How to Remember What You Learn

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In this post, we’ll cover:

  • Why retention and clear thinking are the most important parts of your learning process
  • How to take effective notes
  • How to create mind maps
  • How to use mental models to help you think better and retain information
  • The art of synthesizing information
  • Using analytical thinking to help you integrate what you learn

We’re all intimately familiar with feeling bombarded by information when attempting to learn online. Every webpage, article, video, and social media post is full of information — and if we want to learn effectively, we need to both make sense of it and retain it.

Sensemaking and retention are hard. In order to remember information — let alone internalize it or be able to apply it — you need a good system for managing and recalling your learnings. 

There are a few different ways you can organize your learning to improve your retention — but really, the most important key is to organize your thinking. Once you can clearly think about a topic and make sense of it, you’re able to effectively apply the information to enhance your work and your life.

This means that the key to a great organization system is a system that helps you think well. It is streamlined, accessible, and seamlessly integrates into your existing learning workflows — otherwise, you won’t use it. 

There are a number of different organization systems that allow you to both enhance your thinking and improve your retention. In this post, we’ll break down a few, including:

  • Note taking
  • Mind maps
  • Mental models
  • Synthesis
  • Analytical thinking

We’ll also be sharing step-by-step instructions for putting each of these systems into practice. You can apply these techniques to a specific topic you’re learning about (for example: cryptocurrency) or a specific piece of content you’re consuming (for example: a podcast episode you’re listening to or an article you’re reading).

Whenever you’re ready, let’s dive in!

Use note taking methods to remember what you consume

Your learning is only as valuable as your ability to recall the information you intake and put it into practice.

When you’re consuming content, you want to take notes and actively engage with the information. This will help you better remember what you’ve consumed. Note taking methods are helpful for two reasons:

  1. The act of writing things down aids in retention
  2. When you take notes, it makes it easier to go back and reference that information later

Your learning is only as valuable as your ability to recall the information you intake and put it into practice.

Each time you consume a piece of content, consider taking notes on:

  1. Interesting points you want to remember
  2. Things you want to look up later (a form of iterative learning — moving from one topic to another)
  3. Your own thoughts on the content you’re consuming, or ideas you have that spin off of the core content
  4. Summaries of things you’ve read or learned, after you finish consuming content (e.g., after you finish listening to a podcast, summarize the key points covered)

It’s also recommended to take notes both during and after content consumption — during to write down shorter notes and thoughts you want to remember, and after to write down the key points from the overall piece. Taking notes both during and after helps ensure you retain as much information as possible from the content you’re consuming.

There are a few different ways you can take these notes. 

When reading on paper, in-line notes can work well (writing directly on the work in the margins), and Personal Learning can offer the same functionality in digital form when you’re reading on the web. Taking notes in a separate scratch pad (whether physical or digital, although we recommend digital) can also help you organize your thoughts.

Regardless of the format you choose, the most important key is to get into the habit of taking notes every time you consume content. Having a note taking method is important: the more notes you take, the more information you’ll retain.

How to put this into practice:

  1. Next time you consume content, take notes on the points you find interesting and the ideas that stem from them.
  2. After you’ve finished the content piece, write a summary of the core points covered.
  3. Then add a quick summary of your own thoughts and takeaways.
  4. Over time, allow your notes on different content pieces to begin to accumulate — and begin to notice the overlaps between different pieces of information and different topics.

Create mind maps around what you’re learning

Mind maps are a great way to not only capture information, but also illustrate how those pieces of information relate together. Think of a mind map as a web of ideas, chronologically linked.

In the center of the mind map — the metaphorical web — is the core idea from which everything else stems. If you were creating a mind map about this article, that core idea would be “organizing information.” The secondary layer of the web — the core ideas stemming from “organizing information” — would be things like “notes” and “mind maps.”

From each of those secondary items, a tertiary layer would follow (in the example of “notes,” these might be things like “important information,” “items to look up,” and “synthesis.”).

You’d end up with a web of information that looked something like this mind map example:

Mind maps are a great way to organize information, because they’re clear, concise, and visual. You can quickly spin up a mind map as you’re thinking about information, and as you can see in the above mind map example, they’re also easy to reference. You can view all the information they contain — and the relationships between that information — at a glance.

