How to remember and use what you learn

This is the first of a series focused on how to transfer learning into on the job application and results.

Learning has several forms, but the most common involves learning lots of new knowledge and information. We call this knowledge-based learning. Unfortunately, most of the new information people learn is quickly forgotten or not put into use. Here’s how to avoid that problem.

Why it’s important to take notice of this problem

The most important point about knowledge and information is that we need to be able to remember it and recall it if we want to use it well. If we’re not able to do that any effort we’ve put into learning is wasted.

The main thing is to not think that being able to remember something is linked to intelligence. For sure, some people are good at remembering stuff. But, most of us aren’t good at doing that, and there are some very good reasons why.

Everyone remembers significant events, their wedding day, their graduation day, or the day they pranged the car at the traffic lights and the police officer gave them a ticket. We might even remember less significant things just because they are unusual or quirky, like when we pull out of the driveway on a sunny day only to be driving through hailstones 20 minutes later. Everything else we tend to easily forget, just because we don’t have enough space in our brains to store all the routine things that we see and hear.

Unfortunately, most training falls into the routine category which is why it’s easy for us to forget it, especially when the information is complex or dense. So how do we get over that problem?

How we overcome this problem at work

What we’ve discovered from experience and research is that knowledge-based learning like new product information, ethics and values, leadership strategies etc. all include lots of hard to remember information. So, what we do is to create a mechanism to make memories longer. This is almost always done using two tactics.

The first tactic is to prepare well for learning. We survey learners to find out exactly how they will apply learning in their work. We do this because standardized learning isn’t always relevant to everyone – people use information in different ways, so we leverage a survey to tailor the way we deliver the knowledge.

The second tactic is to give people meaningful reminders. These take the form of job aids that can be used in moments of need and digital reminders that are interactive and memorable. For the reminders we like to use audio and video clips that have short quizzes attached. We’ve found that format to be much more ‘clickable’ and useful than text-based reminders sent by email.

Hints and tips about what you can do to combat this problem

You might not be taking any leadership training yourself right now, but you could be thinking about taking a knowledge-heavy course and wondering how to remember and recall more of what you learn. Here are a few hints and tips to get you started.

Begin by doing a bit pre-learning planning. Look at the books your’e reading, the course modules you’re taking to see where your gaps really are. It could be that you can skim over or completely skip certain parts of the learning. That way you can reduce the amount of information you are taking in, which will help you with the next steps.

Plan how to use the information once learning is done. It could be worth staggering the learning – what we call spaced learning – to allow yourself to learn-apply-learn-apply. If it’s not possible to apply learning in phases, then plan exactly how it will be used once all the learning is done and stick to your plan.

Create personalized application aids as you go through. These can be lists, flash cards, diary notes, etc. Anything that works well for you and can be easily accessed at the moment of need will be great for recalling the most difficult information.

Set yourself digital reminders. This is easier than it sounds using a phone or tablet. One trick is to set yourself timed reminders to read summary chapters of books or learning modules. You can also remind yourself to review videos or PDF’s that you thought were valuable.

Whatever you do, remember that recall is the key to transferring knowledge into actions. So, whether you’re learning something for work or just for yourself, set up a system for extending your memory to forget less learning and apply more of what matters to you.

Good luck

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