Have you learned something so well, but totally forgetting it after a year?
That seemingly vivid concept that made you say “aha!”.
You can’t remember? That’s fine. Forgetting isn’t bad.
It also turns out that understanding something so well doesn’t mean retaining it for a long time.
In fact, science has shown that retaining information was something more than JUST repeating information over and over again in one session.
After spending some time reading some books about active revision strategies and how the brain stores information into long term memory, and then testing them…I learned the EASIEST way to retain information.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- the common myths to avoid to MAXIMIZE your retention
- the SECRET to retaining information FAST (only takes MINUTES)
- How you can retain the information you need FOREVER, in your long-term memory
- BONUS: How to review problem-solving more EFFICIENTLY
Read until the end to get that memory ADVANTAGE you’re looking for.
Common Myths in Retaining Information
Myths are just everywhere, but there has to be someone, to tell the truth.
Be warned: Most students still use these strategies because they believe it was these that make them “score high” on exams.
But wait, that does NOT mean long-term retention. I know a lot of students who score very well in quizzes, or exams, but do poorly on cumulative exams because they do these subtle mistakes.
If you avoid these mistakes NOW, I’m telling you–you’ll save a TON of time, effort, and stress.
When I just got started in studying seriously back in Engineering, I always believed that re-reading material you’ve just read was the best way to go in retaining information.
“Repeat to remember” right?
Guess what? It doesn’t work for rereading.
I know, I know. “But it worked for me”.
Well, research says that while rereading might work in the short term, it doesn’t even compare to Active Recall when it comes to long-term retention.
As Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize-winning Psychologist said:
To clarify, Daniel Kahneman refers to frequent exposure–which Rereading accomplishes exactly.
Yet, most students still do this despite these two reasons: (from Make it Stick: Science of Successful Learning)
- Re-reading gives a false impression that you will actually retain the material
- Fluency provides a misleading indicator of what you have learned
In short, it only makes you FEEL like you’re going to retain the material, but it’s FAR from helping you do that.
However, Re-reading still has its merits—it is ONLY when the material is totally forgotten and recall is impossible.
Takeaway: Repeated Exposure only leads to Familiarity.
Familiarity is NOT equal to Mastery.
“Repeat, Repeat, Repeat to Remember” for long hours
What’s better, repeating a piece of information 10 times in 1 day, or 2 times per day spread out in 5 days? The latter is the obvious answer.
I always thought “Repetition is Key”, so I tried repeating information again and again:
“FM Broadcast spectrum 88 to 108 MHz, 88 to 108, 88 to 108, 88 to 108…”
It really feels productive, and personally, I felt that I was getting a lot of things done—I felt like I was really making progress.
But that was actually no different than cramming.
Psychologists compared the short- and long-term results of “massed practice” (reviewing a subject for a long stretch of time) over the “spaced practice” (spreading out the study time into smaller blocks).
Once I learned this, I realized that it is a common but mistaken belief that you can burn something into memory through sheer repetition.
Takeaway: Avoid massed practice sessions; Instead, space out your practice into smaller blocks throughout the week.
“Answer one type of problem over and over until before moving on”
Doing something until you can never get it wrong is called “overlearning”.
This method is best used when learning a solution for the first time.
Beyond that, you’re training for automaticity–which can be good but isn’t the best goal to aim for. It’s better to let automaticity be a by-product rather than a goal.
Lastly, overlearning is likely to cause interference to subsequent learning. (see below)
Related Post: Overlearning from The Meta Learners
When it comes to REVIEWING material, its usefulness drops wayyyyyyy down.
A better solution, according to the book, Make it Stick: Science of Successful Learning and A Mind for Numbers is to Interleave Problems of Different Types.
Related Article: The Interleaving Effect – Mixing It Up Boosts Learning
I noticed this in great detail when I was teaching my younger sister about fractions.
I noticed that she was getting better at adding these mixed fractions.
Then, I introduced her to converting improper fractions to mixed fractions and vice versa.
She got really good in all of those—but here’s the twist:
When I started introducing problems that required ALL of her “learned” solutions at once, she started getting confused.
She knows how to use one type of problem but without specific directions, she didn’t know WHEN and WHEN NOT to use a specific solution–and it’s the exact reason why I continued to mix up her problem sets.
Takeaway: When reviewing information, Interleaving is a better strategy than Overlearning.
Active Recall: The BEST Revision Technique
Want to lessen your study time? Active Recall.
Want to avoid forgetting things during the exam? Active Recall.
Active Recall is THE study hack. It is the subtle secret that almost everyone overlooks when it comes to studying.
Active Recall is why you remember what you teach—you are actively recalling information and instantly arranges them in a sequence that someone could understand.
It is also the reason why the Feynman Technique is amazingly effective.
The process of retrieving information when given a question is a form of Active Recall.
Let’s just clarify one thing: Multiple Choice isn’t Active Recall. It’s RECOGNITION.
When you reread information, there’s no “recall” involved—only familiarization.
When you just highlight information, there’s no “recall” involved. It’s passive.