You can create a mind map on a piece of paper, a whiteboard, or using a program like Lucidchart or Canva. You can build a mind map while you consume, or take a few minutes to organize your thoughts in mind map format after you finish a piece of content.

How to put this into practice:

  1. Next time you finish a piece of content, take ten minutes to create a mind map
  2. Start by noting the core idea at the center of the map
  3. Then add each secondary idea as a bubble stemming from the center of the map
  4. Add additional layers of ideas as relevant, and use a line to connect each new bubble back to the idea it stems from

Use mental models to organize your opinions

One of the most important parts of the learning process is formulating your own opinion on the topics you’re learning about.

A mental model allows you to neatly organize the information you’re intaking into a logical structure. There are many different mental models (which you can read about here), each designed to help you formulate information in different ways.

One of the mental models we use at Edvo is the comprehension model, which helps you make sure you understand what you’re learning. When using the model, you break your notes down into three categories:

  1. “This suggests” (the key points the content seems to be making)
  2. “My thoughts” (your key insights about those points)
  3. “My questions” (the key questions you’re left with)

Whichever mental models you choose to use, structuring your thoughts on a piece of content around them allows you to:

  1. Organize your thoughts clearly
  2. Save information in an easy-to-reference structure that you can come back to again and again.

How to put this into practice:

  1. Next time you finish consuming a piece of content, take time to organize your thoughts into a mental model
  2. Choose the mental model that’s most helpful for the way you want to engage with the content
  3. Write out your thoughts on the piece in the structure suggested by the mental model
  4. When you’ve finished, save your thoughts with your other notes — for easy access later.

Synthesize the ideas you’re learning about

As you’re gathering and internalizing information, you also need to synthesize it. Synthesis is an important process, both for summarizing stand-alone pieces of content, and for combining the ideas contained in larger bodies of content (e.g. a collection of articles on a specific topic).

There are two different ways you can synthesize information, and both are valuable to your information organization process:

  1. Synthesize the ideas in one piece of content (i.e. a summary of the main points in an article)
  2. Synthesize how the ideas in different pieces of content relate to each other

The things you’re learning about relate to each other. Over time, as you learn about more and more things, you’ll start to see the connections between different topics and different ideas.

No matter what you’re studying, you’ll start to see connections — but you’ll see them even more quickly if you’re consistently consuming content on a single topic.

Even if you’re consuming content on seemingly unrelated topics, you’ll still start to draw connections. Things often interrelate that you wouldn’t expect — and sometimes insights connected from different topics are the source of the best ideas. 

These smaller, synthesized bites of information are far easier to reference and organize than broader, more general notes. They make it easy to reference your learning in both your thinking and your work.

How to put this into practice:

  1. Next time you consume 2-3 content pieces on a specific topic, take time to synthesize the connections between those ideas
  2. If it helps, review your notes on different content pieces — and see where you notice connections
  3. If relevant, pull in insights from different topics, and explore the relationships between them
  4. Treat this less as a process with a “correct method,” and more like a playground. Explore, try things, learn! Let your curiosity guide you and see what you discover.

Write out your own thoughts on the content covered

Analytical thinking is one of the most important keys to retention.

You’re far more likely to remember the things you consume when you critically think about them. Each time you consume content, you want to make sure you’re critically thinking about it — and then express your own thoughts on the 

There are a few thought exercises to help you do this:

  1. Ask questions about the content. (Do I agree with X? Why or why not?)
  2. Walk through the logic of the piece yourself and see if you agree
  3. Restate the points made in your own words
  4. Try to make a counter-argument to the point being made in the content. What does disagreeing 

Once you’ve recorded your own thoughts on a piece of content, you can save those thoughts with your other notes for easy reference later — or turn them into more polished pieces of collateral, like blog posts or videos. (If you’re interested in turning your learning into a portfolio piece, we have a blog post walking you through each step of that process).

This thinking side of content consumption is part of why synthesizing, note taking, and mind map making are so important. They force you to analytically think about the information you’re consuming (and how it relates to itself).

The key point:

As you’re learning, use these different methods to help you organize, integrate, and remember the things that you learn. And if you’d like help along the way, join our Discord community of self-directed learners

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