4 steps to remembering difficult information, according to an expert

Hint: None of them involve highlighting

In an age of handheld smartphones equipped with Google and Siri, it's easy to forget to remember. 

That's because remembering facts should be an active process, says Ulrich Boser, an education researcher and author of the book Learn Better. In an interview with Olga Khazan for The Atlantic, Boser explains why we can't just expect to passively retain difficult information forever—and four things we can do to combat forgetfulness. 

1. Allow me to explain...

In order to retain a fact or a piece of knowledge, Boser says, you need to be able to translate it into wording that you understand.

With that in mind, Boser argues that teaching other people is a particularly effective way to learn. When you teach someone a concept, you first have to identify what might be confusing about that concept, and then simplify it. In doing so, he says you interact with the information, making you more likely to remember it going forward. 

How to explain important information clearly and effectively to students

2. Break out your flashcards  

Some of the memorization methods you learned back in grade school aren't actually very effective, says Boser. Highlighting and rereading passages, for instance, are just passive ways to convince yourself you're retaining information. (You're not.)

But one grade school method does pass the test, and that's quizzing yourself.

When you ask yourself to recall something and fail to do so, Boser explains, it's that moment of difficulty that causes you to remember the fact going forward. "We're a little bit out of our comfort zone, we are a little bit more challenged, and that helps us develop skills," says Boser.

3. Once memorized, not always memorized

Humans forget information at a regular rate, says Boser, which is why we would all benefit from revisiting material periodically.

Boser points out that this isn't a new method of remembering, but says it's one that our education system seems to have forgotten. Boser notes that schools and colleges often teach information as a "one and done" deal, when they should instead cycle learned information back in before students have the chance to forget it. 

When adult learners reenroll in school, they have no choice but to revisit long-forgotten information. Learn how best to serve these students.

4. Memorization by association

One of the best ways to remember information, Boser argues, is to "hang that information on other information."

When you associate a fact with a particular experience or phenomenon you're unlikely to forget—such as your favorite sports team or your first kiss—you'll remember the new information that's wrapped into the older information.

That's where acronyms can come in handy, since you mentally wrap the first letter of each new word you need to remember into a word you already know (Khazan, The Atlantic, 3/16).

With prior learning assessments, students can put information they've actively retained toward a college degree

Next in Today's Briefing

Why would a student turn down her dream school?

Next Briefing

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague