4 Steps to (REALLY) Remember What You Learn

“You don’t really know something until you teach it to someone else.”

As a teacher, I know this to be true. Whenever I thought I knew something and I had to teach it to someone, realized how little I actually knew. Don’t believe me? Try it.

If you can make a cheesecake or skateboard or solve complex math equations or whatever and you have been able to do it as long as you can remember, good for you. You’re a natural.  Trouble is that other people can’t do the thing you can do, but many of them want to. Try teaching them how to do that thing. What happens?

You have to think through the process. You have to think through how and why what you do and then systematically explain it to another person who doesn’t understand how to do it and may lack the physical or mental qualities you have. If you’ve tried this, then you probably have felt some frustration when they just didn’t seem to get it.

The Curse of Knowledge

Professors feel the same way when they teach college students. They know their subjects. They almost cannot remember a time when they didn’t know the concept or have the skill. When you are struggling, they sometimes seem unsympathetic. What is happening is that they have the “Curse of Knowledge.” As terrible as that sounds and as frustrating as it can be, someday it will happen to you too.

For now you have to to chemistry or macro-economics with a person who (hopefully) knows his/her stuff and they are trying to help you understand. They don’t know what your background is in the subject and they keep using vocabulary or equations that you don’t know, other people in the room seem to get and you are expected to keep up. So what do you do?

1) Find a partner outside of the class. Tell that person that you need help studying. If they know as much or less than you do, it’s perfect. The best helpers are people who are curious and can ask a lot of questions, an elementary school kid or a grandparent who is spry would be terrific. As them if you can meet with them once or twice per week to “teach” them what you are learning in your class.  If they agree, make a standing time every week through the semester.

2) Go to class and take notes on everything. Keep in mind that you are going to use those notes to teach them what you are learning. If part of the learning comes from what you have read in a textbook or watched in a presentation or video, take notes on them too. Think about the questions your helper is likely to ask you and make sure you prepare. If you need to use part of a PowerPoint® or online video, make sure you have it available.

3) Teach your partner as much as you know. Try to teach your helper as best as you can. Use any materials you can, even if you had to go beyond the textbook or what your instructor said to explain it. Make sure they can answer questions about the chapter, subject, skill or concept. Encourage them to ask you many questions. If you cannot answer a question, go back to your instructor or the textbook or research to get the answers you need. Get them excited or interested in the thing you are learning.

4) Every two or three sessions, quiz them with questions you have generated. You can start with some of the chapter questions that are in most books, but use the questions they have asked you to see if they were really paying close attention to your answers. Make up your own questions. Quiz them until they seem to know the topic well. If you have a test coming up, make sure you quiz them with questions or study guides that you have.

If you follow these steps, a number of things are likely to happen:

  • You will learn the material better than you ever have before
  • You will likely, do well in the class
  • You will know what you grasp and what you still don’t understand before you are tested on it
  • You will ask better questions in class
  • You will take the best notes of your life
  • You will, likely, cultivate a meaningful relationship with your partner

Don’t believe me? Try it. I dare you.


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