How to Remember What You Learn

by Stephen Mills on November 17, 2009

Brain Memory

A significant amount of memory loss occurs within the first few of hours after being exposed to new information.  If you want to recall what you learn there are some things you can do to help.

Learn something related to what you already know

Learning something with purpose or that has meaning to you and can be integrated with something you already know, is much more easily recalled than learning random or unconnected facts.  This is why we forget most of the useless facts learned in school.

Before and after sleeping

The twenty minutes immediately before you go to sleep and the twenty minutes immediately after you wake up are especially good times to learn something new.

Learn in chunks of about twenty minutes

Your Hippocampus needs time to consolidate what it has learned.  If you cram in too much information, the ability to consolidate it into long-term memory decreases.  After about twenty minutes and no longer than forty minutes, take a five minute break and do something completely different.  For example get up and walk around and let your brain consolidate what you have learned.

Learn elaborately encoded information

Simply stated this means the more parts of your brain involved in in learning something, the more easily it is recalled.  Think about an experience that involves sights, sounds, and touch.  Such an experience might produce a vivid memory whereas memorizing a list of words will not.  The multi-sense experience is much more elaborately encoded by your brain.  We are visual creatures and so visualizing anything you want to learn will help.

Repetition is key to long-term memory

Re-expose yourself to the information in deliberately spaced intervals.  There is no conclusive evidence on the best time intervals but there are clues.  After the first day, the review sessions can be significantly compressed.   Here is a possible plan that I have cobbled together from various sources:

First exposure
10 minutes – quick review
90 minutes – 2nd exposure
90 minutes – 3rd exposure
1 day – review
3 days – review
6 weeks – review
6 months – review
1 year – review

While there is no formula that is conclusive, repetition before the material has time to decay is critical.  There is even an interesting software program based upon this called SuperMemo.  I’ve never used it.

Some other helpful tips

  • Consider putting what you have learned into a mind map.  I tried this with a novel once and I still remember a lot of that story.
  • Discuss what you have learned with someone else.  Explaining something to another person is a fantastic memory enhancer.
  • Be selective.  Selecting important information to learn and reviewing it periodically is better than spending the same amount of time drinking from a fire hose.  Less is more.
  • If possible, expose yourself to the material in multiple ways. Read it, listen to it, and watch a video about it.  A paper book and an audio book are great compliments to one another.  Read it silently and then read it aloud.  Write summaries, draw pictures, visualize pictures, or draw a mind map.
  • Learned information is recalled better in the same environment in which it was originally learned.  If you learn something in your recliner, you will recall it better in the same recliner than on the beach.  Something learned while you are sad is more easily recalled when you are sad.
  • Preview the material.  Read the summary of a book or document, glance through the chapter headings, read the first and last paragraphs of each section, read the first sentence of paragraphs, skim, etc.  Try to get the main ideas before beginning.
  • Review the same way you previewed.
  • Fast rereads are great for reviews.  Since you are already familiar with the material you can read it with comprehension much faster on subsequent exposures.
  • Highlight important points as you encounter them and then use those for review.
  • Paraphrase in your mind as you learn.
  • Visualize in your mind as you learn.
  • Relate what you learn to your own real-life experiences.
  • Concentrate intensely during learning sessions.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.


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{ 60 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven November 18, 2009 at 12:38 am

Hey Stephen, this is incredibly useful!

Wow that was funny, because while writing this comment, I had to scroll up and remember what you just wrote…ooohhh the irony!

I especially stressed the methods of repetition (clearly) and studying before going to bed when I was in school. I remember I would record myself reading my text book and listen to it before bed time and soon after wards I wake up. It worked, but it made me feel like a nerdy loser.

Now I mostly just remember with visualization, and I found it to work much better.

Thanks for the informative post.

.-= Steven´s last blog ..Want Motivation? – Then Scare Yourself S***less =-.


Stephen Mills November 18, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Hi Steven, that’s great. And when you get old like me you don’t care if anyone thinks you are a nerdy loser or anything else :-)


Steven Aitchison November 18, 2009 at 2:52 am

Stephen this is great stuff, especially with exam time in schools here in the UK. I loved the repetition plan, this is the method I used at uni but didn’t really do the reviews after 6 weeks. Now I’ll need to show my sons this to help with their exams – Great stuff.
.-= Steven Aitchison´s last blog ..The #1 Reason You Haven’t Had More Success In Life =-.


Stephen Mills November 18, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Hello Steven. Thanks. I never did anything organized like this when I was in school. Back in the dark ages, nobody knew what you were supposed to do. Thanks for commenting :-)


Positively Present November 18, 2009 at 7:04 am

This is an excellent post. I love learning but there’s so much information out there that sometimes it’s hard to remember it all. I love your advice and tips! Thanks!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..are the people in your life positive? =-.


Stephen Mills November 18, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Hello Dani and thanks for commenting. I know it is so hard to soak in the information so I’m trying to be more selective.


Vin - NaturalBias November 18, 2009 at 8:16 am

Great tips, Stephen! I didn’t know relating something to multiple senses can help you remember it. Very interesting!

I’m not sure why, but I seem to have a much easier time remembering concepts and how things work than simple facts. Perhaps this is why I’m good with math and science and awful with history. :)

My short term memory improved tremendously after cleaning up my diet. Although it’s harder to tell, I wouldn’t be surprised if a healthy diet improved long term memory as well. I know there was a school lunch program in Wisconsin that introduced more whole foods and resulted in improved grades. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s plenty more examples like this.
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..What You Should Know About Essential Fatty Acids =-.


