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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