How do you remember what you’ve learned?

February 14, 2022 | Activate Learning | 8 min read

As a working mom, I often find it’s hard to remember, well, just about anything. Between cleaning out backpacks, food shopping, and generally trying to run a household while maintaining a full-time job, it’s a miracle I remember anything. I find I must write things down to remember them, so I’ve become a professional list maker in addition to my other professions.

Pro tip/life hack: the Google Keep app will help you create any list you need that can dynamically sync with other accounts. We save our grocery list in Keep so anyone in the household can add to it, and we use the app to tick off items as we shop – no paper!

Given that the details of our busy lives are hard enough to keep track of, how do you remember what you’ve learned from the courses you take or the books you read? It’s so important to maintain an active passion for learning, but how much of that learning do you really retain? To draw on my example above, if making lists is essential for remembering the details of my day-to-day, is there an equivalent strategy to help us remember things we’ve learned?

Luckily, technology can help us to retain new information just like it can help us manage our busy lives. Especially when that technology is combined with tried-and-true learning techniques to help us remember. Distributed practice, practice testing, retrieval practice, interleaved practice, teach-a-friend, and reflection are all elements that help a learner to improve their knowledge retention. In fact, according to the Hermann Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, we lose up to 90% of learned knowledge in just 30 days if we don’t try to reinforce our learning and remember the key elements of lessons.

When we consider ways to remember facts and knowledge, we can think back to our school days and all the learning vehicles used to study for a test. To name just a few:

  • Highlighting
  • Writing notes
  • Using flashcards
  • Re-reading materials

Is there a way with technology to combine learning vehicles and learning techniques to help us remember? In fact, there are many apps out on the market today designed to help with exactly this. These apps let you create your own quizzes, flashcards, notes — you name it — to customize your learning experience to your needs. However, these approaches require time and attention from the learner to curate the experience themselves, so the learner must be invested in their own learning reinforcement to use these effectively.

As adult learners in a busy world, what if the learning platform you use could instead remind you about what you learned without any work on your part to set it up? Nothing is added to your ‘To Do’ list, you are simply reminded to revisit what you learned after you take a course. This is the simple approach we took for our Learning Reinforcement feature — now available on Skillsoft's Percipio platform. One that requires no ‘work’ on the side of the learner or on the side of the admin.

We have found a way to package a learning vehicle with learning techniques to help you remember what you learned. You get reminders about what you learned and an experience where you can interact and dive back into the topics you find the most challenging. All on your mobile device, from wherever you are.

We researched various learning techniques to incorporate into this feature — here is a bit about them:

  • Distributed Practice / Spaced Repetition - Distributed practice (also known as spaced repetition or spaced practice) is a learning strategy to combat the forgetting curve, where practice is broken up into several short sessions over a longer period of time.​ People learn and remember items more effectively when they are studied in several sessions spread out over a long period of time, rather than studied repeatedly in a short period of time, a phenomenon called the spacing effect. ​
  • Retrieval Practice and Practice Testing - Retrieval practice is a learning technique revolving around repeatedly recalling learned material without seeing it in front of you. One effective and common way to learn via practice testing and retrieval practice is with flashcards. The Leitner system is a widely used method of using flashcards that was proposed by the German science journalist Sebastian Leitner in the 1970s. It is a simple implementation of the principle of spaced repetition, where flashcards are reviewed at specific intervals.​
  • Interleaved Practice - Today's learners are frequently focusing on building multiple skills at once. With Interleaved Practice, a learner will switch between multiple topics in the same session. Interleaving has been shown to be more effective than blocked or massed practice (where a user studies one skill at a time) and leads to better long-term retention and improved ability to transfer learned knowledge. This strategy forces the brain to continually retrieve because each practice attempt is different from the last. ​Cognitive psychologists believe that interleaving improves the brain's ability to differentiate, or discriminate, between concepts and strengthens memory associations. ​
  • Teach A Friend (Feynman Technique) - The Feynman Technique mental model aims to convey information using concise thoughts and simple language. It's a simple approach to self-directed learning that is based on distilling what you know by teaching someone else. ​The creator of it, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, explained that if one cannot describe an idea in simple terms, then they do not really understand it. The ability to use this technique to explain a topic can prove and cement one's understanding.
  • Reflection / Reflective Practice / Self-Explanation - In education, the concept of reflection dates back to the work of John Dewey (1933), who defined it as “active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends.”​ In the scholarly article “Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance,” researchers at HEC Paris, Harvard Business School, and the University of North Carolina found that reflecting directly after a lesson increases individuals’ performance the next time they return to the material. ​

To sum it all up, the cornerstone of our Learning Reinforcement feature is based on the Four R’s: Retrieve, Recall, Reflect, and Refine — where we package up all these learning techniques into an effort-free experience to help you remember what you learned.

Why It’s Hard to Remember

Have you ever gone to do something and forgotten what you were going to do, perhaps because you were thinking about 10 other things at the same time? When we multi-task and have multiple facts and figures thrown at us that we’re expected to memorize, it’s easy to forget. Without the ability to focus and concentrate on something, it just becomes too much for our brains to process. In a pandemic world, add on stress and anxiety and additional duties, and you have a recipe for disaster when trying to retain information.

Here are 4 things you can do to increase your retention:

  1. Interest and associations – It’s hard to learn something if it’s not interesting to you. If it’s boring, we’re not going to learn it well. Instead, try to draw parallels to things you do like and make positive associations. For example, if I must learn about an uninteresting topic, perhaps I can find a way to associate it with music or cooking (both passions of mine).
  2. Visualize it – When learning, if we can associate things with a particular visual characteristic, they become easier to remember. Take names for example, I have a terrible time remembering names. For each person I meet, I pick out a single defining visual trait of each person and connect that to something I can remember, like a fruit or even the name of another friend.
  3. Create chunks of knowledge – if you can group your learning together somehow, it’s easier to remember. Try to create visual categories in your mind consisting of themes that you can lump your learning under. For example, if I’m trying to remember all the ingredients for the dish I’m making for dinner, I would remember that I need dairy (with eggs, butter), protein (tofu or meat), and vegetables. If I remember those three categories, it’s easier for me to remember the ingredients under those categories.
  4. Summarize it – Reflecting on and summarizing what you learned is a good way to retain knowledge. You can even try to teach a friend the topic through your summaries. Keeping notes is a tried-and-true method, just make sure you’re summarizing the learning – not trying to remember everything about it.

Everyone learns differently and as a learner or as a learning administrator, it’s hard to have a one-size-fits-all solution. But one thing remains true — without reinforcing our learning, we are losing most of it over time. The combination of learning techniques and technology will help anyone to retain knowledge, but it’s not a silver bullet. There are things everyone can do to help themselves remember more and remember longer based on the tips provided above. Next time you find yourself learning something new, remember these techniques — you just might find that it helps you remember more, and to help you remember for longer.

Subscribe to the Skillsoft Blog

We will email when we make a new post in your interest area.

Select which topics to subscribe to: