How to consolidate your learning to memory

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If learning is a process for acquiring knowledge or skills, then memory is a means to retrieve that information in the present. This article looks at best practices to consolidate learning to memory.

The three stages of memory

  1. Encoding is the process whereby information is acquired and transformed for storage. This could be from reading a book, attending a lecture, watching a video, or listening to a podcast.
  2. Storage is the retention of information over time. This can be for short periods of time (short-term memory) or longer periods of time (long-term memory). Learning usually involves storing information in long-term memory.
  3. Retrieval is the process by which you access this stored information from memory. Being able to recall the relevant information at the right time is a good indicator of successful learning.

Optimising the three stages of memory

  • Minimise distracting information in your study environment. Aim to reduce the sights and sounds that will draw your focus away. It helps to have a clear and comfortable setting to study in – set up your chair, desk, and equipment ergonomically and ensure all your study materials are to hand. Your brain will associate this environment with learning and switch to “study mode”.
  • Pace your studies so that they don’t become too overwhelming – for example, follow 50 minutes of study with a 10-minute break. Experiment to find what works best for you.
  • Where possible, aim to get a good night’s sleep, particularly in the days that you’re actively studying. When we sleep, the brain consolidates what it’s learned during the day.
  • Defining the goals that you want to achieve will help you achieve them. Goals can be high level, such as passing a particular exam, but also more immediate, such as the learning objectives you want to address in a defined period. Add dates. Setting goals positions newly acquired information and provides focus.
  • Make full use of the range of study resources available to you. Using a variety of resources ensures you approach the information from different angles to reinforce connections in memory.
  • Make notes while you are learning, as revision bolsters the processing of information from short-term memory to long-term memory. This will not only identify salient information for review, but the act of writing also helps store into memory. Examples of revision aids include flashcards, mnemonics, long-form written responses, question sets, pop quizzes, and practice assessments.
  • Take stock of where you are in your studies to help ensure you are on track. Is your method of study working as well as you thought? Taking a moment to reflect on what you have learnt can bring a perspective that will reinforce retention.
  • Return to subjects you studied earlier to check how well you recall what you have learned. This provides some confidence that information has moved to longer-term memory. Retrieving and practicing reinforces and develops memory.
  • Where possible, tell others what you know. The expression of knowledge is a powerful way of reinforcing it in memory. Communicate with students or tutors, directly or online, to clarify your thinking.
  • Taking care of your physical and mental wellbeing will help manage stressful thinking to optimise your study and exam preparation. You may want to consider mindful practices to help with focus and exam stress.

Key takeaways:

  • Learning about memory and optimising the three stages of memory can assist you with your studies.
  • There are a number of techniques that can help you consolidate learning into your long-term memory.

Further reading:

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