How to Better Learn and Remember

Have you ever gone to a seminar and come home excited about all you learned that day? Filled with new ideas. Filled with enthusiasm. Bursting with ways to use the information to make your life better, easier, more fun. Then, a week later, you found that you had difficulty explaining to a friend exactly what it was that had you so fired up. Putting the ideas you did remember into practice was harder than you thought it would be.

Or, have you ever practiced or rehearsed for an upcoming event, gotten it down really well? Then, a few days later, when it was actually time to perform, you did much worse than you hoped you would do.

If you answered yes to these questions, you’re not alone. Most of us have experienced these two situations more than once in our lives. Psychologists at Dartmouth, who specialize in how we learn and remember, have uncovered some of the secrets of the mind. Here are two of their findings:

First, we learn better, and remember longer, when we engage in “spaced interval learning.” We shouldn’t cram knowledge in, in large, “massed learning,” chunks, like at the seminar or the night before a test. Our minds learn better when we do a little at a time, more often. We learn faster and remember better having five one-hour sessions, separated by other activities, than we do when we have one long marathon learning session. This makes sense. It gives our mind time to “let it sink in.” This supports the concept that moderation and consistency over time become significant productivity.

Second, when we practice or rehearse, we should do it in surroundings and situations that are as lifelike and natural as possible.

We want where and how we practice to be as close to the actual event as we can make it. When troops prepare for combat, part of their training involves “live fire,” real bullets. The soldiers must know that their training is as real and potentially fatal as actual combat or they wouldn’t learn what they need to know to survive.

Thankfully, most of our experiences are not as critical as a soldier’s. However, if we want to give a good talk or presentation, we should practice in front of live bodies. If we want to putt better, we should practice on real greens with other people watching. Then, our practice closely resembles the actual situation. This type of practice will help us to prepare and to improve.

When we practice in isolation, or under conditions very different from what we can expect to find during the experience, it is an inferior type of practice. We can combine the two findings from Dartmouth into a single technique for learning: study and practice regularly for short, rather than long, periods under actual conditions. Then, we will learn better and remember what we learned longer. And, we’ll reduce the chances of experiencing stage fright, a mental block or crumbling under pressure.