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Learn, retain, and retrieve techniques- part one

Ever wondered how our brains keep the information we study? I have developed a passion to learn how we learn and how to best optimize it.

You need to look at it in 3 phases and these are Learn, Remember and Do


Passive reflection

We further break this down to into different metacognition elements and I will try to explain what each of them means 

As you study a new subject or revise for your upcoming exam, you need to have times of reflection where you think about the material you have gone through. This passive state is very important for learning because this is when your brain neurons make connections and organize the information. 

Through this process, the information is put into perspective and aggregated into chunks of knowledge that get stored into long-term memory.

Self-reflection and assessment

Self-reflection and assessment are also very important for learning because we get an opportunity to retrieve the information and this enhances the learning process. It reinforces the notion of repetition and we have long known that repetition is very important for learning.

Appreciative inquiry

Scientists have discovered that the best time to learn is when we are not too happy or too sad. There is a sweet spot between these two spectrums. You will not concentrate on your learning when you have just received news of winning the lottery. Can you? I guess a lot of us can’t. 

You also do not want to be learning when you have received bad news. So, tapping into happy memories and associating them to learning will enhance your ability to learn better and retain more.

All the above is what scientists refer to as metacognition techniques of learning, and they have proven to work with many people after years of research.

Another way to optimize your learning is through wordplay(remember Richard of York…….). That was a powerful way to learn because it helps you retain more. I remember using the ”Richard of York…” wordplay to memorize the colors of a rainbow and I have never forgotten them up to now after learning it many years ago.

Social learning is another approach to learning that has proven to work well. People learn better when they are in a group with a common goal and support each other through the process. So, find a group of like-minded people and put together a learning program that will suit your schedules. You will learn and retain more that way. 

Retrieval sessions are also very important to enhance learning outcomes. Do not wait to test yourself when learning and do not wait too long hoping to first learn a huge mass of knowledge. You need to test yourself as soon as possible and practice retrieval of knowledge early on in the learning process.

A young African boy attending school


One of the most enhancers of learning is sleep, therefore, you must have enough of it all the time and most especially if you are a learner. 

Staying awake all night preparing for that test is flawed. Science shows that sleep is very important for learning. It reinforces those neural pathways formed when learning. Research also shows that the most important hour of sleep is the one before you wake up. 

We programmed ourselves to use alarm clocks, but we must stop using them because they interrupt your most important hour of sleep. Practice sleeping early and waking up naturally in the morning.

Relating an experience in the past or some information that you already know to what you are learning helps a lot to remember and retrieve information. These areas of past experiences are sometimes referred to as schemas.


Finally doing, which we normally refer to as practice. I am sure you had the saying” Practice makes perfect” many times. 

Through doing we build habits, and they help us to remember how to do things without really remembering because it has turned the act into a reflex action that you do not have to think about too much. You do not have to remember where your mouth is because you have been eating since you were an infant right?

Our brains love habits because the cognitive load is low when habits form and therefore energy is preserved and better used for other things your body needs. So endeavor to grow good habits when learning so you can remember more.

We build habits through three phases, and these are cue, action, and reward. Create an environment that will trigger you to do the right thing and when you do, you will be rewarded. Nothing motivates us to do the work than reward. Rewards definitely work better than threats to build any habit. 

Lastly, keep your tasks small enough so you cannot fail. This will motivate you to do the work because the tasks are almost impossible to fail and naturally we all don’t like to fail. I encourage you to read atomic habits by James Clear to learn how habits are formed and maintained.

Published inEdtecheducationGoalsLearning how to learnLife hacks

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