4 strategies for remembering everything you learn

If you’re going to learn anything, you need two kinds of prior knowledge:

• Knowledge about the subject at hand, like maths, history, or programming

• Knowledge about how learning actually works

The bad news: Our education system kind of skips one of them, which is problematic, given that your ability to learn is such a huge predictor of success in life, from achieving in academics to getting ahead at work. It all requires mastering skill after skill.

“Parents and educators are pretty good at imparting the first kind of knowledge,” shares psychology writer Annie Murphy Paul. “We’re comfortable talking about concrete information: names, dates, numbers, facts. But the guidance we offer on the act of learning itself — the ‘metacognitive’ aspects of learning — is more hit-or-miss, and it shows.”

To wit, education research shows that low-achieving students have “substantial deficits” in their understanding of the cognitive strategies that allow people to learn well. This, Paul says, suggests that part of the reason students perform poorly is that they don’t know a lot about how learning actually works.

It’s a cultural issue.

Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis and coauthors of “Make It Stick: The Science Of Successful Learning,” say that “how we teach and study is largely a mix of theory, lore, and intuition.”

So let’s cut through that lore. Here are learning strategies that really work.

Force yourself to recall.

Getty Images
Flashcards force you to really think.

The least-fun part of effective learning is that it's hard. In fact, the 'Make It Stick' authors contend that when learning is difficult, you're doing your best learning, in the same way that lifting a weight at the limit of your capacity makes you strongest.

It's simple, though not easy, to take advantage of this: Force yourself to recall a fact. Flashcards are a great ally in this, since they force you to supply answers.

Don't fall for fluency.

Don Arnold / Getty Images
Test your recall before you move on and forget important information, like your gate number.

When you're reading something and it feels easy, what you're experiencing is fluency.

It will only get you in trouble.

Example: Say, for instance, you're at the airport and you're trying to remember which gate your flight to Chicago is waiting for you at. You look at the terminal monitors -- it's B44. You think to yourself, Oh, B44, that's easy. Then you walk away, idly check your phone, and instantly forget where you're going.

The alternative: You read the gate number. Then you turn away from the monitor and ask yourself, What's the gate? If you can recall that it's B44, you're good to go.

Connect the new thing to the old things.

Getty Images
Relate abstract concepts, like heat transfer, to something more tangible, like hot coffee.

'The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to prior knowledge,' the 'Make It Stick' authors write, 'the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.'

When you're weaving in new threads into your pre-existing web of knowledge, you're elaborating.

One killer technique is to come up with real-life examples of principles you've just uncovered. If you've just learned about slant rhyme, you could read poems that exhibit it. If you've just discovered heat transfer, you could think of the way a warm cup of coffee disperses warmth into your hands on a cold winter's day.

Reflect, reflect, reflect.

Getty Images
Reflect on what you've learned so that it soaks in.

Looking back helps. In a Harvard Business School study, employees who were onboarded to a call center had 22.8% higher performance than the control group when they spent just 15 minutes reflecting on their work at the end of the day.

'When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy,' HBS professor Francesca Gino tells us. 'They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they're doing and what they learn.'

While reflecting may seem like it leads to working less, it leads to achieving more.

This is an update of an article that was previously posted.

NOW WATCH: Ideas videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.