Mental wealth: Take a trip on the memory train

Our resident psychologist says if you want to develop new skills, forget learning by rote and hone the ability to retrieve key information under pressure.

Nick Baylis: our resident psychologist advises on how to develop new skills
Nick Baylis: our resident psychologist advises on how to develop new skills

How good are you at learning new skills? Because the same natural learning protocol applies to everything from language fluency to physics equations, from partner dancing to piano.

Your capacity for learning is itself very largely a skill, not some inborn quantity, so you can markedly improve your capacity once you know the best procedures.

Facts, complex concepts, physical skills – you can learn them all better and faster, remember more and retain them longer.

But there is nothing intuitive about learning to learn. It feels alarming and awkward; just like swimming did before you got the hang of it. Here’s how:

1. Prime yourself: what don’t you know yet but want to; and what is your best guess about what you will find? Generating expectations will give the actual learning more ‘pow’, more "oh, I see now!".

2. Take in the ‘target skill’ one bite-sized chunk at a time by making each chunk into a vividly unusual picture in your mind. Create an imaginary scenario rich in the people or outcomes you really care about, so it feels meaningful. Caveat: don’t repeatedly practise the move, or say the line time and again. That brings only superficial remembering because the skill never goes beyond the short-term memory. It feels easy and pleasing, but only brings the illusion of learning. What you need to do instead is as soon as you’ve recalled the target chunk correctly once or twice, immediately move to stage three for a deeper level of learning.

3. Effortful search and retrieve: during this vital stage, don’t be tempted to even glance at your notes to remind yourself. You can only deepen the memory, improve the skill, if you actively go hunting for the memory traces in your mind-body system. Even though your attempt at recall is flawed and partial, it’s doing your learning a power of good. Stick with it, ride the frustration and humiliation of how much didn’t stick… and do so not for one minute, but ten. Only move to the next stage when you’re primed again to fill in the gaps for those things that you realise you don’t really understand yet, or on which you didn’t focus sufficiently.

4. Reflect and refine: compare your attempted recollection with the target notes so you can adjust your visual image and understanding of what the skill is about.

5. Retrieve under pressure: now move on to a different topic or task, and only come back much later to that original chunk of target material, so you have to work even harder at search and retrieve.

6. Repeatedly quiz yourself: once you sense the memory weakening, go hunt for it again. It’s vital that before you restudy the source material, you prime yourself by finding out what you still can’t do, what you don’t understand. That self-testing is invaluable for highlighting what you now need to know so as to eradicate gaps or weaknesses in your abilities. It’s all too easy to fool yourself that you’re better than you are – which is why you need to create highly realistic or harder-than-realistic test scenarios. Parrot-like repetition isn’t the key to storing things in long-term memory; retrieval under pressure is.

7. Get nine hours’ sleep a night, because sleep consolidates learning, and fuels your dynamism to do it properly.

Far from rocket science, but that’s not how we did it at school, is it? Not how we messed up our exam practice, and failed to move beyond C-grade, or green belt, or a clunky intermediate standard in so many things. Shocking, isn’t it?

Still, with this method now in hand, wonderful skills await you.

Visit Nick’s website at

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