How to Hang on to What You Learn

Have you ever had the experience of learning something that you thought you knew well only to find that a month later you could no longer remember it? Have you ever finished reading a book or article and one week later would have a tough time having an intelligent conversation about the content? I certainly have. In fact, in medical school I can remember spending hours cramming anatomical info into my brain for exams only to find that without a consistent review the info was gone.

I even read a study that physicians know more medical knowledge and terminology right when they finish their fellowship exams and obtain a license than in any other time during their practice. The practical experience obviously goes on the upswing as we start practice but all the book knowledge of medical school declines.

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So how do we make the information stick? Anyone can learn something new but if it goes out of the brain as quickly as it goes in how can we use that knowledge to get ahead? Demands for retaining new information don’t stop when you finish school. In fact the most successful in any field are the life long learners. Fortunately, there is new research offering tips on how to retain what we learn.

Memory Retaining Tips

1)      Focus on Brain Fitness

The new research on neural plasticity reveals that we do not lose neurons as we age. In fact, if we work to keep our brain and bodies fit there is no reason we cannot forge new neural connections well into our 80’s. As we age we sometimes feel our memory and retention declining but by engaging in regular exercise, social engagement and education we can improve our retention at any age.

2)      Break up Your Learning

Instead of pulling off a marathon study session take it slow and separate learning something new into shorter sessions. Say you wanted to learn to speak Spanish for an upcoming trip to Mexico. If you took Spanish 8 hours a day for 2 weeks you would likely have great performance right after the class – language immersion courses give great immediate results. But if you wanted to know Spanish in the long run you would be better off spreading this same amount of learning time (112 hours) over a year and do 2-3 hours a week of Spanish. Apparently when you spread out the learning you can have up to 100% more retention of the material.

3)      Sleep on it

If you hit the books just before you hit the pillow the brain will more deeply register what you  learned. A study out of Harvard revealed that even a nap is beneficial. In this study subjects who took a 90 minute snooze after learning a task performed 50% better over a 24 hour period than the group that did not take the nap. According to Susumu Tonegawa, PhD and Nobel Prize winning professor of Neuroscience at MIT,“Sleep after learning helps solidify memory”. When you perform a task the brain cells fire in a certain sequence. If you then fall asleep, the same cells fire in the same sequence without being distracted by visual stimuli. This strengthens the information to register as a memory.

What are some tactics you use to retain new material?

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