Stop forgetting. Start remembering

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Here are ways of turbo-boosting your learning efforts

Avoid cognitive overload

Human memory can accomodate no more than eight new facts (and usually much less) in any one learning session. Once you have reached that, your ability to absorb more information is limited (can you recall anything from last week’s lecture?) Essential components must be embedded before you can learn anything further. Always begin with a basic understanding and ensure you have consolidated that before moving onto the minutiae. Remembering advanced concepts are often entirely dependent on your absolute familiarity with the underlying concepts and principles. Unless you build a solid foundation you will quickly reach the limits of effectively assimilating new information. It might feel like you are learning but it isn’t sticking. It’s called the illusion of learning.

Reinforce your understanding – Have a question

Once you have identified the handful of important facts that you have just learnt, you should avoid trying to acquire any new information. Take a pause in your reading. Instead, start thinking about the implications of what you have just discovered. Why is it true? When is it true? How can it be applied in other situations? Is it related to anything else you already know? Could it be related to something you will need to know later? This helps you create a web of understanding and connections around the idea. Only after creating a line of inquiry should you then continue reading – and often in a more strategic way. As your understanding widens, constantly take pauses and reflect to ask more questions. This builds meaning. When something means something it is less likely to be forgotten.

Capitalise on teaching sessions

Split your reading equally before an anticipated teaching session and then soon after. Reading ahead helps you create a structure or template on which you can absorb the lesson. This means the first time you hear something it appears familiar and fits into what you already may have understood. It may reinforce what you know, fill in a detail, give a better explanation, establish an unanticipated connection or even contradict a misunderstanding. All of these effects have a way of strengthening your memory. After the lesson compare this again with what you have read to consolidate. Effectively you are revising the information twice in short succession; each time with a slightly different perspective.

Test yourself frequently

Don’t just begin revision at the end of the term or just before exams. If too much time has elapsed between learning something and having to recall it then it is likely to be forgotten and you will need much more effort to remember it again. Similarly, the number of times you revisit an idea, the more likely it will be remembered and stay in long-term memory. But simply re-reading your textbook or notes to do this is not very effective because it is usually a passive activity that doesn’t involve thinking. Instead, try to first work out how much you do know or remember. Practice old exams question, create your own questions, write down a summary, try explaining it to someone else, put the knowledge into practice – without cheating!. You will often surprise yourself that you know more than you realise. All of these activities help you identify where exactly the gaps and misunderstanding. You can target them once you hit the books again to verify whether you were correct or not. It’s more useful and efficient to study what you don’t know than re-read something that you already do!

Finally, believe in yourself

It is tempting to feel that everyone in your class is smarter than you and that you need to copy them. You might think that the way a lecturer or textbook presents information is the only way of looking at a topic and it must be slavishly followed. You might not trust your memory and constantly flick back to your notes before you have even given yourself a chance to find out how much you really do know.

Everyone’s learning journey is slightly different because we start off with different levels of pre-existing knowledge. How we build our understanding varies but the end result might not look so different. By all means obtain useful tips from peers and teachers on how to approach a subject if you are getting stale but don’t feel you have to always mimic them. The most important question is whether you are feeling you are making progress. Alternatively, consider trying something different to get out of the rut.


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