8 cognitive strategies to enhance retention and learning

9 mins read

When it’s clear that we all process information and learn differently, each of us needs to create our own cognitive strategies to learn and retain information effectively.  

Some of us will take a methodical approach and some of us will work best in short bursts.  

Whether you’re a detail-oriented thinker or big picture planner, we all need ways to manage our daily tasks and it should not have to take years to develop these cognitive and learning strategies.  

Learning how to learn is a skill like any other.  

And understanding how you think and learn best is one of the greatest advantages any of us has in life. It will help you to take up learning in the classroom, develop your knowledge over time and help you become an effective worker, more attuned to your needs and strengths to thrive and progress. 

Your mind is wonderfully complex and powerful, but we all need a bit of help to focus our attention and get things done day to day. 

So here are a few evidence-based cognitive strategies to give you some learning tips and tricks. 


1. Repetition 

Simple but effective, repetition helps us to retain information in our long-term memory and retain it accurately.  

Whether it’s re-reading notes, rewatching a seminar or repeating an exercise. Each time we repeat an action, we solidify it in our memory. However, it’s important to repeat information over multiple sessions across different days or months, as cramming the information into one session won’t lead to long-term retention. 

But why do we need to repeat things to learn? 

Repeating something may seem tedious, but it strengthens the connection and pathways in our brain associated with this information.  

As these pathways become more developed, we get quicker and more confident in this knowledge or activity. 

And your brain creates new connections every day, so repeating important information or tasks regularly helps to make sure that these neural connections remain strong. 

Back in 1885, German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus, pioneered in the experimental study of memory and many of his findings are supported to this day. In his book on Memory, he said: 

“Under ordinary circumstances, indeed, frequent repetitions are indispensable in order to make possible the reproduction of a given content. Vocabularies, discourses, and poems of any length cannot be learned by a single repetition even with the greatest concentration of attention on the part of an individual of very great ability. By a sufficient number of repetitions their final mastery is ensured, and by additional later reproductions gain in assurance and ease is secured.” 

Think of all the famous Shakespearean stage actors, like Dame Judy Dench or Sir Ian McKellen, they know many of the English playwright’s words off by heart and their performances just get better and better. 

Long-term learning relies on repetition. 


2. Spaced learning

Spaced learning is a proven method of learning, designed with three intensive learning periods spaced out by two 10-minute breaks.

Research in education, drawn from both behavioural and laboratory studies, has shown that this method is highly effective for long-term memory encoding and high-stakes performance on tests.

So how does it work?

The learning periods involve condensed and intensive periods of learning no longer than 30 minutes at a time. The speed of these sessions is important, with the same content repeated three times using a different context each time.

For example, the first session might be a video or someone presenting with slides that you can only watch and not take notes. The second might include recall of information through a quiz and the third might involve applying this information to solve a problem or task.

The 10-minute breaks also need to involve distractor activities like physical exercise or memorising a random list of words that is unrelated to the learning content.

Research around this method have shown good results.

“Remarkably, learning at a greatly increased speed and in a pattern that included deliberate distraction produced significantly higher scores than random answers (p < 0.00001) and scores were not significantly different for experimental groups (one hour spaced learning) and control groups (four months teaching).” (P. Kelley and T. Whatson, 2013)

The opposite of spaced learning is often termed “massed learning”, which is practice in a single session with little or no breaks. Cramming is an example of massed learning.

People in the working world may be familiar with the similar Pomodoro Technique for time management.


3. Explain it to someone else 

If you can easily explain a subject or task to someone else, then you likely have a good grasp of the topic you’re speaking about.  

It’s really helpful when learning something new to try explaining it to another person. You might find this doesn’t come easily at first, that you have to go back and explain something you missed or you struggle to find the right words in the moment.  

That’s ok. 

But this process helps you to draw out the key information, provide context and identify bits that you’re not 100% sure about, which may not have been obvious to you.  

Sometimes we might think we’re familiar with a subject. However, this feeling can be misleading because when we try to explain something, we might not be able to do it – even if we initially felt confident.  

Getting the other person to ask questions can also help you dive deeper into the subject, identify gaps in your knowledge and improve your own understanding. Some examinations are done through a professional discussion in this way, so it’s good practice for these situations and similar discussions in the workplace. 

Teachers naturally do this in their roles too, and it’s part of what makes them experts in their chosen field. Every teacher gets asked a question they don’t know the answer to, so don’t worry too much and use it as part of your learning. 


4. Write it in your own language

Similar to explaining something verbally, writing down what you need to learn in your own words helps to build your knowledge.

It will often make it easier for you to remember, as it’s a way of repeating the information but adapting it slightly to improve retention.

Even better, if you speak more than one language, the act of translating information creates deeper encoding in your memory.


5. Use real world examples

Sometimes, we might need to find a way to frame information within a relatable scenario or example. Learning information can feel quite abstract if we’re not given a specific context in which we might use it.

