How Can You Retain What You’ve Learnt?

Last Updated: 12 June 2022

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Remember in school when you'd cram all of your learning into about a week in preparation for an upcoming exam or test, and then a few weeks later you couldn’t remember anything at all?

You’ve probably wondered since: why is it I can’t remember any of that information? I spent hours studying, why hasn’t it stuck?

Well, in this article, we’re going to be answering two questions: why doesn’t information stick? And how can you make it stick?

Why doesn’t information stick in your brain?

Sometimes it does! Maybe you can still recite all 270 words to the Backstreet Boy’s classic, ‘I Want It That Way’, or maybe you can still name every single one of your teammates from your netball team in year 12. There’s a good reason for this: it mattered (or still matters) to you, and you reinforce it by revisiting the memories themselves.

You might struggle to hold onto information that you’ve just learnt due of a few reasons:

  1. You’re not actively engaging with the information

  2. You’re not placing it into context within your life

  3. You’re not revisiting it

For example, someone who doesn’t like the Backstreet Boys would more than likely be able to memorise ‘I Want It That Way’ if you gave them a printed out lyric sheet. However, in two months they probably wouldn’t be able to recall a single word. This is because they memorised it passively, it has no context within their greater life experience, and they’ll probably never listen to the song again because they don’t like it.

The same goes for your professional education and CPD: if you passively engage with your learning and don’t link it back to your everyday practice, it won’t stick in your brain. Additionally, if it doesn’t stick in your brain, you’ll be discouraged from pursuing further education on the subject – and after a while, you won’t have anything to consolidate in the first place.

How can you make information stick?

Actively engage with the education

Sitting down and passively reading a paragraph on Communication for Quality Care probably won’t help you to retain information. Instead, you should incorporate active components to your learning activity to help you retain and contextualise the information.

For example, if you’re reading an Ausmed article you could make it more active by:

  • Taking notes on how you could utilise the education in your practice

  • Writing down questions to ask your supervisor or the educator

  • Having a discussion session with a colleague afterwards

Alongside applying active components to more passive learning activities, you need to have a functional understanding of which forms of learning don’t work for you. Maybe when you sit down to read an article, you find your mind wandering: if this is the case, maybe you need to complete lectures instead. Or perhaps you get easily distracted if you listen to a podcast through your computer speakers: if this is the case, maybe using earphones or headphones is the only way you can effectively learn.

Build off what you already know

Most of your CPD should be working on deepening your knowledge in your area of practice, and closing or narrowing knowledge gaps. With this in mind, it makes it easier to build new information and understanding upon a strong foundational knowledge of the broad area.

For example, a midwife may be told she needs to fill a knowledge gap around breastfeeding after breast surgery. If she already has a deep understanding of current feeding techniques and how feeding can support sick infants, this new information will complement this pre-existing knowledge. As such, contextualisation is easy and the new information will be easier to retain.

Revisit the information

Unfortunately, it’s not often that you read something once and it stays in your brain forever. For most people, we have to revisit information to retain it – especially if we want to retain it accurately.

When it comes to how often you need to revisit information, there’s a tried and tested routine that will set you up for success: it's called the Forgetting Curve created by Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus found out in the 1860s that humans could retain information for an incredibly long time if they just revisited the information every few days and then every few months. As you can see in the graph below, retention is far higher for those who consolidated the learnt information with frequent subsequent learning sessions.

[INSERT FORGETTING CURVE GRAPH]

A great way to circumvent frustration or boredom when revisiting information is to engage with it in a different form. If you first learnt something from an article, watch a lecture on the same topic. If you first learnt something from a lecture, complete an interactive course. This is a great way to keep it fresh and long-lasting.

Where can you learn more?

Just like every other piece of learning, this article doesn’t exist in a vacuum: to support your information retention, you need to make sure the initial learning activity is as effective as possible.

Find more articles on how to optimise your learning here:

You should also keep an eye on the Learning Theories section of The Handover. When it comes to education, there’s always something new to learn.

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