In school, students often learn a lesson by reading a chapter in their textbook, hearing a classroom lecture on the material the next day, then having a review of that same information a few days later before a test. While that can be effective, the students may retain even more information if they have repeated encounters with material over a longer period of time.

Memory experts suggest that one of the most effective ways to lock in information is to learn it again and again but with some time in between each learning session. If you watch a television show about a former U.S. president, and then read his biography, and then search for more information online, plenty of details about that president will be stored in your memory. The key is to space out the time in between your learning sessions.

Re-learning information over a period of weeks and months in different contexts (a documentary, a book, online articles, attending a lecture, talking about it with friends, etc.) may be particularly effective. Numerous studies have found that spacing out contact with material over a long period of time is more effective than learning sessions that are compressed within a short amount of time.

Try coming back to the information in different settings, too. Read about a subject at home, a coffee shop, the library, a park, or anywhere you can focus on the material. School teachers may not have that luxury with some of their subjects and given the limits of a school’s physical space, but independent learners can boost their memory by repeatedly coming back to a subject over time and in a variety of locations.


This article originally appeared in Mind, Mood & Memory, a publication of the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, dedicated to maintaining mental fitness for middle age and beyond.

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