A very common example is questioning why we learn Maths in school.

It’s easy to say that we don’t use Maths day-to-day, except that we often do. We all do things like:

  • Manage our finances and bills
  • Plan travel, based on the time and distance from your home
  • Cook from recipes
  • Shop around for the best deals
  • Repay loans
  • Understand the scoring for your favourite sport or board game

Even trigonometry is critical to architecture, music production, engineering and manufacture – in your home, it might affect where you place your sound system to get the best audio quality or your plants to make sure they get enough light.

Perhaps think about ways you can apply new information to your job or personal life. And for subjects that maybe don’t seem all that interesting, you can come up with unusual and even funny real-world scenarios that help you to remember and contextualise this information.


6. Distributed practice 

Distributed practice is similar to spaced learning, and both are based on Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. 

The Forgetting Curve is a measurement of the amount of time it takes us to forget information. 

When we review information one day later, three days later and even a month later, we reduce this Forgetting Curve and increase our ability to recall the information in the future. 

Ideally, we want to remind ourselves of learning just at the point where our knowledge is starting to degrade and repeat this pattern through multiple days, weeks and months. 

While Spaced Learning is better for immediate retention of information, distributed practice is about returning to our learning at various intervals to continually retain this information for long-term use.  

Again, distributed practice is split into short sessions but over a longer period of time. With distributed practice it is not necessary to change the context of the activity and you can repeat the same information multiple times because the gaps between practice are longer and you are priming yourself for each subsequent recall. 


7. Visualisation techniques  

Some memory techniques take a more visual approach.  

You might prefer to attach certain information to different rooms in your home or a mental environment that you can “walk” around. 

People who participate in memory championships – yes, these are a thing – associate the faces, numbers or lists of words they need to recall with specific image or object that seems similar, each one leading to the next image in imagined spatial environment. 

BBC’s Sherlock made this “Mind Palace” technique famous, but it actually originates from ancient Greek and Roman times and was then called the “method of loci”. 

A number of studies have investigated the skills of memory champions, and they interestingly found that, “Without exception, all of them tell us that they had a pretty normal memory before they learned of mnemonic strategies and started training in them[.]”  

So this memory technique could help any of us retain and learn information. 


8. Quiz yourself 

Self-testing is an easy and effective way of learning. You can use flash cards to help you.  

Go through the information you are trying to learn, pick out the most important bits and create a question about it, write this on one side of the card and the answer on the other.  

Quiz yourself by trying to answer the question without looking at the answers, or get a friend to ask the questions. Combine this with distributed practice and quiz yourself each day. 

Quizzing yourself in this way can be relevant for multiple scenarios, like: 

  • Exam preparation 
  • Interview practice 
  • Public speaking 
  • Teaching 
  • Identify gaps in knowledge 
  • Improve overall confidence in your knowledge 

Research also shows that “during the five years of experimentation using online quizzes shows that such quizzes have a proven positive influence on students’ academic performance.” (S. Lorenzo, A. Antonio and G. Laura, 2012) 


The benefits of cognitive and learning strategies

We don’t often realise that a lot of the tools and techniques we use for learning come from centuries of research and study of the mind.

The cognitive strategies for learning don’t always seem complex or important, but they really do work.

But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t concentrate for long enough to focus on learning strategies.

If this is you, always remember to take regular breaks. It might feel like you’re not working hard enough, or you need to push yourself because you haven’t got anything done, but your brain is clearly telling you something.

Cognitive overload is real, and it’s important to be aware that cramming too much information in one go or trying to do too many tasks at once has a cognitive cost.

These types of learning and cognitive strategies can help to reduce cognitive overload and support learning for different individuals.

Not all of us will have an impressive memory, but these are the kind of tools we can all use to become more effective learners in life and build inclusivity into our learning practices.

Cognassist has multiple memory measures within our assessment that can offer insight into your mind and how you learn best.


Applying cognitive strategies in learning

Cognitive strategies like the 8 we have listed here can be applied to any form of learning. You might want to pick one or two to try out for yourself and see how you get on.

Whether it’s through formal education, in school, college or university, or employment, with training or continued personal development, we all need to find ways of managing ourselves and ensuring long-term success.

Remember, we learn every day of our lives.

As we explore learning in different contexts throughout life, we may need to change our strategies or learn new ones as we go. There are lots of educational and learning insights that come from psychological and cognitive sciences.

And finding strategies that work for us can be easy in some situations and much harder in others.

Cognassist offers cognitive strategies and techniques to support lifelong learning and continually offer organisations ways to adapt to suit individuals. Our cognitive assessment builds a picture of how you think and learn to offer support where it’s needed and build on people’s strengths.

Our solution offers ways to improve the learning and employment experience, build greater inclusivity and help shape an organisation’s approach to increasing retention and success rates based on cognitive science and research.

It’s time we all worked smarter and not harder to attain critical learning goals and achieve long-term progress.

Take our free Neurodiversity in the Workplace Training

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