How to remember not to forget

We know that we all absorb knowledge in different ways, and at differing rates. We have individual methods that help us assess and filter information in order to learn, and we all benefit from our learning in different ways. But we have one thing in common. We need to learn. And by the same token, we need to remember what we’ve learnt. So we need strategies for both absorbing the knowledge and for enhancing our powers of recall. Strategies to school our brains in recalling not only the right information, but at the right time. And now, more than ever, some would say, that statement is even more important in a world where we’re constantly bombarded with rapidly changing information, a world where more demands are placed on our time. The need for strategies is clear.

Strategies to help us remember how not to forget.

Prior knowledge forms the foundation for our learning, and in order to put any effective strategy for learning and recall in place, we must first recognise that there are two kinds of prior knowledge. Clearly, we need to have an understanding of the basics of any given subject. The facts. Dates, numbers, times etc. but we also know how to build on that knowledge, and how to learn. Our parents and teachers provide us with the first part of the prior knowledge. It is then we need to learn ‘how to learn’. The emphasis in schools is so often on what students learn, rather than focussing on how they learn. Its all about the content, rather than the continuity.

Our learning ability is possibly the most important skill we have. This is why we need effective strategies for learning, and there are many out there. Effective learning is demonstrated not simply by our ability to absorb knowledge, but also by our ability to retrieve it. Those of us who understand the importance of such strategies become good at learning, which puts us at an advantage in our work and careers.

In their 2014 book ‘Make It Stick : The Science Of Successful Learning’, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel look at the science involved in learning, drawing on research into our cognitive and meta-cognitive thinking. One of their paramount contentions is that learning is actually more effective when it is difficult, comparing unsuccessful techniques, such as highlighting or cramming to writing in the sand. The knowledge is here today, and gone tomorrow.

So, if cramming, underlining and highlighting don’t work, what does? Some of the tips we find here include Retrieval, Interleaving, Elaboration, Mnemonics, and importantly, Evaluation.


When we try to recall some previously learnt knowledge, we are retrieving. Using flash cards is a great help to retrieval, as we are forced to recall a memory, and the process feeds into what we already know about bite-size learning. Little and often.

One of the key elements of Wranx, and one which we’ve previously discussed here, is Spaced Repetition. The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus’ early research into memory and recall saw him memorising lists of 2300 nonsensical syllables, and measuring how long it took him to forget and relearn them. Over time, he formulated what we now know as the ‘learning curve’, which shows us that learning is more effective when spaced out over time rather than carried out in one session, and relearning is easier than initial learning.


Interleaving happens when we are learning more than one subject at any time. By breaking up the learning and mixing the subjects, we can train our brain to act differently, and to work differently. Footballers don’t just learn simply to kick a ball, there are other skills needed for them to succeed. By varying their training, running, passing, dribbling etc., their skill set and knowledge is enhanced and each different subject feeds into the others, informing and influencing their tactical and strategic thinking.

When learning in blocks, with a single focus, the hard part is over once we’ve learned and understood a particular concept. We move on, and run the risk of losing that information, or at least, making it harder to retrieve. However, through interleaving, our brains are constantly seeking different solutions, and that process in itself enables us to better select and enact the correct response. Another major benefit to interleaving is that it is a method that needs no extra resources, or equipment to make it work. It is simply a process, a new way of framing and focussing our learning. And though still a relatively new concept, interleaving is gaining much credence amongst Learning and Development providers.


We’re all familiar with Elaboration. This is the simple process of understanding a particular point, by expanding it, or translating it into our own words, and tying it in to previously learnt ideas and concepts.

As the authors of Make It Stick explain “The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.” 

The most common example of our regular use of elaboration in our everyday lives is when we use an analogy to help ourselves or others understand a given idea. Psychologists tell us that elaboration works by helping learners form links between their prior knowledge, and the new knowledge they are acquiring.  Because elaboration is a bridge between these two areas, learners feel more confident in their learning as they have the prior knowledge to link to.


Here we have another common technique. We are using mnemonics when using acronyms or diagrams, and while not necessarily a learning technique in their own right, they are a useful device for learning as their use can help us create mental pathways to aid retrieval. Mnemonics work by associating our prior knowledge with something more meaningful, and this enhances retention. As an example, when teaching music, the notes on the five line stave of music manuscript, EGBDF, were for many years learnt as Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. Expressions, rhymes or simple poems are another mnemonic, such as in ‘Thirty days have September…..’


During the learning process, reflecting on our work, and evaluating our progress is key to our personal and professional development. Questioning how we’ve interacted with the learning, what we have learnt, how we have gained, and how we can put the learning into practice later on, can help us understand how our brains work, and which learning techniques works for us.

In tests carried out in 2014, Harvard Business School found that, when asked to perform a task of writing about their working day for 15 minutes, reflecting on the day’s experiences and challenges, those in the study were able to experience better performance (the subjects in the HBS tests experienced a 22.8% boost in performance). The theory is, that by reflecting on their work for this short period, those taking part felt a boost in self-efficacy, making them more confident, and better able to perform their role. By self evaluating, and by applying this technique to our learning, we can better focus on what learning we have benefitted from, and to establish our future learning needs.

We are all learners, and really, the lesson never stops. Our workplace is the classroom, just as our lives are. We all need techniques to help us through, to help us achieve. No matter the learner, or the lesson, we can all benefit from seeking out techniques that work for us. By combining some of these techniques, and personalising them to our own individual needs, we are better placed to self-support our learning, ensuring better retention and easier retrieval.

We need techniques. We need tips and strategies. Most of all, in life, in work, in all we do, we need to remember how not to forget.

Written by: Persia Shahkarami

Published: 1 Mar, 2017