How to Remember More of What You've Learned

Sometimes when you're learning something new, one of the most difficult things to overcome isn't understanding the complex topics at hand. Instead, a common issue comes with retaining the information that you've just learned. By retaining, we don't mean remembering what you just watched in a Digital-Tutors course or lesson for the next couple of hours. We actually mean really keeping it to long-term memory so you can come back to when you need it days, months or even years from now. You're not alone. And fortunately there are a lot of things you can do to help improve your retention to really grasp those crazy topics.

Successful retention starts by reducing stress

Over the years, countless books and scientific studies have been done showing links between stress and damage in the hippocampus, which is a section of the brain directly involved with learning and memory. Unfortunately, in our fast-paced society we're often forcing ourselves to cram our brains full of so much information so quickly that it often gets overworked and stressed out as a result. Your best bet to retaining information long-term doesn't have to do with cramming your brain full of knowledge as fast as possible. Instead, it has to do with absorbing information in a way that allows your brain to be stress-free. This is often easier said than done, but the key there is that it can be done. It really just boils down to making the effort to get it done.

Make a plan

month Whether it's concept art, storyboards or previsualization, movies and games aren't made without a ton of planning. The same is true for any other creative industry, from CAD blueprints to sketching out web designs. While there's always going to be times when you see something cool and you want to just dive into learning all about it. In most instances that's not going to be the best way for you to retain information because of the aforementioned stress it causes the brain. Instead, block out some time to study in advance. A huge part of making the plan is being realistic with yourself. We'd all benefit from a Matrix-like injection system for education, but since those don't exist we'll need to be realistic in how much you expect to be able to learn at any given time. Don't set yourself up for failure before you've even started. Determine how much time works best for you, but again you're wanting to be realistic. Do you really think you can spend eight hours straight really focusing on learning? In most cases, four hours of focused learning is going to be better than eight hours of distracted learning, so if you can only dedicate four hours to learning then be honest with yourself. An added benefit of planning out your training ahead of time is the simple fact it helps avoid those late-night cram sessions. We've already talked about how sleep can be negative to your creativity, but the same is also true for learning.

Give yourself a break

As part of your study plan, don't forget to throw some breaks in there. While everyone has a different amount of time that works best for them for both their work sessions and breaks, the importance of letting your eyes and brain rest for a few minutes is immense. If you're not sure where to start, try following the suggestion from the popular Pomodoro Technique and give yourself at least a five minute break every twenty-five minutes. Another popular option is to bunch up your breaks into a single bigger break each hour, meaning roughly forty-five minutes of being completely focused on studying and then a fifteen minute break (give or take a few minutes). Then simply repeat this process until your scheduled time is done. It may seem counter-intuitive to retaining information to break yourself away from it, but when you come to the realization that you're not fighting against the clock it's a lot easier to allow your brain time to absorb what it's learned before throwing more at it. Think of learning sort of like food for the brain. You're not going to spend eight hours a day eating food constantly without any breaks, so it doesn't make sense to do the same for your brain. A relaxed mind is much better at retaining information than a stressed and overworked mind.

Take notes during your study sessions

Are you a note-taker? Great! Take notes. Not a note-taker? Great! Take notes anyway. As odd as it may sound, one of the best ways to get your brain to retain information is to take notes. The key here is knowing what type of notes to take and that can vary depending on what type of learner you are. For a visual learner, try describing a visual image of the concepts being taught in your notes. Use words, pictures, graphs or whatever can help you grasp or explain the concept of what's happening. Watch and re-watch the areas that really don't make sense until you're able to explain a concept of what you think is happening to yourself in your notes. If you're a kinesthetic learner, try focusing your notes on what other things you can do with the concepts you're learning. Even though you may not be doing those concepts right now, taking notes like that can help you get more involved in the process of learning and, by extension, you're more likely to retain the information. You might be watching a lesson about masking out hair for a zombie photo manipulation technique now, but can the same concept be applied to animal fur? All of a sudden, the lesson isn't really about going to the Layer panel to add a Layer Mask anymore; it's about what you can do with those concepts. If you're an auditory learner, try recording your notes. There's a ton of great apps, like Recordense, out there that will let you tag specific parts of an audio file so you'll be able to quickly find it again. For your audio notes, try to create notes that are explaining what's happening. Going through the process of having to reword and explain something can be a great way to really help you keep the information in memory.

