By Shelley Gable
Remembering what you’ve learned from an online continuing education course allows you to more easily pass any needed exams and apply your new knowledge on the job. That’s pretty obvious, right? What isn’t always as obvious is how to do that.
Learning psychology suggests three surprisingly simple reasons people forget new information. Understanding these reasons, and being aware of the online learning characteristics that feed them, can help you be proactive in making sure you remember and learn.
Failure to Encode
Failure to encode means that you never learned it in the first place. Encoding is the process of committing information to memory. Blankly viewing words on a screen will rarely result in learning. In order to encode that information into memory, you must put some thought into what you’re viewing.
Have you ever drifted away while reading, only to realize that you don’t remember anything from the last couple of pages? If you’re not actively thinking about your learning, this can happen when you’re taking an online training course that requires you to read the content. Have you ever spaced out during a presentation, suddenly realizing at some point that you have no idea what has been said for the last few minutes? This can happen while listening to an audio narration of an online course as well.
Research suggests that if you relate new information to knowledge you already possess, you’re more likely to remember the new information later. To help you continuously encode new information into memory, ask yourself questions like the ones below throughout an online course.
- How does this relate to what was discussed a moment ago?
- What questions does this raise?
- How will I apply this information on the job?
- Do I need to do something differently now that I know this?
Failure to Retrieve
Have you ever tried to remember someone’s name, and while you felt like it was on the tip of your tongue, you just couldn’t quite recall it? This is failure to retrieve. This type of thing happens to all of us from time to time. You know you’ve fallen victim to failure to retrieve when you can’t recall something that you should know.
Assigning meaning to newly learned information can help prevent this form of forgetting. Many online learning courses include slides that are packed with facts, which you’re expected to recall later for a quiz or exam. If the information seems straight-forward, you may find yourself progressing through course quickly, assuming that the information will be easy to remember. However, information that’s easy to understand can also be easily forgotten. The key is to give that information context. When taking courses online, think about the newly learned information from the perspective of the last two bullet points from the list above. Finding ways to make the information personally relevant can make it easier to recall later.
Interference is another word for distraction. In other words, you’re diverting at least some of your attention to something else. And that “something else” will likely interfere with your learning.
Like many, I’m guilty of occasionally talking on the phone and scanning through my email simultaneously. In doing so, I’m usually figuring out which emails I can just delete, which need a quick reply, and which to revisit later. And I seem to pull it off quite well. But learning is a different kind of mental task.
We have a limited amount of brain power that we can use at any given time (psychologists refer to this as working memory), and we can attempt to distribute that brain power any number of ways. That’s what happens when you multi-task – you’re divvying up your working memory. Some tasks don’t require a lot of brain power (e.g., skimming my email as described above), which makes it relatively easy to give some of that brain power to other tasks (e.g., talking to someone on the phone). However, learning new information typically demands most of your working memory.
To avoid forgetting new information due to interference, minimize distractions and multi-tasking while taking an online course. If you take a phone call, don’t assume that you can continue to read content at the same time and remember what you read. If you’re listening to an audio narration, don’t surf the web or check your email at the same time. Give the course your full, undivided attention. Considering that online courses are available to you whenever and wherever, attempt to complete the course at a time and place where you’re least likely to be tempted by distraction.
The reasons we forget newly learned information are quite simple. Fortunately, methods for overcoming them are also simple. Armed with this knowledge, you can proactively engage in these methods during online courses to help you avoid forgetting the information you need to learn.
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Shelley A. Gable is an instructional designer and freelance writer. She has developed training for functions such as financial services, call centers, and engineering education. Shelley has written articles on topics related to training and management for print and online publications. Visit Shelley’s website at http://www.shelleygable.webs.com.