5 Memory Strategies That Turn Information Into Knowledge

Parents and educators are finely tuned to the first element of learning — exposure to information. We immerse children in experience and data from infancy. It seems the earlier that parents begin compiling reams of facts to stuff into little minds and the quicker they push their kids to achieve motor skill milestones, the more success we attribute to the parenting. On the other end of the spectrum there are those of us who are happy to simply make it out the door with our kids in matching socks, forget about overachievement. But whether or not early exposure to formal education is appropriate and effective is a topic for another day. What we’ll be discussing in this article is how exposure to information is just one aspect of knowledge, as defined by the ability to recall and use information when needed.

The ability to learn and remember what you learn is arguably the most important skills you can develop. As students, we excel in direct relation to our ability to memorize facts and information. In the professional world, memory remains a critical component to success. However, memorization of facts can propel us only so far without the ability to recall and use the information we’ve learned when needed. Retention of data with functional recall is the key.

Many of the learning techniques acquired in school don’t lead to long-term knowledge and memory recall. Things like cramming or highlighting are band aid fixes that might help you excel on a single test, but these methods won’t produce the synaptic connections necessary for long-term retention. Too often emphasis is placed on what students need to learn, rather than how to learn it. In other words, data is prioritized over methodology. Make no mistake, however. The skill of learning how to learn is just as important as the content.

In Make It Stick’, authors Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel will tell you that real long-term learning is going to require some elbow grease.

“Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful…Learning that’s easy is like writing in the sand, here today and gone tomorrow.” they say.

As the old adage says: No pain, no gain. That’s the ultimate takeaway point from their text, as if our daily physical workouts don’t provide enough strain — bring on the mental strain! Yet, that’s the reality of it. If anything is to make it beyond your short-term memory, effort has to be applied to propel it past the gatekeeper and into the long-term memory data banks.

Although there are many techniques that can be used to create meaning and encourage the development and strengthening of synaptic connections, we’ve selected 5 specific strategies to highlight that are some of the most effective.


Try to answer before you even have an answer.

When you try to think of an answer before it’s given to you, you are actively engaged in the discovery process and are building an understanding of the concept through your own mind’s design. This method is beneficial because it makes you critically evaluate and puzzle through possible answers in a way that makes sense to you. You make logical connections around the concept. As an instructor it may seem easier to ‘instruct’ the student by giving answers. Students might also resist having to think critically because it requires … so ….. much ……. energy. But that’s when you know your efforts are about to pay off.


Recall those facts!

This is where traditional flashcard work comes into play. Flashcards can force you to recall an idea from memory. This concept stands in opposition to highlighting methods where nothing is being retained in your memory. The method of recalling facts is particularly effective at strengthening neural pathways associated with the concept you’re studying.

Another simple method that is a form of recalling information is to retell the facts to someone else. When you retell something you are not only recalling information, but also restructuring concepts and ideas into sentences that make sense to you. This association makes the information meaningful and memorable.


Connect newly acquired information with information you already have.

You already have a web of neural pathways that connect and make sense of the world. When facing new information, it can be tremendously easier to tap into pathways that already exist, rather than try to create additional connections from scratch.

When you’re weaving new threads of knowledge into the old, you’re elaborating. That’s much easier to remember in the long-run than memories that don’t have connections. One way to do this is to associate new information with real-life examples and experiences. So, when learning about heat transference, you could think about putting on a pair of warm pants straight out of the dryer. Odds are you have experienced that exact sensation and can immediately assign meaning to the concept of heat transference.


Mnemonics create meaning.

Mnemonics are acronyms or images used to help you recall information. Several well-known mnemonics include: Roy G. Biv (the colors of the rainbow — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) and PEMDAS (the order of operations — parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction).

Rhyming is another form of mnemonic device. Such rhymes are used all the time to remember facts and data that would be otherwise difficult to remember. You’ve probably heard this one: In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.


Reflect and evaluate.

After every study session, it’s a good idea to take a little time to reflect on the experience. You might think about what worked, what could be improved the next time. You could consider associating this with another situation that reminds you of the current one, or how think of how you can associate this situation with one you have previously experienced. Written reflections can be even more helpful and effective. With just 15 minutes of written reflection at the end of a learning experience, performance can be increased by as much as 23%.

When these 5 tools are implemented, as well as other methods written about in ‘Make It Stick’, the education students are working toward will be more than simple short-term data collection and will be a reflection of true knowledge and understanding. Turning facts into knowledge is something we can all use well beyond our days in school. Lifelong learning is the goal.


If you’d like to learn more about this topic, check out this article called ‘Smart Strategies That Help Students Learn How to Learn’.