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The AIU blog shares ideas, information and tips aimed at helping you get ahead personally and professionally, with topics ranging from online learning success to career development.


5 Tips on How to Retain Information

Image: Girl at laptop - online education

College, whether at a traditional university or an online degree program, involves lots of reading and digesting facts, concepts, and statistics. Sometimes, it can seem like too much. While you often have facts at your fingertips when you're online, retaining entire concepts can be difficult, especially when it feels like you've been reading forever. Besides, the material you’re covering is meant to be absorbed so you can use it in the workplace later.

The good news is there are tons of good ways to help your brain retain information. Here are five tips for helping make sure you remember more of what you’ve learned.

Tip #1: Don’t Cram

Fun fact: former U.S. President Richard Nixon was nicknamed “Iron Butt” while he was a law student due to the amount of time he spent studying in the library. If you’re tempted to brew a pot of coffee and chase Nixon’s title, think again: waiting until the last minute to “cram” can be counterproductive. If you’re panicking about an imminent assignment, essay, or exam, you’re less likely to perform as well.

It’s better to plan regular study sessions in advance—not just when you’re going to study, but what you’re going to study. Committing to focus on a specific issue gets you mentally prepared to pay attention to what’s most relevant about that topic, and that topic only.

Tip #2: Take Breaks During Sessions

Your attention span and willpower are limited. Even if you are unusually diligent and disciplined, you have a breaking point. Once you pass it, your brain (and likely body) will become fatigued, and a fatigued brain isn’t going to retain an awful lot. Breaking your study session into periods with a timer, and taking a short break between them, could help you rest your mind for a few minutes. Pacing like this may prolong your ability to be effective over the long term while you study.

Ideas for good short-term study breaks include anything that involves getting up and away from your desk. Do some push-ups. Go outside and take some deep breaths. Clean the bathtub. Play with the cat or dog. Just make sure you use a timer to limit your breaks, too, so that “five minutes” of checking Facebook doesn’t become an hour.

Tip #3: Use Your Senses

People learn in different ways—what Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner called “multiple intelligences”. Some people are “visual” learners, others “auditory” or “linguistic” or “hands-on”.

Even if you know you learn best one way as opposed to another, you’re more likely to retain information if you interact with it in a number of ways. This is why people take notes during lectures, or have discussion groups after a presentation. Reading, writing, listening, speaking, and other forms of feedback help us phrase and re-phrase the materials we’re studying, coding them into our brains more strongly.

So don’t just read and re-read. Read, take notes, and read the notes out loud. Consider drawing a picture, or even coloring one in: students in nursing courses often have anatomy “coloring books” they use to help learn the bones, muscles, organs, and nerves. And online learning environments are increasingly finding creative ways to tap in to multiple learning styles as they present course materials, with videos, games, and interactive tasks to complete.

Tip #4: Trick Yourself With Mnemonics

When you have short, sharp facts you need to memorize, using mnemonics, or memory aids, can help. Remember what “Roy G. Biv” or “My Very Elegant Mother Just Served Up Nine Planets” stands for?

Acronyms or rhymes can help you break information down into little chunks that are easier to retrieve than a long piece of information such as “the list of colors in the visible spectrum” or “the planets of the solar system, in orbit order from the sun”. Mnemonics use the power of association to help information stick in your head.

Tip #5: Teach Someone Else

Teaching what you’ve learned to someone else (or summarizing it for them) forces you to organize the way you go about learning it. You not only focus on really understanding the subject matter, you begin to approach it systematically. Most decent lesson plans will ask a teacher to:

  • Introduce the main idea of the subject (summarize it)
  • Define new words or terms
  • Give examples in real life
  • Give students two ways to practice the idea
  • Re-summarize the idea and take questions
  • Check to see what students have learned through a quiz, activity, or questioning
  • Re-teach anything that wasn’t learned the first time

If you can do all of these things with the subject matter you’re studying, you’ve definitely learned it.

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