It turns out retrieval is more important (at least for the brain) than storage.
Recent research from cognitive scientists such as Robert Bjork at the UCLA Learning & Forgetting lab have shown that most of what we think we know about learning is wrong. (See Learning and Forgetting Lab, Getting it wrong, UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab for more).
The researchers have been testing people to see which approaches are better to recalling some information they were trying to study. They found that the key to studying and actually remembering better is working on better retrieval not better storage.
It’s somewhat interesting that the scientists aren’t talking about learning as much as retrieval of information. Almost as if learning were actually the equivalent to information retrieval.
Stop studying the same items over and over again, just try something different
It seems that studying a single item over and over again is the wrong way to try to learn something. A better way is to vary your studying, to examine different but related items, which somehow lets you better classify the information and provides more accessible paths for retrieving that data.
Stop studying in the same place, go someplace else
Further guidance is when trying to learn something new vary the location, decor, or any other characteristic of the environment you are trying to study in. The key here is that these other locations add another tag/handle/indexes to the data and the more indexing, the better for retrieval success.
Stop studying, start testing
An additional way to remember better is trying to retrieve information early and often, even if it doesn’t work. It appears that the more you try to recall, some tidbit of information, irregardless of success, the stronger the access path is burned into your brain. So that the next time you try to recollect that information, it becomes much easier to do. In fact, the suggestion is to try to test yourself after learning something new, right away, sort of retrieval exercise without studying it. Struggling to recollect something helps?!
Stop taking notes during class, start taking them afterwards
Following on in that vein yet almost unbelievable, is another recommendation to abandon note taking altogether and rather, spend time after class to summarize (exercising that retrieval path again) what you were taught. The important part is to do this immediately afterwards. (Don’t tell my kids!)
Stop studying continually, wait before you study again
Moreover, another suggestion is to wait before you study something again. It seems if you study something too soon after having just studied it, you are not exercising that recall path well enough. Rather, they advocate waiting around a couple of days/weeks before studying something again to remember it better. Struggling to recall information is better for remembering it than having an easy time of it.
With (relatively) infinite storage, forgetting is important
Finally, the cognitive scientists seem to think that forgetting is almost as important as remembering. From a storage perspective, it appears that the brain has an unlimited capacity to store information. But the downside is that any retrieval takes time and effort (something akin to searching through a bunch of indexes).
What we really want is to be better able to retrieve information that’s important. Keeping all that extraneous junk readily recallable just slows down the retrieval of the really good stuff. So forgetting helps purge un-needed access paths/tags/indexes freeing up space for what needs to be remembered.
Gosh, and to think all along all those illegible notes I took in college (and still do) really did help me learn!?