One of the most powerful learning and memory strategy you’re probably not using is retrieval practice.
In a nut shell, retrieval is recalling information that you want to learn or remember.
It involves spending a few minutes deliberately calling to mind material you have read, heard or watched – instead of just re-reading, re-hearing, or re-watching the material again.
Retrieval works so well because the real challenge of learning and remembering is not with putting information into your brain – this is natural and easy for your brain to do.
The real challenge is in getting it out.
For example, if I ask you to recite lyrics to your favorite song, you may find it difficult to do. However, I bet if the song starts playing, you’ll remember the words like magic.
You may think you have forgotten much of your memories from childhood, but as soon as you look at an old toy you use to play with, all of a sudden, everything comes back.
Have you ever forgotten what someone has said, and the moment they start to repeat themselves, it all surges back? They don’t have to finish repeating themselves before you’re like ‘Oh yea, I remember that.’
In these examples, the memories were in your brain the whole time, but for one reason or another, you couldn’t get it out.
The reason you couldn’t get it out is because you didn’t have a clear path or an easy way to get to the memories.
It’s like filing documents in a drawer and forgetting which drawer you put them in. The documents are there, you just don’t know in what drawer to look.
When you use a technique like retrieval, you create a “pathway” that leads you to the information you are trying to remember. Literally, in your mind a neural pathway is created.
It’s like leaving a path of footprints or breadcrumbs.
Each time you attempt to recall a piece of information, your brain sees the footprints or breadcrumbs to locate where the information is stored in the filing cabinet of your mind.
The more you practice recall, the deeper the footprints or breadcrumbs get, and the easier and quicker it is for the brain to ‘retrieve’ the information.
Now many of you are probably thinking this technique is probably going to be time consuming and take a lot of effort. And with an already busy schedule like yours, how can you fit another activity in your day, specially one on a regular basis.
Well the great thing about retrieval is that it doesn’t require much from you. You don’t have to have note-taking instruments like pen and paper or learning materials like books and notes, or be in front of a desk, computer, or phone.
In fact, it requires nothing.
All that it requires is that you be with your thoughts and think about and call to mind as much detail of whatever you want or are trying to remember.
That means, you can do this exercise anytime and anywhere.
You can do it while waiting in line, at the bus stop, stuck in traffic, on the train, in the shower, while cooking or cleaning, or while walking or driving somewhere.
That is, you can fit it in between parts of your day where you are not doing anything anyways.
So anytime you read, watch, hear, learn, or do something that you want to commit to memory, spend a few minutes throughout the day recalling that info.
I recommend starting your first recall right after the reading, hearing, watching, etc. That’s because we lose as much as 80% of what we learn within a few hours, so you want to recall as much of that before you begin losing it.
Then practice few more times throughout the day.
Finally, once more before going to bed.
For example, when you get out of class, as you are walking home or to the next class, think about what you just learned and the key ideas the teacher discussed.
Or as you pace back to your desk from a meeting, review in your mind the important points that were addressed or the important tasks you have to tackle.
Or after putting down a book, quickly recall what you just read in that sitting, and even in prior sittings.
Then later in the day, call up these things again.
Before going to bed, think about what you learned or did during the day one more time.
Depending on the importance of the information or how long you are required to remember it, you might also recall elements you learned from the past two days, and so on.
After a few days, you’ll be able to recall the information whenever you need.
Now, in the beginning, this may not be the most easy technique to get into.
In fact, it might be downright annoying.
I’m sure, you’d rather get lost in your random thoughts than trying to force yourself to remember information that may not be so fun and exciting for you.
I assure you though, after doing it a few times, it will get easier.
And if you stay consistent, it will become almost automatic. You’ll easily be able to go into the technique and begin recalling things that you are learning, and even great ideas you come up with.
What’s more, if you apply retrieval practice regularly in your life, you will notice that the brain will automatically start remembering more. That is because it knows it will be called on to recall the information later, so it will be more motivated to pay attention and hold the information in mind.
I recommend starting now. Begin by trying to recall what you just read in this blog post.