Practice, practice, practice

This one doesn't really come as a surprise, but here at Digital-Tutors we'll typically recommend watching our courses in batches of three in order to help retain information. The first time you watch, just take notes. Don't try to do anything else. Take notes and try to explain the concepts to yourself through your notes. After you've watched a course all the way through, go back again and watch it a second time. This time, instead of taking notes, try to follow along with the tutor and when you get stuck refer to your notes for the explanations you gave yourself of those tough areas. Finally, do away with the video tutorial and try to replicate what was done in the tutorial on your own using only your notes as reference and only as needed. This process of watching training repeatedly will help you practice the tools and techniques being taught, but it also allows you to use your own learning style to make sure everything you're learning is going to stay.


You need a way to be able to overcome the stress and overwork that can be all-to-easy to happen. The key here is to pace yourself so you can absorb the information enough to really understand it instead of just remember it for a short period. A great to do this is to use what's referred to as a SMART goals. Specific: Know exactly what you're going to be focused on when you sit down to learn.
Measurable: Find a way to measure whether or not you were successful each time you sit down to learn.
Attainable: Be realistic about your goal. "Learn Maya" won't happen in a couple hours.
Relevant: Stay focused on what you want to learn. Don't bounce around between Photoshop and Maya if you want to learn just Photoshop.
Time-bound: Put this on your to-do list or calendar. Make sure it's time-based. Here's a simple, actionable to-do list for how you can take action on this right away: 1. Find the course covering the subjects you want to learn 2. Find the duration of the course 3. Break the course down into blocks of time (study sessions) 4. Find the next block of open time in your calendar and add your study session to the calendar to make sure you don't forget 5. Create an agenda of what your goal is for each study session

Example plan of action

To give you an idea of how this can be done, here's an example plan of action for tackling a course here at Digital-Tutors. 1. Find the course covering the subjects you want to learn For this example, let's make our first study session plan for Rigging Your First Character in MODO. 2. Find the duration of the course course-duration You can find the duration of the course by going to the course page as seen in the screenshot above. As you can see, the Rigging Your First Character in MODO course is 3h 22m long. Sure, you can watch it in 3h and 22m but did you actually learn everything in 3h 22m? Can you come back a few days after watching the course and repeat what was taught in the course without needing to reference the course anymore after just watching it through once? Probably not. Be realistic with yourself. Don't expect to watch a course through once and expect to magically know and understand everything that was taught. 3. Break the course down into blocks of time (study sessions) Since the course is 3h 22m long. 3h 22m rounded up is about 3.5h, times three is 10.5. The times three is anticipating watching the course at least three times using the methods we talked about above. Personally, find anywhere between two and three hours is the best amount of time to really focus on something. That gives me enough time to get into the groove while not being so much time that I'd feel like I didn't get anything else done that day. So for this example, let's plan on creating two hour blocks of time for the study sessions. Since we have at least 10.5 hours of training to go through, I might be able to make five at two hours each but I'd rather plan for six because, again, things almost always end up taking more time than originally anticipated.

