I’ve been thinking about this process largely for lists of items or mental maps. I seem to always follow the same progression. For this example, I’ll use a map of the United States and a list of the chemical elements in order.
Stage I. You know almost nothing about the subject matter. You know what the United States is and can find it on a world map. Maybe you’ve heard of a few cities in the United States, but know nothing about where those cities are. Or you know what the periodic table is. You know the concept of an element but can’t name many of them.
Stage II. You have a basic understanding of the subject matter. You begin locating where these cities in the United States are. New York is towards the east and Los Angeles is towards the west. Maybe you know Los Angeles is in California. Your knowledge is still very limited. For the periodic table, you can list the names and symbols of a few elements, but when asked to fill in a blank periodic table, you can only fill in five or ten correctly at best.
Stage III. Learning the names, but not where they are. You know that Utah is a state, but you don’t know where in the US it is. It might be in the west or in the south. You know that protactinium is a chemical element, but it might be the same thing as praseodymium. The names are familiar. This is the stage where you could correctly guess if something is a US state or a chemical element. You have figured out that East Virginia is not a state, and that terine is not an element. However, when pressed, you admit that you only have a vague idea of where the names are supposed to go. Maybe you’d get 30% or so when tested in this stage.
Stage IV. You begin looking at the entire thing in depth. You look at the US map with all of the states and where the cities are. You look at the periodic table with all of its elements. At this stage, you gain more of an understanding of where things are. You’re looking at familiar names. Washington is on top of Oregon. Lithium is third. Magnesium is twelfth. Eventually, the majority of the thing is memorized.
Stage V. Near-mastery. Your mental image of the thing is almost complete. It’s definitely usable. You might still confuse a few states, like knowing where Vermont and New Hampshire are exactly, but not remembering which one is which. If someone told you they were from Vermont, you’d know pretty much where it is exactly, but you might not be 100% certain. For something like the periodic table, you might be unsure of the order or atomic numbers of a few elements, or when given the atomic number, struggle to find the correct element. You know it’s somewhere around there. Perhaps similar names get confused, or two things that are almost in the same location, but not quite. In a last-minute desperate attempt, you start to develop mnemonics and memory aids for the last few you struggle with remembering, or tend to mix up. You don’t want 80% or 90% mastery. You want 100% mastery.
Stage VI. Incompetent Mastery. You can recall the US map or the periodic table with 100% accuracy, but it may be slow. You still have to rely on mnemonic aids for the last few things. When tested, you’d score 100%, but it’s slow and painful. It’s not automatic. You still doubt yourself on a few items. Eventually, you start to go with what feels right. When drawing it freehand, you might still mess up and go back and correct yourself.
Stage VII. Competent Mastery. You don’t even have to think what’s correct or not - it’s almost automatic now. You can probably draw the thing freehand now and get a surprisingly accurate result. You don’t just know the US or the periodic table - you KNOW it. You could have perfect recall in your sleep.
This is just my theory. Does anyone else progress through similar stages when memorizing something?