4 ways to remember what you learn

Whilst you are studying, it’s important to explore the best ways that you are able to review and retain information.

We have four great ideas to share, to help you climb to the peak of performance.

However, you should also consider the popular study habits that may not do you any favours.

Habit 1 – re-reading

Re-reading is the default method of revision. Re-reading material generates a warm feeling of familiarity with the information. We mistake this for mastery of the subject. But it’s an illusion. Try this test. Think of a favourite song. You really love it, and are totally familiar with it. Can you remember the words from beginning to end? Probably not.

Re-reading notes and materials is the go-to approach for many of us, but it is a surprisingly ineffective way to create long term memories and master the material.

To learn, you need to actively engage with the information, which means using it too. For example, recalling it to answer questions, or linking it to other concepts in different combinations.

Habit 2 – highlighting

When we unleash a set of highlighter pens, we feel like we are really getting down to serious study. However, there is little learning benefit to highlighting or underlining text. What we are doing is making it easier to re-read.

A 2013 study by the Association for Psychological Science found highlighting and underlining did not aid knowledge retention, even though both practices are incredibly popular.

Highlighting can actually be counterproductive because it draws attention to specific facts rather than the whole concept. This may get in the way of the brain making connections with related topics that you’re already familiar with.

Again, highlighting distracts us from the real key to learning – recalling and using the information.

Habit 3 – laptops

Laptops are incredibly popular as study tools. They seem like a great way to compile notes, and offer the advantages of speed and searchability.

However, studies have shown taking notes straight into a computer leads students to write far more but process less. In other words, they tempt us to become more typist than student.

Researchers at Princeton University and the University of California looked into this. They compared the performance of students using pen and paper to take notes in a lecture against those using laptops. They found students who used a laptop did not understand the lecture as well as those who wrote their notes out by hand.

Everyone is different, but producing volumes of notes on a computer may be setting you up for long re-reading sessions.

Better study habits

Here are some different ways of taking notes and revising information.

Tip 1 – Cornell note taking

The Cornell note-taking method is a proven formula that’s been around since the 1940’s and has three strengths ‘baked in’, it encourages note-taking, summarising and review.

For this approach, you need to prepare your notepaper by dividing it into three areas. Draw a rule at the bottom about three fingers’ width from the foot of the page. This is the summary area. Above this, is the area where you will record your notes. You should divide this space in two by adding a column on the left side – again about three fingers’ width. This is the cues/questions column.

Use the large note area for jotting notes and drawing pictures as you study.  Write key words in the cues/questions column alongside as you go. This will help you recognise and link concepts. Later you can recap the ideas more formally in the summary area to get you really thinking about the information.

Tip 2 – mind mapping

Mind mapping is an even more flexible way of taking notes. The basic principle is, that you start with a blank page and write your topic in the centre. You then add individual keywords or short phrases connecting them to your topic with lines.

Mind maps can have as many levels as you like. You can also get the creative side of your brain involved by drawing pictures and adding colour. This helps ingrain the information and make it easier to recall, say, concepts behind keywords – because more of your mental faculties are involved with the information.

Mind maps can be drawn by hand, or using software on PCs or  tablets.

Tip 3 – summarising

Summarising and re-writing is a great skill to use, whether or not you use the Cornell method.

AAT bookkeeping student Donna Maclaren shared with us how she used this technique to help her conquer questions in AAT Advanced Certificate in Bookkeeping. ‘I found that there was a lot of info to collect and retain, and got myself mixed up at times.’

‘My way of learning was to write it down on paper every day, until it sunk in. I concentrated solely on Debit and Credit and what sides the individual accounts go to, and also only learned what goes into a P&L. Once you know that it is easier to sort out the Statements of Financial Position.’ Using this approach, Donna raised her score by 23% in her resit.

Tip 4 – the Feynman technique

Einstein apparently said if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t fully understand it. A good way to get something straight in your head is to teach it to somebody else. The best way to do this, is to imagine you are teaching it to a child.

This is basically the Feynman technique, invented by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman to help you learn anything. In a nutshell, you have to:

  • Find a concept
  • Write everything you know about the subject in simple language and imagine you are explaining it to an eight year old, using analogies and pictures
  • Review your explanation pinpointing any area in which your knowledge is lacking or unclear
  • Rewrite all your material again, addressing the weaknesses

It’s good to experiment with these techniques and see what work best for you. Whichever one you choose, make sure you combine it with spaced repetition for maximum effect.

Browse the full range of AAT study support resources here

David Nunn is Content Manager at AAT.

Related articles