just because some people prefer one as to another doesn’t mean they need to criticize the ones they don’t like. THANK YOU AARON & JESSICA PARKS for a good program.

  • Bob DW7NIB:

    I think it was nice that Jessica and Aaron gave these samples from their course,but when you click a hyperlink that says,”Download”it is used to download and save as needed on your computer to listen to at a later time or again if needed,these 2 links only allow you to listen and not download,this is not a criticism just a fact.
    Bob DW7NIB a retired US Marine living in the Philippines

  • Matt W1MST:

    Hi Bob — Saving the mp3 is easy. If you have a PC, just right-click on the link and you can choose to save instead of download the file.

  • Donald Casillo KD5UGY:

    As an electronics tech (now retired), I take time to analyze a problem. I have tried to learn Morse code. I know the symbols for the code, but when it comes to distinguish between an “S” and a “H” and a “5” being received it all comes to fast for me to determine which character was sent. Can the program help me?

  • Kyle N4NSS:

    This is the “Old School” method of learning the code. I was taught it this way in the Navy and one added process I had to type it as I heard it. There were those hellish levels that I had to hurdle because of this process. Copying five letter and number groups produces these levels. Now as they say we are learning a new language. How does one learn a new language? We learn them by learning the sound of the WORDS. You don’t learn it by spelling the words. If you ever want to learn code use the KOCH program and collect the most common word list then create a repetitive word file to import into KOCH. Remember how you learned your native language. I bet the word “NO” was one of the first or maybe “DaDa” was one. Code is a sound language and language is words put into sentences. You learn to spell words later when you are putting those words on paper. Google most common words and check past QST articles. Ernest is right. Learn code by hearing the sound of WORDS and spell them later. You’ll not regret it.

  • Ernest, AA1IK:

    To a certain point, (learning the alphabet, numbers, and prosigns) almost, but not all, systems are OK, but there comes a point that this learning dits and dah’s become detrimental, and I can prove it. I have done so with people that know absolutely no code.

    Here is some ‘real help’! I have txt files for over 1000 common words that can be played on the G4FON program. These files are text! For example of the word ‘able’ is repeated 30 times. If it is played at a speed over 20 WPM (25 WPM is a good place to begin), you can sit back, listen and memorize the ‘sound of the word’! Next a ‘b’ word is played; ‘Baker’ for instance!

    Listen to that in the same way. During the next few sessions, you will come to ‘recognize the word’ that you are listening to, much sooner. Perhaps on the 5th or 6th time it repeats. Eventually, you will ‘get it’ right off the bat!

    I have gone through the entire alphabet using words that begin with each letter, repeated this particular word 30 to 50 times. I will send these files to anyone who requests them.

    Kyle, N4NSS will post them on his web site.

    Eventually, he will post MP3 files of the same words on his web site. I’m in the process of getting these MP3 files to him.

    Matt said he liked to listen while he drives, good for you Matt! This is what I do.

    A special note to Donald Casillo KD5UGY; Speed up the code, with words that begin in S or H. Words like Tallahassee, and Mississippi are great words to practice with. At the faster speeds, the S becomes vivid. Practice S words and H words, not merely the letter S or H.

    Sending!

    If you want to increase code speed, send it! Get a text, from a magazine, anything really, and send it with a keyer off the air. Send punctuation as well. Record what you sent, and play it back a week or so later. If you can ‘read what you sent’ you are good to go. If your sending is sloppy, you’ll know it right away. How can you expect another ham to ‘get what you sent’ when you can’t get it either?

    I’m looking forward to hearing from you. Please make use of this resource. I still suffer from learning code ‘the old way’!

    73 de AA1IK

    Ernest Gregoire

  • Bill, W5NI:

    Yes, using Morse code can be great fun. It’s just another language; actually it is probably the first method of ‘digital communication’ via optical, landline or wireless. A single digit, the extended middle digit in an upraised position, nearly universally communicates a wealth of meanings in quite a number of other languages.

    It is amazing how many ways one can learn the Morse code. No one method will be best for everyone, but some may be better than others. The ideas that have been presented here all have their good and not so good points. I’ve taught code for a lot of years, and I also learned it the hard way because I had no qualified instructor nor instructions. My mother sent code to me using a hacksaw blade and thumbtack key, a battery and a doorbell buzzer, and she had no knowledge of Morse code other than she could read a code sheet enough to make up some words, and it took me a year to get to five words per minute and get a Novice license in 1953. I had to learn it at 5wpm, and relearn it at 13wpm, and again at 20wpm and I had more frustrations than I care to relate to here. Due to my poor learning methods, I’ve never been what I would consider a great CW operator, but I can manage to get some good out of listening to a 40wpm conversation on a good day even though my sending is getting pretty rusty anymore. Here is my humble opinion, and I don’t consider it better or worse than anyone else’s, nor is it worth any more than I charged you for it.

