Purposeful Talent Development: Retaining What You’ve Learned

watering can brain
Jennifer Stangl Photo
Director of Professional Development

3 minutes

Here are three tips for better remembering new knowledge.

The start of a year is a time we begin to set goals and also identify development areas to help meet these goals. We look at knowledge we want to gain, skills we want to develop and training we’d like to take. 

Once we’ve identified and participated in opportunities to build our skills, we can’t just sit back. Retaining all this new knowledge requires work. As much as we’d like, new knowledge is not absorbed by osmosis and carried forever in our brains, we have to work to retain it. 

For those of you familiar with the forgetting curve, you understand how much work it takes to retain information. For those that may not be familiar, the Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting hypothesizes the decline of memory retention over time. It shows how information is lost when there is no attempt to retain it. Anyone who has parked in a ramp and couldn’t find the car when you returned is a victim of the forgetting curve. (I’d recommend taking a picture of any signs near your car in the future.)

Now, as annoying as it is to forget where you parked, forgetting something you learned at a conference or training or from a colleague is far more frustrating. At these events, you spent your time, energy and budget to participate and you want to walk away with something new or even enlightening. 

Here is where the work comes in. Let’s say you attend a conference or training. Without work, here are some facts about the amount of information you will retain. 

  • After an hour, we retain less than half of the information presented.
  • After a day, we forget more than 70% of what might have been shared in a training.
  • After six days, people forget 75% of education provided.

I am not sharing this to deter you. In fact, I’m sharing it to create awareness and identify steps to retain what you’ve learned and deepen your development. Whether you are participating in formal learning (conference, training), engaging in self-directed learning (reading, online course), or connecting with a colleague (collaborating on a project), follow these tips to help retain this new information: 

1. Take a break. It is recommended that students take a 10-minute break after learning something new. This improves recall 10-30%. Be sure to take advantage of scheduled breaks during formal learning or step away from your desk for a few minutes when you are learning something new. Give your mind a chance to recharge.

2. Quiz yourself. Using an interactive method, such as a brief quiz, after learning something new can help you retain the information better. Whenever we retrieve information from our memory, it builds pathways and increases the chances that we’ll find it again in the future.

3. Tell someone. According to the NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, teaching others helps students retain 90% of what they read. The ability to teach or share learning with others demonstrates your mastery of concepts and helps you formulate the content in a way that makes sense to you. Through conversation, you also share knowledge and create an opportunity to have discussion and hear another perspective, thereby increasing your depth of knowledge.

As you move through the year and identify opportunities to focus on your development, try these tips out. As each learning experience is different, you may find that one of these works best for you when you are collaborating with a peer and another works better when attending a training. Identify the tip that works best for you or blend them together to support your own development. 

Jennifer Stangl is director of professional development at CUES.

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