Don't forget the study breaks! If we follow the Pomodoro Technique and study for 25m before taking a 5m break in each session, that means 20m of the 2h will be breaks. So, realistically, we're looking at 10.5h of training plus 20m of breaks, so again rounding up that comes out to about 11h to plan for. Yup, definitely will need at least six sessions for this. 4. Find the next block of open time in your calendar and add your study session to the calendar to make sure you don't forget This part really depends on your schedule. In this case, you'd find six two-hour blocks of time you can set aside and schedule them out. The only recommendation here would be to really try avoiding scheduling them back-to-back, but also don't let too much time pass between the sessions. In general, try to do one a day or one a week, at least. 5. Create an agenda of what your goal is for each study session Here's an example agenda for the first study session for the rigging in MODO course: 25m: Watch and take notes on lessons 1 - 4 (Lesson time: 23:54)
5m: Break
25m: Watch and take notes on lessons 5 - 7 (Lesson time: 20:47)
5m: Break
25m: Watch and take notes on lessons 8 - 11 (Lesson time: 27:17)
5m: Break
25m: Watch and take notes on lessons 12 - 16 (Lesson time: 27:29)
5m: Break Obviously, as you can tell, not every block is going to be an exact 25 minutes. Once you start to break this down even further, you may also find that you need to add in some more sessions. If you start building out your plan for a course and you think you need even more time, simply use this same strategy to add on however many sessions you need. For example, if you're learning the basics of digital drawing you may get it faster for that subject and not need as many sessions as you do for a more advanced topic like programming a game engine. That's perfectly normal. study-sessions You can do something similar for each study session. So instead of watching and taking notes for the first session, in your second session maybe you'll move onto following along with the tutor and your notes, as we talked about above. Since you're following along the second time around, you would probably want to allow yourself some extra time for that. So an agenda for a study session where you're following along with the course instead of just watching ant taking notes might look more like this: 25m: Follow along with lessons 1 - 3
5m: Break
25m: Follow along with lessons 4 - 5
5m: Break
25m: Follow along with lessons 6 - 8
5m: Break
25m: Follow along with lessons 9 - 12
5m: Break Again, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for this as it'll really depend on the course you're watching, how familiar you are with the subjects being covered already and how much time you have to dedicate to learning. The purpose of building out this plan ahead of time is two-fold. First and foremost, it helps your brain be able to digest the information in bite-sized pieces and, by extension, be able to retain it much better without getting stressed out or overworked. Secondly, it lets you focus on one thing at a time. You've already got a plan figured out so you don't sit down at your computer to learn and not have an idea of what to do next.

Test yourself

You'd be hard-pressed to find a creative who can recite all of the Photoshop keyboard shortcuts, and yet when the time comes to use them most creatives don't have a hard time remembering to hold Space to pan around or using M to jump to the Marquee Selection Tool. Many people believe one way you can find out if you've truly remembered something is to allow yourself to forget it first and that the process of forgetting can actually be helpful to long-term retention. Once you forget, if you're able to recall that information your brain will be able to better recall that information in the future, because it knows how it recalled the information before. So test yourself to see how well you're able to recall the information after you've forgotten it. A day or two after you've done a study session, test yourself on what you've learned. This test doesn't have to be a formal written test with 100 multiple-choice questions, but instead simply take the time to write out the key concepts and things you learned.

Repeat as necessary

At this point, hopefully you've gotten the concepts and techniques down that you've wanted to learn. But as with all new things, sometimes complex topics can take more work to get them committed to memory. For this reason you should repeat any or all of the steps above to create a new study session or sessions as necessary to tackle those areas. For example, instead of doing the entire course maybe you've gone through all of this but you just can't remember the technique done in lessons 6 and 7. Go through the same steps above to plan out a study session, but instead of doing it for the whole course just focus on those few lessons.


Since there is no one-size-fits-all solution, everyone will be different. This may be a great starting point, but I'd highly encourage you to take what you can from this and make it your own to find a solution that works for you. To help with that, I've added a simple template for your study session agendas and an XLS to help you calculate how many study sessions you'll probably need for the course you're following along with. Download the documents here If you have used these in your studies or have some other tips you've picked up along the way, we'd love to hear about them! Share them in the comments below so others can benefit from what you've learned.