    First of all, you should determine what you want or need to do with your new found language experience. If you are going to copy code for absolute accuracy, the old military method of learning and typing five character groups is excellent. Accuracy is very necessary since most of this data is encrypted into five character groups and if you miss a character or two you may not be able to decode the actual message being sent and get people killed. The skill and ability to ‘touch type ‘and ‘copy behind’ is really helpful. Generally, most traffic handling requires more accuracy than normal conversation.

    However, if you just want to be conversational, the goal is different and you should learn to copy words, and also copy behind a few characters if you can (the way I originally learned causes me a problem with copying behind, which slows me down a bit). Another habit to avoid is ‘anticipating’ what the sender is going to send since many times you will be wrong and have to change what you wrote or thought, which also slows you down. Most hams use conversational code and once your speed gets over about 18wpm conversations become more enjoyable and you just write down notes of importance rather than every character; your brain will fill in the missed characters and you can get the gist of the conversation in spite of this. It really helps to listen to code faster than you can copy, and you might surprise yourself as to how much of the conversation you can pick up; challenge yourself, the gains can be great and what do you have to lose? You can even record it and slow it down later and see how well you did by what you can remember.

    Starting out with a student, I break the alphabet, prosigns and punctuation into two groups. The first group starts with the dit, or E, then splits to didit, I, and didah, A, then dididit, S, and dididah, U, then didididit, H, and didididah, V, and on and on in a horizontal tree format. I do the same for the characters that start with dah, T. This way your brain eliminates half the alphabet after the first dit or dah. Draw it out, it has several branches, and it will make more sense when you see it on paper. Each time you split, like didit and didah, you eliminate half again. This method helps the brain by the process of elimination and speeds things up. I don’t remember who developed this method, but as I recall it was either a psychologist or a psychiatrist, anyway it made sense to me so I’ve used it for over forty years.

    I use the Fahrnsworth method to avoid the speed humps, usually starting at a 20wpm character speed, but a 25wpm character speed is just as good as long as the student can still recognize the characters. Some ears hear slower, or fuzzier, than others so you have to allow for this until practice tunes them in more clearly. I spread out the space between the characters or words to start out at an overall speed of about 5wpm. If you print, use ‘speed printing’ methods, cursive, or type. Yes, in spite of some so-called modern educators, cursive is still alive and well, and it can be faster than printing. There are charts that show how to form printed characters faster than taught in elementary school.

    I soon begin using common words made up of the characters just recently learned. Practice sessions should be limited to 30 minutes or so at a time. If you want to practice more than this, use more 30 minute sessions with a significant break between them.

    Once the majority of characters and some common words have been learned I begin to shorten the spacing between the words to bring the speed up. I keep adding a few new words pretty regularly.

    I disagree with learning the words as phonics ,rather than properly spelled, because if you learn the word misspelled, the sound is different than if it is properly spelled, and you have to learn two words instead of one for the same thing. This is a real trouble with the US English, and probably other languages, since many words mean the same thing and it confuses good communications between people to the point of even starting a war. I once had a QSO with a ham that I thought was a LID, but after listening more closely I decided he was sending was quite well but he just couldn’t spell and that made it very difficult to communicate with him.

    I also prefer that my students learn to send on a straight key rather than a bug or keyer, to get a good rhythm down pat (rhythm is one of the keys to good sounding CW), and also that they don’t even touch a key until they have learned to copy properly sent code. This is because if you don’t know what the characters properly sound like, you imitate the improperly sounding thing you learned. As you first lay a hand on a straight key, be sure to learn the proper posture and grip of proper sending, then practice just dits and dahs until you get the dit-dah ratio, the spacing and the rhythm correct. W1AW is an excellent source for practicing receiving good code. After a while, it is beneficial to begin copying through QRN and QRM since that is more common than not. Once you finish learning the characters and begin to send, there is a pretty good way to check your sending; buy or borrow an inexpensive code reader, there are plenty around, and send to it. If it can’t copy what you’re sending, you aren’t sending very well, and you should practice more. Remember that PRACTICE does not make perfect, only PERFECT PRACTICE makes perfect, and you can do it if you really put your mind to it, and it will pay off handsomely down the line!

    I’ve had pretty good success with this method, and the G4FON program is one of the better programs that I’ve used. One of the things I enjoy while driving on a trip is to tune in a nice 20wpm to 40wpm station and practice holding onto information in my head without writing anything down. I don’t recommend trying to send or operate while driving, as it is a real distraction that could cause an accident! Some conversations are quite interesting, and they tend to help me stay awake on a long trip since I no longer have a YF with her backseat drivers license to chatter in my ear. Just remember, it’s all about practice! I hope this helps someone and that you all have a great day. Bill

  • K7SHL:

    I had put off learning code for way too long. But I must say, this system works for me. I’m picking it up and am getting so I hear letters and numbers in the code when I list on 40 or 80 meters at night, only being partway through the Skilman CDs. It is just a matter of being patient and persistent.

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