While the mental click of processing a new item of information feels great, we often find ourselves unable to remember simple facts or ideas in the days after we learn them. It’s frustrating to just remember that you learned something relevant to the problem you’re working on, but not be able to actually recall what that helpful info is. This happens with actor’s names and book titles all the time.
Lately, I’ve amped up the amount of non-fiction I’m reading. While information consumption is something that lights my brain up and registers as an accomplishment, I’m really interested in trying to improve my ability to recall my new reading.
If you invest 10 hours of reading into a 200-page book (or 40 minutes into hearing a lecture), you don’t get that time back.
One way to maximize that 10-hour investment is to improve your recall. Better memory also improves the chance you’ll recall the information when you need it to make key decisions–and making better decisions with new information is the best kind of return on investment.
So how do you improve recall?
What Doesn’t Work (probably)
Somewhere in the middle years of my education I was taught that the way most people learn things is largely ineffective.
The idea goes like this (typically attributed to William Glassser):
We only remember:
10% of what we READ
20% of what we HEAR
30% of what we SEE
50% of what we SEE and HEAR
70% of what is DISCUSSED with OTHERS
80% of what is EXPERIENCED PERSONALLY
95% of what we TEACH TO SOMEONE ELSE.
Whether or not this is true, it strikes me as fundamentally right on some level. It’s the idea of active recall: the greater your active engagement, the better your recall.
Many common studying practices, like highlighting, are largely a waste of time according to some sources. I suspect that only holds true if you passively highlight, meaning never return to those sections. Highlighting and underlining (as well as simple rereading) can promote false confidence, because the “click” of passive rereading might be misconstrued as true understanding, without actually improving recall.
In other words, the higher rung you climb on the ladder of engagement, the better your recall.
Your Brain is a Network
Active recall matches with our understanding of how the brain encodes things.
Your brain doesn’t just store information in little cordoned brain boxes. Information spreads out across networks of neurons throughout the brain. The more you engage with an idea, the more the densely that idea is represented in your brain, as it connects to other ideas. Effectively, when your brain exercises an idea that idea becomes more muscular.
This is why you remember new acquaintances’ names better if they have the same name as your sibling–the network of associations for that name is already dense. It also explains why it’s so difficult to remember foreign names: you don’t have existing networks for those names, and often don’t even have strong patterns for those combinations of sounds, so your brain has to work harder to recall them.
Learning actively forces you to build more neural connections for new ideas. If you do a relevant science experiment instead of just reading about a new concept, you create a whole bunch of sensory experiences and associations that strengthen your recall. If you teach a concept, you’re forced to recall the idea and then communicate it, probably in a format you didn’t receive it in the first place.
Actively Digest Books
Here are three ways I’m trying to digest my non-fiction reading to improve my return on the time invested:
- Read comprehensively. Read in topics that interrelate, instead of reading scattered subjects. For me right now, that means a lot about business, nonprofits, psychology and persuasion. Often, you’ll run into the same case studies from a different light, which reinforces your learning. Try to take time to integrate new knowledge with your old understanding. All this strengthens your neural connections.
- Create a quote bank. Stick tabs into the text when a thought strikes you as especially important or profound to the overall message, and worth being able to remember later (if you aren’t as old fashioned as I am, use whatever the e-book analogue is to tabbing a page). Then, once you’ve finished the book, go back through the tabs and decide if they still seem as important–they might not! If they do, though, type them into a quote bank in Google Docs (so you can access them wherever) to increase your engagement. Then go back in the coming weeks and review the quotes in the quote bank to reinforce your new connections. (A quote bank will also help you be more willing to get rid of old books.)
- Write/Teach. Use the above points to create a new thing that integrates your knowledge. I write and blog in my work life, so I have an organic opportunity to teach and process new information in creative ways. This allows you to get an immediate return value from your reading things, in addition to improving your long-term recall–since you have to have pretty high engagement to articulate new knowledge to others in a different way than you consumed it. This blog post is an example of writing to improve recall.
What ways do you improve your recall of important information–whether it’s blog posts or sermons–instead of just consuming it and crossing your fingers? I’d love any suggestions.
[Image source: Inclued]