How would you feel if the government took away over ninety-five percent of your income? Not great, I suppose.
Yet, in a way, that’s what nature does with everything we learn.
Whether it’s for our schools, jobs, or any other reason, we spend a lot of time trying to increase our knowledge and skills. We take courses, read books and articles, watch videos, listen to podcasts, and what not? All in the hope that it will help us lead better lives and achieve greater success.
But the unfortunate reality is that unless we do something about it, we forget more than half of what we learn within a day and almost all of it in about a week. That’s the kind of knowledge tax we pay.
So it’s not enough to learn. If you want your efforts to produce lasting benefits, you must focus on making your leanings stick. Because in the end, what you remember is what you know.
Mark Twain is often quoted as saying —
“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”
You can say something similar about people who cannot remember what they read.
The good thing is — using a handful of simple research-based techniques, you can make big improvements in your memory and retention. They will help you remember more and for much longer.
And that’s one key difference between powerful and effective lifelong learners and the rest.
A 10-minute break
Given how our society is obsessed with productivity, you might feel guilty about having frequent breaks in which you do nothing.
But scientists say resting for 10–15 minutes can help you retain more of what you learn. In their experiment, it produced a difference of up to 30 percent in how much students could recall just one hour after learning.
So if you are reading or watching something with the intent to learn, take short breaks every 3o minutes or so. Or before moving to anything different and unrelated.
This assumes special importance when you are learning online. There’s always something else to click on even before you have finished an article or video.
The thing to be careful about, though, is that you don’t make yourself busy with Facebook or some chore during that break. The idea is to give your brain the quiet time it needs to consolidate what you learned.
Okay, let’s talk about revision. Wait, do we even revise anything until (and if) it becomes necessary?
I’ll be honest. I started taking revisions seriously only this year. Which explains why I could hardly remember anything from the dozens of books I read or the countless videos I watched in the past few years.
But revision is not enough. How you revise is just as important as whether you do it or not. For most of us, revision means a quick round of passive re-consumption of the learning material. We breeze through the content. No wonder it all evaporates way like water on a hot pan.
A much better alternative is — active recall or retrieval practice.
When you try to remember something, it signals to your brain that that piece of information is important to you. And so it is to be retained and in a manner that facilitates quick and easy access.
So shortly after you learn (or revise) something, close your books (notes or whatever it is) and quiz yourself. Try to recall as much of it as you can. If you can’t remember something, go back and find it. You will be less likely to forget it again.
Also, while you are learning, one tip you can use — note down some questions that can act as cues for your planned recall. That way, you would know that you have covered everything.
Sharing what you learn with others is a great way to boost your own grasp over it. On the one hand, it forces you to fill any gaps in your understanding so you can present a coherent explanation to the other person. And one the other, it involves active recall (assuming you are not using any notes).
Plus, you benefit from the "generation effect", which says that when you generate information from your own mind, it improves later memory performance.
The best part is you don’t even need someone to explain to. You can write an essay, pretend to explain (maybe in front of a mirror) or do anything that makes you retrieve the information in an organized manner and formulate it in your own words to gain much of the benefits.
Spaced repetition refers to the practice of repeating whatever you are trying to commit to your long-term memory at varying intervals of time. If you can recall it well enough, you increase the intervals between repetitions. Otherwise, you make them more frequent.
Research has found that spaced repetition improves retention and positively affects generalization and transfer of learning.
But it can seem difficult to implement. So let me share with you a simple method.
Let’s say you want to retain more of the books you read. Keep a spreadsheet (or whatever works for you) with the list of books you have read and would like to revise. Alongside the name of every book, put a date when you would like to come back and revisit the book.
When you return to it, depending on how satisfied you are with your retention, enter the next repetition date. The scheduled gaps I prefer are— one week, one month, six months, and then it would be more of a judgment call (I have been using it only for the past 4–5 months, so maybe I will have something more to add with time).
You can also do this with articles and videos. Just make sure you are selective with what you put on your list, or it can become too overwhelming in no time.
Sleep is essential to learning and memory. How? One, good sleep enhances your focus and attention, thereby leading to efficient learning. And two, it plays a crucial role in the consolidation or stabilization of memory.
So make sure you get 7–8 hours of quality sleep every night.
But it’s not just about sleeping well at night. Research says about 60 minutes of a daytime nap after a learning session results in significantly better retention, even when compared to cramming.
So you have one more reason to take a nap. Basically, nature is saying — do what you love and be rewarded for it.
In a Nutshell
To become a powerful and effective learner, you must retain your knowledge so it can be accessed seamlessly when you need it.
Make these a part of your learning strategy, and see the magic happen.
- Take 10–15 minutes of rest after every session of 30–60 minutes.
- Quiz yourself and try to recall everything shortly after each session.
- Explain the concepts to someone else (or pretend to be doing so).
- Revise the content in a spaced manner.
- Sleep well for 7–8 hours every night. Also, take a short nap during the days of intense learning.