Retaining Knowledge

A disciplined and organized system to study existing knowledge periodically is the only way to retain information over time. Most knowledge taught in school is not worth remembering, but the small nuggets of vital information should be stored in an organized manner and revisited frequently. I’ve lost most of the knowledge I acquired before the age of 26, but have been able to retain programming knowledge by writing blog posts, creating code quizzes, and reviewing these materials on a regular basis. Losing knowledge and relearning it later is inefficient and I’m grateful to finally have a better system for knowledge retention.

In school, students study, pass the test, and then promptly forget almost everything they have learned. Some subjects, like math and writing are easier to retain because they’re cumulative by nature, but distinct topics, like astronomy, are extraordinarily difficult to retain without any practice.

Writing blog posts and creating quizzes are excellent methods for learning topics, especially when concepts are organized by the student without blindly following the book’s format. The quizzes should start with the simplest chunks of knowledge and build up to the bigger chunks that depend on the simple chunks. Blog posts should focus on connecting different concepts and topics that are confusing and are worthy of a detailed explanation.

While the student is learning, the quizzes and blog posts should be reviewed frequently. After the ‘test’ the students should continue taking the quizzes and reading the blogs periodically. If the quiz scores start to slip a few months after the test, the student should retake the quizzes and read the blogs more frequently until the knowledge is relearned.

Continuously studying ‘old material’ is time consuming and requires an extraordinary amount of discipline, so students should think critically about what knowledge is worth retaining. A lot of what I have learned is not worth remembering (i.e. most of macroeconomics, portfolio theory, etc.), but there are some critical topics that I really wish I didn’t forget (statistics, linear algebra, astronomy, etc.). I value my programming knowledge and am glad I have a system set up to retain it. I’ll have to go through a painful process of relearning certain topics like statistics some point in the future (if I ever get around to it). In the meantime, I will miss a lot of opportunities put statistical knowledge to good use.

Fortunately, human brain capacity is not finite, so existing knowledge does not need to be lost to gain new knowledge. The brain’s storage capacity can be expanded with exercise. Consistently exercising the brain requires great discipline, but it’s the only way to retain knowledge for the long run.

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