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Actualize Blog

September 4, 2015

How to Retain What You’ve Learned

So you’ve just learned something new about programming: a new a concept, a new technique, or maybe a brand-new perspective on a problem you’ve never been able to solve.

Maybe you typically learn new things only once in a while, or maybe you’re an aggressive learner and voracious reader who is always seeking new things to cram into your cranium. Either way, how can you make sure you actually remember all the things you’ve learned? How do you make these new ideas part of your being, rather than letting your new knowledge remain extraneous and easily forgotten?

learning to code

Photo by 1871.

I’ve read many programming books in the past and still do today. Programming books litter my house enough that anytime I find myself in any particular room with nothing to do, I have fresh learning material at hand. I take advantage of it often, but have always found it curious that some new-found knowledge seems to stick while other bits of technical know-how go in one brain hemisphere and out the other.

Since one of my main passions is understanding how people learn, I’ve thought carefully about the common denominator in all the material that I remember as opposed to what I forget. And I’ve discovered the answer.

All knowledge that I’ve actually put to use right away has stuck with me. Everything else has been sucked out of my brain by some black hole in outer space.

Practicing what you’ve learned transforms the subject matter from academic to practical. Once information is practical, you’ve accomplished several things: A) You have firsthand knowledge of the technique you’ve just discovered. It’s no longer something someone else has told you - you know how to do it yourself. B) You now have a clearer grasp of what problems the technique solves and are likely to require it again in the future, which will further reinforce retention. C. Any lack of clarity on the subject evaporates when you’re forced to use it yourself. It’s much easier to retain something if you understand it with complete clarity, while fuzzy knowledge sits and waits for the chance to escape your brain.

Because of this fact, I no longer read technical books and articles in depth unless I’ll know that I’ll use what I've learned shortly thereafter. If I come across something interesting that I think I may use at some point in the future, I’ll skim it and get the basic idea of its benefits, making a mental note that I’ll come back to that source if and when the need arises. There’s still plenty of stuff I can learn that I can use in the here and now, so why should I waste time studying in depth that which I’ll forget?

Moral of the Story: Use it or lose it. Practice what you’ve learned and you’ll remember it forever.

-Jay Wengrow, Founder of Anyone Can Learn To Code