Are you struggling to remember what you study? This is likely due to the techniques you are using. This article walks you through why you seem to forget the material so quickly and the proper studying techniques to create long-lasting memories.
However, It really comes down to a single thing: encoding.
Quickly forgetting what you study is a result of not properly encoding the material from the start. When we rely on shallow encoding techniques, recall drops very rapidly over time. Alternatively, learning techniques like mind mapping and teaching promote deep encoding and provide much longer-lasting retention of the material.
Let’s get into the details of why we forget what we study and how to fix it.
Why Do We Forget What We Study So Quickly?
If you struggle with forgetting it’s very likely that you are not encoding the information you learn effectively.
Forgetting what you study can be explained largely by not using studying techniques that emphasize high-quality encoding. High-quality Encoding results in much higher retention because the information is highly related and tied to a bigger picture. Each concept you want to memorize is supported by using its related concepts as memory cues.
Think of encoding information as writing to a hard drive, or in your case your long-term memory.
Most students do not use techniques that prioritize encoding. Instead, they rely heavily on retrieval practice using techniques like flashcards, a shallower form of encoding. The problem with this can be seen by looking at the forgetting curve.
This is just an image that I created to illustrate this concept. It’s not based on real data or anything.
This is why you forget so much of what you learn. Retention for techniques that shallowly encode information by relying mostly on retrieval decays very quickly compared to techniques that emphasize deep encoding.
Sidenote: This can also be what causes you to blank on information during an exam. I have another article discussing how this causes you to blank during an exam if you are interested.
Retrieval is still important, we just need to shift the balance to include encoding as well.
By encoding much more and retrieving less you can avoid spending so much time brute memorizing everything using flashcards or other retrieval practices.
In order to encode effectively it’s important to realize that encoding is inherently uncomfortable because it takes a bit of mental effort, especially at the start. But once you are comfortable with the techniques, this effort fades into the background.
How long that takes is different for everyone. It’s like learning how to ride a bike. It was very hard at the start and took all your attention but now you don’t even think about it. It’s the same with encoding techniques.
Let’s get into exactly how you can encode information better.
5 Ways to Remember What You Study
1. Create mind maps
Mind mapping is by far my favorite technique for encoding new information. This is because they manage to capture so many of the principles of what makes encoding effective in a single technique.
Using mindmaps you can find the basic logical structure of a topic. This creates a foundation of the core relationships and the organization of the topic that you can build off from. You can see this in my example, the arrows start out thick and get thinner and thinner as you go out.
On top of this, the information is chunked into discrete and highly related components such as “cognitive neuroscience” and “measurement”. Remembering these chunks allows you to recall their subsequent parts more easily.
Lastly, mind mapping also makes use of the drawing effect. This is done by expressing ideas in vivid imagery as well as words. by those keywords to highly memorable images you can remember the material much more easily.
A mindmap is amazing for getting down the big picture view and getting the most important information into your memory. It’s no wonder that the research overall supports their use as a very effective learning tool.1 However, they are not perfect.
Mind maps do lack some of the more fine-grained details of a topic. While these details are less likely to be tested, they still can be. However, a mind map also makes learning these smaller details much easier because you can see exactly where they should fit in.
2. Teach an imaginary student
This is another of my favorite techniques. I find that, especially after I draw a mindmap of a topic, this technique does a very good job of revealing what you truly know and don’t know, as well as focusing a bit more on the details of the material.
While teaching you can make very effective use of self-referential encoding. This is when you make the information personal by relating it back to you.2 You can do this by using as many real-life personal examples as possible when you teach.
Making the information personal is a very high level of encoding. This is because personal details are highly memorable and can serve as highly memorable cues for what you want to remember.
Also, you should teach out loud. Yea, this is also one of the reasons I like to study from home when I can. I wouldn’t recommend doing this in a library or cafe. I wrote an article on how to get the most out of studying from home if you struggle with this.
A great, and highly effective alternative, to teaching yourself out loud is to form a study group and each member can take turns teaching what they want to study. The group can then ask you questions about what you have taught them.
I wrote a complete guide on how to maximize your study group’s effectiveness if you are interested in this topic.
3. Ask how a concept is related to everything else
This is something that you should do when creating a mindmap or teaching the material to yourself. This is because it allows you to discover the logical structure of the material.
However, the difference between this and the other techniques is that we are mapping the structure in our heads.
This is quite difficult to do. But, it’s also highly effective and worth your time.
Ideally, you should offload some of that cognitive effort by expressing those relationships in a mindmap at some point so you can fully focus on finding new ones.
Nevertheless, simply asking yourself how something is related to everything else (and answering it) as you read will definitely improve your encoding and you will remember more.
It’s also just a very good habit to have because it keeps you on track with what information is important.
4. Use mnemonics
The last technique is a memorization technique. But because this is a memorization technique, I want to give a word of caution on this: don’t jump to using mnemonics right away.
This is because you shouldn’t memorize things blindly. By “blindly” I mean without that big-picture view of how the material fits together.
If you lack the overall structure of the material you are highly likely to memorize things you could have learned much more easily with other encoding strategies.
If you use proper encoding first, you will find that the amount of things you need to use mnemonics for is going to be much lower than what you thought at the start.
With that out of the way, I will explain my favorite mnemonic technique, the method of loci. However, there are tons of mnemonic techniques out there and you should experiment with other ones.
Method of Loci
Using this technique you take a physical location and associate each place with what you want to remember. This is great for remembering serial lists or processes that have many steps.
For instance, if you have a shopping list of items you might associate each item with a place in your house or dorm. Ideally, the items should be absurd, which makes them easier to remember.
For example, picture a massive banana hanging from the light fixture in your room. Then move to the next room and maybe there is a jar of peanut butter that spilled all over the floor and someone is making snow angels in it.
This makes a list or an order of things much easier to remember.
However, as I mentioned before, there are so many mnemonic techniques out there. This is just my favorite and one of the most popular ones out there. Here is a link to some other popular mnemonic techniques if you are interested.
5. Stop multitasking
Okay, so this isn’t a technique per se. But it’s highly important that you don’t multitask when using the techniques provided above.
As I have already described, encoding takes mental effort (also called cognitive load). If you are constantly watching anime and TV shows in the background as you study you are not going to encode information properly.
This also applies if while you study you constantly switch between doing different tasks. Encoding information takes focus, time, and cognitive load. Without these things, you will not be able to use these techniques effectively.
If you really need something in the background you should listen to some music that doesn’t have any vocals. I love listening to Electronic Gems on Spotify or Youtube for this.
However, I have actually found that, when I study using these techniques, I am engaged enough that I don’t feel bored enough to need music a lot of the time. These techniques actually tend to be somewhat fun and engaging compared to traditional techniques, at least for me.
Most students don’t start by encoding the material they learn. This leads to very rapid forgetting of the material. In order to fix this we need to emphasize practicing more encoding and relatively less retrieval.
- Rosciano, A. (2015). The effectiveness of mind mapping as an active learning strategy among associate degree nursing students. Teaching and Learning in Nursing, 10(2), 93–99. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.teln.2015.01.003
- Rogers, T. B., Kuiper, N. A., & Kirker, W. S. (1977). Self-reference and the encoding of personal information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 677–688. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2067
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