In psychology, Active Recall is called “Retrieval Practice”—a time-tested method to strengthen a connection in your memory.
Just like strengthening a muscle, the more effort it takes to retrieve a memory, the “stickier” it gets.
Need I say more?
One innovative method I found really helpful is to use Google Sheets. Basically, you put questions on the left side (1) and answers on the right side (2).
One thing to notice is that the answers’ font is colored White.
Because it is White, you won’t be able to see it unless you actually go over to that specific cell—and you’ll only be able to see it on the formula bar (3).
I use the same method as shown by Dr. Ali Abdaal (he’s a doctor in Cambridge) in the video below:
I also use Cornell Notes, especially when I’m trying to remember information that I’m potentially putting on this blog. Here’s an example:
If you want to know more about this method, you can check out my Ultimate Note-Taking Guide.
Sure, it takes more commitment to stick to these methods, but reviewing a whole chapter in 5 minutes quicker than most methods, don’t you think? 😊
How to Encode Information to Long-Term Memory
Forgetting is natural—but it is preventable.
The rule of forgetting is this: USE IT OR LOSE IT.
But, it doesn’t mean that you have to use a piece of information over and over again (just as discussed in Revision Myths)—doing so would be incredibly time-inefficient.
That’s why, along with Active Recall, you’re going to use Spaced Repetition—a method of reviewing information in increasing intervals.
Spaced Repetition is based on what we call the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, where it was demonstrated that forgetting occurs in an exponentially decaying manner. Kinda scary if you ask me.
For maximum efficiency, we must deliberately ALLOW some forgetting to occur before we recall and test ourselves of the piece of information.
By doing so, we start another forgetting curve—but it wouldn’t be the same as the last one.
The new forgetting curve is a LESS STEEPER one—meaning, you will retain the information for a LONGER TIME before you forget the same amount.
This is where the MAGIC of spaced repetition comes in.
For each and every scheduled recall, the forgetting curve gets steeper and steeper up to the point that you’ll NEVER forget the material AKA the material is now in your long-term memory.
Of course, we wouldn’t be able to know if we’re really about to forget something.
That’s why 8-time Memory Champion Dominic O’Brien devised the “Rule of 5″–five spaced repetitions to encode something to long-term memory.
- First review: Immediately
- Second review: 24 hours later
- Third review: One week later
- Fourth review: One month later
- Fifth review: Three months later
Personally, we don’t have that kind of time to get 5 spaced repetitions. Here’s how I would approach it, 5 adequately spaced repetitions:
- First review: Immediately
- Second review: 24 hours later
- Third review: 3 days later
- Fourth review: 1 week later
- Fifth review and above: Just double the last interval
By combining Active Recall and Spaced Repetition, what we have now is an extremely powerful revision system that allows you to study LOADS of information for a very short amount of revision time.
To implement BOTH Active Recall and Spaced Repetition, I use Anki. It is a free app for PC/Android/Mac and is widely used by SUCCESSFUL Medical Students all over the world!
UPDATE: I now have massive guides to effectively use Anki. Check them out here.
By the way, here’s how much time I study using Anki, together with the number of cards reviewed per day.
It definitely has some learning curve, but would it make reviewing easier? Definitely.
The best part is—you can review basically anywhere. You’ll know why in the next post.
Interleaving: How to Practice Problems from 5+ Books FAST
Practicing one type of problem repeatedly before moving on feels productive.
And it feels like you’re getting better mastery in each repetition.
However, according to the book Make it Stick: Science of Successful Learning, it DOES NOT allow you to train your brain’s ability to discriminate between different types of solutions.
Interleaving, or “mixing it up”, makes you better not just at knowing when to use a solution, but also when NOT to use a solution.
For subjects that involve problem-solving, you’re already gonna be using active recall strategies because you form the solution from scratch.
For those subjects, you have to practice using problem sets instead—which most of you may already be doing.
Here’s one problem about common problem sets, though: They make you answer using one type of solution before moving on.
They don’t train you to discriminate between problems.
That’s why it’s better to make your own problem sets.
I do just that in Microsoft Word (you can definitely use other editors)—open up a ton of references, get questions from them, then print the problem set.
For my snipping tool, I use Greenshot—it’s a free tool that I use to create a custom shortcut for a “snip” capture.
It automatically puts your captured image into the clipboard, and all you have to do is Paste it onto Word.
If it’s not possible to create your own problem sets, you should try to find “Solved Problems” type of books; I’ve used them with great success and I really advocate them if you’re pressed on time. (Schaum’s Outlines are the best)
Are you getting more interested in studying? I hope so.
Reviewing feels like a chore to someone who’s really confused how to do it effectively. Once you apply these tips and see the results yourself, I think you’ll like studying a lot more 🙂
Remembering what you learn or read and retaining information is simply a matter of constantly testing yourself on increasingly spaced intervals. Mixing it up is another good idea.
What’s your experience in using Revision Strategies? I’d LOVE to know.
Just leave a comment down below!
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