How to Improve Your Memory and Forget Less at School or University

Where is All Your Time Studying Spent?

If you think about the amount of time you spend studying, you’ll find that a lot of the time is spent on just relearning and revising the stuff you’ve forgotten before.

The obvious solution to this (which we don’t tend to consider because it doesn’t seem possible) is to make it so that we fundamentally don’t need to revise or relearn in the first place. This saves more time than anything else you can do with your studying. You can have perfect usage of active recall, spaced repetition, and flashcards, but if you keep forgetting the things you’re learning, you’ll be investing so much time into relearning stuff that will consume most of your school year.

If you can maximise your RETENTION, then after you learn something once, you’ll hardly need to study it again because you’ve retained most of it.

I know that a lot of people think that this is not really possible—but it really is. We’re not saying that you can remember and retain everything, but it’s possible to dramatically improve your retention so that there is significantly less you forget and need to revise.

We’ve been conditioned by the system

Think outside the academic context. For things outside of school, you never ‘study’ them. You could read your favourite book series once or binge an entire season of a Netflix show in one night, and months later, still have a full-on discussion about every character. Your knowledge of these things is profound, and your retention is extremely high.

However, you’re not really getting that level of retention when you’re studying.

This is because the education system has conditioned us to study in an incredibly artificial way. This goes back to why the education system was founded in the first place: it was basically to give factory workers a minimal level of education so that they could follow orders and do their job. It wasn’t to create scientists or lawyers or creative, independent thinkers.

And then the printing press was invented, and so learning adopted a very wordy, left-to-right, down-the-page kind of format, which is completely artificial and not how your brain works, but that’s the way we’re taught to study.

Taking Back Control

So, we need to try to bring our studying back to the way that our brain is meant to work.

Our brain adapted to be very good at a few things, and one of those things is learning.

The human brain is better at problem-solving and advanced cognition than any other species. However, there’s another thing that the brain is really good at, and that’s forgetting.

Your brain is bombarded with billions of different stimuli every day, and it only retains a tiny fraction of that; retaining everything would be so energy-consuming that your brain would explode. So, forgetting is good for helping us stay alive, but it’s not very good for studying.

What determines whether information is retained or lost?

When our brain processes information, it gets rid of anything that doesn’t seem relevant.

For example, it won’t hold on to that licence plate you just saw because it has no relevance to you—but if a licence plate was relevant to a certain memory (for instance, if you saw someone getting kidnapped), it’s more likely to be retained because it’s related to other pieces of information in your brain (like that traumatic memory).

The more meaningful and numerous those relationships are, the more likely the information will be retained.

So, we need to train our brain to send information down the ‘retained’ pathway, not the ‘loss’ pathway, and it will do this if there are a lot of relationships.

Basically, when it comes to remembering information, ISOLATION = FORGETTING and RELATIONSHIPS = RETENTION.

So when you’re spending time studying, any time that isn’t focused on developing relationships is time wasted on ineffective retention. Different people’s brains work differently, but this principle is universal.

Relational-priority learning

So how do we do all this?

When you take information in, the order of the processes going on in your brain is quite important. If the first thing you’re doing is trying to understand the information, then your focus is on the information (information priority); in that case, from your brain’s point of view, that information exists in isolation and will travel down the forgetting pathway. This is what ends up happening for most students—when information comes in, we look at it and try to memorise it.

A better approach is first to try to understand the relationships (relationship priority). When we learn through a relational priority, your brain processes the information much faster, and it becomes much easier to memorise because you’re creating more relationships. When you do it this way, you actually understand the information more deeply and memorise it without even trying.

The triangle which makes up Bloom’s taxonomy. This is all about engaging higher-order thinking and learning skills.

This goes back to the idea of Bloom’s taxonomy. Fundamentally, you’re creating a good web of knowledge, which means that the information is more accessible, your active recall is stronger, you need less memorisation, and you’re a lot more fluent with the information.

This fundamental shift in your way of thinking (going from information-priority learning to relationship-priority learning) makes the biggest difference for students.

There are a couple of checks that you can do right now to look at whether you’re information-focused or relationship-focused.

Ask yourself:

  • Why is this important?
  • How does this relate?
  • How can I apply this?

These questions force you to look at the information in relation to other pieces of information. So, if you’re asking lots of these questions when you’re studying, that aspect of your studying is likely to be more relationship-focused.

If you’re writing notes, you can also look at your notes and think about whether they’re information-focused or relationship-focused:

  • Are you writing notes that are left-to-right, down-the-page?

Notes like this are often written just to get the information down, which definitely shows an information priority. What’s better is to think about the relationships straightaway and represent the information in a different way

I would recommend using a mind map. Most students do mind maps incorrectly, and so they think it doesn’t work for them, but actually, the mind map technique is surprisingly technical, and there are some very subtle and important things that you need to get right.

Relationship-priority learning is about taking control of the information, NOT just randomly learning it in the order that’s given to you by your teacher or the textbook and then throwing it into your brain and expecting it to learn.

It’s about evaluating what there is to learn and asking questions about how it can fit into your memory and your web of knowledge—and as you learn more and more, your mental groups and categories grow, which is called chunking.

This is the way that you actually tend to learn organically in other areas of your life, and that’s the reason why you don’t even need to write notes most of the time. By thinking about where the information can fit before you try to memorise it, you end up producing really high-quality learning, and you’re able to memorise and understand it without even trying.

By the way, this is really just the beginning and basics when it comes to learning psychology and study techniques so if you’re ready to take it up a notch, you need to learn about why Bloom’s Taxonomy is One of the Most Effective Study Techniques out there.

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