“I’m sure I’ve learned it before but I can’t remember it!”

Plan ahead

Studying and practicing are good strategies, but they can only take you so far in your language learning journey. At some point, your learning materials will accumulate, information retrieval will get complicated, time and effort will be wasted, your motivation may suffer.

Unless searching through your old notes is part of your learning style and improves your long-term memory, you should minimize the time spent on it.


Do it right the first time

When you study new vocabulary or a new grammar point, take your time with its key rules, uses and exceptions. Read them, emphasize them, take notes… Whatever your learning style, make sure you mark the information for later reference.

There are several ways to do it:

  • Use a highlighter.
  • Underline useful text.
  • Summarize the concept in the page margins.
  • Add a post-it note with important details.
  • Create mindmaps*.
  • Summarize the lesson content in your notebook.
  • Search for practice websites and mock test papers online.
  • Sketch the concepts, doodle around terms and formulas, colour-code information.
  • Make one-page cheatsheets.
  • Talk to yourself about the lesson subject (or find a patient listener).

*Mindmaps are diagrams used to visually organize information



My favourite technique for long-term retention

Create your own mock test paper for the lesson, then complete it and correct it. If done responsibly, it becomes a great revision tool you can use any time

This technique builds upon the assumption that we understand concepts better when explain them to others. (In our case, those “others” are you, but the technique still works anyway.)

How to create the mock test:

  • Read the material carefully.
  • Find the essential information, take notes.
  • Include everything, not just the easy parts.
  • No need to re-invent the wheel. Copy the structure of existing papers you can find online or locally.
  • Keep detailed records of where you found content for each question and where you can get the answer (Q: Unit 18, page 145, 3rd paragraph). Tedious, time-consuming task that will save you a lot of time in the long-term
  • Be consistent. Keep the same format for similar sections, highlight details in similar ways.
  • Polish it. Imagine you are preparing it for somebody else and do your best.
  • If possible, create a digital file as well as (or instead of) a physical document. Information stored on your computer or the cloud is easier to retrieve, read, correct or update.

How to complete it:

Do what you would normally do during exams:

  • Bring enough pens and paper.
  • Bring water.
  • Set a realistic time limit and make sure you respect it.
  • Don’t cheat.
  • Make an effort.
  • Don’t look up the answers.
  • Keep calm.

The fun part: correct your own test

  • Answers get full marks only after you have double-checked and verified them with the relevant material.
  • Be hard on yourself, don’t cut corners, don’t ignore “insignificant” mistakes.
  • Review all the mistakes, re-study relevant material until you learn it.
  • Ask your teachers/professors/tutors/search engines for help. Don’t quit until you are able to answer the question without looking it up.
  • Keep a clear copy of the questions and one that includes the answers. (This is where digital notes come handy.)


What is the value of this approach?

Studying and practicing are necessary steps in the learning process, but they are not stand-alone methods. Frequent, systematic, in-depth reviewing of your material is what it takes to really learn your target language.

If you were diligent in preparing your “tests”, you will be rewarded. Instead of tackling miles of textbook pages, computer files and handwritten notes, you just grab your custom mock test paper and start revising.