Stephen Mills November 18, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Hi Vin, and yes there are many other things that help memory that I left out around diet, exercise, and sleep. Amazingly the same things that help your body :-)


Ideas With A Kick November 18, 2009 at 10:45 am

Hey Stephen,

Very useful ideas. I didn’t know that learning before and after sleeping is a good idea. I used to think to myself: ‘It’s to early, I’ll learn leter” or “It’s late, I’m tired, I’ll learn tomorrow”. What can I say: you learn something new every day. So now I should go to bed right? :)

.-= Ideas With A Kick´s last blog ..Q: How do I look? A: Like everybody else =-.


Stephen Mills November 18, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Hello Eduard, yes those are really prime times. Who knows why. Thanks for commenting today! :-)


Sue Maden November 18, 2009 at 11:42 am

Thanks for an excellent article. This should be required reading for instructional designers and presenters! I’ll be posting a link for our internal instructors.


Stephen Mills November 18, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Hi Sue! Thanks for the link and thanks for stopping in to comment. I would love to see you back :-)


Tristan Lee November 19, 2009 at 8:16 am

Thanks for this Stephen. You’ve provided us with some great tips on how to remember quickly and make it stick. I do think your tip learning in chunks in twenty minutes is a good one, just make sure that the person actually gives in one hundred perfect focus. Finally, repetition is the key to long-term memory and I think anybody who wants to remember things one year, two year, or five years from now, they need to really be able to grasp that concept.
.-= Tristan Lee´s last blog ..Discomfort: Dealing with Internal Conflict =-.


Stephen Mills November 20, 2009 at 8:49 am

Hi Tristan, thanks for commenting. That twenty minute thing was a surprise to me the first time I encountered it.


Mark November 19, 2009 at 11:10 am

Possibly the most concise, useful and practical article on this subject I’ve ever read. Thank you.


Stephen Mills November 20, 2009 at 8:50 am

Hi Mark, and thank you! That was a wonderful comment.


Zeenat{Positive Provocations} November 19, 2009 at 11:19 pm

Hey Stephen,
An excellent topic full of great insight as always!
I love the tips to enhance our so needed in this time and day for anybody.
You know i use the ‘as soon as you get up learning method’ with my little 2.8 yr old girl…i sing her rhymes to her…and make her do her counting and ABCs…and color …ohh so much in the first 15 minutes she wakes up..and the best part is her attention at that time of the day is the best. I know she is grasping..cause then all day she keeps singing aloud and counting aloud and I can see she is just learning aloud and remembering.
Ahh the amazing brain :)
.-= Zeenat{Positive Provocations}´s last blog ..Multiple Personality By Choice! =-.


Stephen Mills November 20, 2009 at 8:54 am

Hello Zeenat. I love that story about your little girl :-)


timethief November 20, 2009 at 12:19 am

I love this article. I’m printing it out and pasting it up next to my computer and then acting on all the useful information it contains. Thanks for creating and publishing this gem.


Stephen Mills November 20, 2009 at 8:56 am

Hey timethief, thank you so much!


Lana-DreamFollowers Blog November 20, 2009 at 1:56 am

Great and very useful article Stephen. I like the mind map idea, definitely will try it.
.-= Lana-DreamFollowers Blog´s last blog ..Finding Your Life Purpose: The Most Powerful Way to Discover What You Truly Want In Life =-.


Stephen Mills November 20, 2009 at 8:58 am

Hi Lana, thank you so much for stopping in and commenting. I’ve found mind maps very useful for both remembering and creative thinking.


BunnygotBlog November 20, 2009 at 6:05 am

great information you are sharing here.
I enjoy learning and read all the time.
Thank you for sharing this!
.-= BunnygotBlog´s last blog ..Child Of The Cold War =-.


Stephen Mills November 20, 2009 at 8:51 am

Hi Bunny. Thanks for stopping by to leave your thoughts :-)


Karlil November 20, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Awesome Stephen. I really need this article. I seem to have short term memory loss. At my age, I’m losing hope in myself. I can’t the light at the end of the tunnel. Well, that’s not the case now.
.-= Karlil´s last blog ..Houdini, Blank State and Calmness =-.


John November 20, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Hey Steven, long time no speak :)

I’ve been pretty busy with college and all, but this weekend, I’m playing catch up! I really like the tips you’ve given here – very resourceful. I’ve actually tried out SuperMemo, but I simply didn’t feel like putting in the time to make flash cards. My favorite way to induce long-term memorization is just good old-fashioned repetition.
.-= John´s last blog ..It’s Almost Thanksgiving: What Are You Thankful For? =-.


Nea | Self Improvement Saga November 21, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Hey Stephen. These are really great tips and I’ve never heard of many of them. Thanks a ton for the great post.
.-= Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog ..Greatest Inspirational Quotes from People of Greatness =-.


Dragos Roua November 23, 2009 at 4:20 am

Great one, Stephen!

I am in the middle of a personal challenge about learning Japanese and this is really helpful. Especially the mindmaping suggestion, although I am a big mindmpaaing fan, never thought about using it the way you pointed.
.-= Dragos Roua´s last blog ..How To Be Productive without Becoming a Productivity Freak =-.


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