5 Reasons Why You Have Trouble Retaining Information (Tips Included)

If you have trouble retaining what you’ve learned, whether it be from a video, textbook, presentation, lecture, etc., then you might be making what I call, Intuitive Mistakes.

Intuitive Mistakes refer to methods that are still commonly utilized by students because they’re just “common sense” for studying, but are surprisingly sabotaging their learning potential.

If you have trouble retaining information, here are the 5 things that I’ve put together including actual study strategies to overcome each one.

Let’s get started.

Memorizing is NOT Understanding (and vice versa)

As most of you realize, just merely memorizing something doesn’t mean you understand it.

But, as you may have noticed, I put a vice versa there for a reason.

Many people don’t realize that simply understanding something doesn’t mean you’re going to immediately retain it long-term

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still highly important for you to understand what you’re trying to learn.

It’s just that you still have to actively recall that information repeatedly over time in order to encode it into your long-term memory. (See: Spaced Repetition)

Related: Revision Strategies: Scientifically Proven Methods + Myths to Avoid

But of course, something you understand is more easily remembered than something you just memorized.

Understood information have longer “lifespans” than those that were only memorized.

Why? Because of the Principle of Association.

Associating new information to something you already know makes it easier to understand and thus, remember them.

It’s the precise reason why analogies and the Feynman Technique work so well when trying to understand something.

In her book, Learning How to Learn, Dr. Barbara Oakley states that if you relate new information to something you already know, it’s like cementing them with your old ideas and further clarifies your understanding.

Undeniably, understanding must still be the basic foundation of your study skills, because whatever you understand, you can easily memorize and encode into long-term memory as long as you periodically review them.

Rereading as a Revision Strategy

If you’re using Rereading as a revision strategy, then you might want to rethink using that strategy again.

According to the book, Make it Stick: Science of Successful Learning, rereading as a revision strategy has two downsides to it:

  • It gives a false impression that the student will remember the material
  • The number of times you’ve been exposed to the material isn’t an accurate measure of actual learning

Furthermore, in the book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science, Dr. Barbara Oakley states that students fall into what she calls the Illusion of Knowing, where they feel like they’re going to remember the material based on the number of times they’re exposed to it.

If for some reason, you’re not convinced yet, here’s a video by Dr. Ali Abdaal regarding the topic:

I’ve done this in the past, and I certainly felt like I was in total control of my learning.

In my experience, rereading does feel productive, and I think that’s why learners still do it.

Rereading is intuitive, feels productive, and a lot of students do it as their primary way of studying. (according to Dr. Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence, seeing other people do the same thing motivates us through the principle of Social Proof)

Sadly, merely feeling productive doesn’t mean you’re actually being productive.

So what do you do to revise information more effectively? Combat the illusion of knowing? Measure your progress?

Good news, you’re going to use only one method to combat all of these problems: Active Recall.

Active Recall, called Retrieval Practice in the cognitive science world, is just a fancy term for self-testing.

Here’s how to practice Active Recall:

  • Explain it to yourself, or better yet–to others
  • Use the Feynman Technique: simplify what you’ve learned and use analogies like you’re explaining it to a kid
  • Create your own questions, preferably those that let you explain “How” things work
  • Use Flashcards (I prefer using Anki; in fact, I created giant guides for Anki)

One thing to remember is: ALWAYS do active recall.

When Studying “Hard” IS the problem

One problem with studying, or even work in general, is that we’re rewarded for spending more time doing them.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you studied for 3 hours or 1 hour if you got the same result.

Instead of spending MORE time, we want to spend time BETTER.

In the book, Make it Stick, it was stated that distributed practice trumps massed practice.

  • Studying Physiology for 30 mins. for 3 days yields better results than if you studied for 1.5 hours in just a single day.
  • Another possibility would be studying the same subject for 1.5 hours straight rather than three 30-minute sessions spread throughout the day.

This principle is exactly the reason why cramming doesn’t work for retaining information.

Cramming is like trading long-term retention for short-term retention.

It’s like putting wet cement over and over again before the first one even dries.

There are two things you can do to implement Distributed Practice and study more intelligently:

  • Use the Pomodoro Technique – by the Principle of Deep Work, increasing your focus on a single task lets you use the full cognitive capacity of your brain so you finish faster.
  • Schedule multiple subjects in one day, but distribute the load throughout the week. By doing this, not only you’re distributing your practice, but also Interleaving it. Here’s what it looks like:
Trouble Retaining Information Massed vs Distributed Practice
  • Study a subject for 1 Pomodoro Session in the Morning then 1 in the Afternoon
  • Do Active Recall with the same distributed schedule pattern

Distributing your practice allows the information to “sink in” because of what we call the Zeigarnik Effect.

Simply taking breaks while having an unfinished task allows your brain to “work that task in the background”.

By the time you’re reading this, I hope you’re now disgusted by the idea of cramming.

Cramming is a waste of time, incredibly ineffective, and stressful. Who wants that, anyway?

“Repeat, Repeat, Repeat” is NOT enough

Repetition is key.

Intuitively, we know that doing something over and over again lets us “get the hang of it”, or repeating something over and over again is the way to “make it stick”.

It works for the short term, but the rewards quickly fade; that’s the problem.

Sadly, if retention is the goal, the strategy is ineffective for 2 reasons:

  • You’re only recalling from short term memory
  • There’s no real effort required for the brain to recall something you’ve just said

Reiteration is not recall.

There is a better use of your time, and it’s called Spaced Repetition.

Imagine reviewing information only when it needs attention–the moment you’re about to forget it.

How would it feel doing a very little amount of recall but remembering information better?

You don’t have to do mindless repetition anymore. Spaced Repetition is the answer.

Just to be clear, I’m not making this up–everything is backed by evidence. (study,studystudystudystudy)

To implement Spaced Repetition, simply follow the Rule of 5, devised by 8-time Memory Champion Dominic O’Brien:

  • First review: Immediately
  • Second review: 24 hours later
  • Third review: One week later
  • Fourth review: One month later
  • Fifth review: Three months later

However, it’s worth noting that O’Brien predominantly uses the Memory Palace technique (it’s highly robust) so he could afford to review information with longer intervals before forgetting.

Because I mostly use self-created questions, I prefer to review more often. My Rule of 5 looks like this:

  • 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

Note: The interval takes effect after the last review, not after the first review.

That’s right. It only takes 5 spaced repetitions to actually remember something well for around a month.

It also makes total sense that 20 repetitions done only in a single all-nighter would never be memorable at all.

Facts/Lists are Harder to Remember: Not Your Fault!

Maybe it’s not your fault that you can’t retain random information that you’ve been given.

It may be the case that the information is something you have no background with, or relevant to what we discussed earlier–you can’t seem to associate them.

That’s making it even harder to remember.

Luckily, there is literature out there about techniques that we can use to remember this random information instantly.

I dedicated such information to another article that describes exactly what techniques to use and how you can also implement them.

Here’s the link down below.

Read: Memory Techniques for Exams – The SECRETS of Memory Athletes

Bottom Line: 5 Reasons Why You Have Trouble Retaining Information

Know someone who has trouble retaining information? Share this to them by clicking one of the share buttons below!

Now, what was the reason you had trouble retaining what you’ve learned?

Which tip will you try out first?

Let me know in the comments! As always, thank you for reading!

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