How to better prepare yourself for acquiring — and retaining — new knowledge
Success is largely based on what you know — everything you know informs the choices you make. And those choices are either getting you closer to what you want or increasing the distance between you and your ultimate goal in life.
Many people want to learn better, faster, retain more information, and apply that knowledge at the right time.
But the reality is that we forget a lot of what we learn. Human forgetting follows a pattern. In fact, research shows that within just one hour, if nothing is done with new information, most people will have forgotten about 50% of what they learned. After 24 hours, this will be 70%, and if a week passes without that information being used, up to 90% of it could be lost.
To improve your acquisition of knowledge — and retention, new knowledge must be consolidated and securely stored in long-term memory. You have to actively do something with new information to make it worth your while.
According to Elizabeth Bjork, who worked on a theory of forgetting along with Piotr Wozniak, long-term memory can be characterized by two components — retrieval strength and storage strength. Retrieval strength measures how likely you are to recall something right now, how close it is to the surface of your mind. Storage strength measures how deeply the memory is rooted.
If we want our learning to stick, we have to be doing more than just aim to read a book every week, or passively listen to an audiobook or podcast.
Research indicates that when memory is first recorded in the brain (specifically in the hippocampus) it’s still “fragile” and easily forgotten.
How you process information determines how much you’ll remember later
Our brains are constantly recording information on a temporary basis — scraps of conversations you hear on your way to work, things you see, and what the person in front of you was wearing, etc. It’s the only way to separate the relevant knowledge from the clutter.
The brain dumps everything that doesn’t come up again in the recent future as soon as possible to make way for new information — if you want to use it again, you have to deliberately work on storing it in your long-term memory.
This process is called encoding — imprinting information into the brain. Without proper encoding, there is nothing to store and attempting to retrieve the memory later will fail. Reprocessing things you read and learn daily send a big signal to your brain to hold onto that knowledge.
In the late 19th century, Herman Ebbinghaus (a psychologist) was the first to systematically tackle the analysis of memory.
His Forgetting Curve which hypothesises the decline of memory retention in time was influential to the field of memory science back then when he was studying how the brain stores information.
He once said, “With any considerable number of repetitions, a suitable distribution of them over a space of time is decidedly more advantageous than the massing of them at a single time.”
In a University of Waterloo report, the author of the Curve of Forgetting explains, “When the same thing is repeated, your brain says, “Oh — there it is again, I better keep that.” When you are exposed to the same information repeatedly, it takes less and less time to “activate” the information in your long term memory and it becomes easier for you to retrieve the information when you need it.”
Most life-long learning will inevitably involve some reading and listening, but by using a variety of techniques to commit new knowledge to memory, you will cement new information quicker and better.
Leverage spaced repetition — repeating what you are trying to retain over a period of time. Example, when you read a book and really enjoy it, instead of putting it away, re-read it again after a month, then again after three months, then again after six months, and then again after a year.
Spaced repetition leverages spacing effect, a memory phenomenon that shows how our brains learn.
Use the 50/50 rule. Research shows that explaining a concept to someone else is the best way to learn it yourself. The 50/50 rule is a better way to learn, process, retain and remember information is to learn half the time and share half the time.
Learn for 50% of the time and explain what you learn for 50% of the time. Example, instead of completing a book, aim to read 50 percent and try recalling, sharing, or writing down the key ideas you have learned before proceeding. Or better still share that new knowledge with your audience.
You could even apply it to the chapters instead of the whole book. The 50/50 learning method works really well if you aim to retain most of what are learning. The ultimate test of your knowledge is your capacity to transfer it to another person.
“The best way to learn something truly is to teach it — not just because explaining it helps you understand it, but also because retrieving it helps you remember it,” says Adam Grant.
Make the most of topic demonstrations to understand the topic inside out. Unlike simply reading or listening to an explanation, demonstrations show you how something works and help you visualise the concept. In some applicable situations like learning photography, design, public speaking, negotiation, a useful new technology, etc., using instructional videos that demonstrate what you’re trying to learn can improve your retention rate.
Finally, use sleep as a powerful aid in-between learning sessions. Not only is sleep after learning a critical part of the memory creation process but sleep before learning is important as well.
Short naps can help recover energy. There are now dozens of evidence that supports naps. Longer naps (60+ minutes) — where memory consolidation happens, is even better.
The more the mind is used, the more robust memory can become. Taking control of information storage will not only help you add on new bits of information but will reinforce and refine the knowledge you already have.
Here’s a quote by Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia to ponder as you train your brain to learn and remember better — “If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.”